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In praise of the Zita Holbournes

LEADER: Zita Holbourne

WHAT IS leadership? What is leadership in an activism sphere? Is it putting the word ‘leader’ in your job title or on your business card hoping it will never face scrutiny? Carefully selecting the right and more expedient battles at the right time? Is leadership talking about leading a community? Or is leadership still, as social psychologist Martin Chemers defines it: “the process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task”.

If Chemers is to be believed then very few leaders exist. And if Chemers is to be believed then Zita Holbourne is, without a shadow of a doubt, a leader of significant and growing influence in modern Britain.

For those that do not know, Zita Holbourne is a tireless, passionate and dedicated activist, poet, trade unionist and writer. Zita was also the person who started the petition to demand that the British Olympic Association (BOA) overturn their decision not to grant The Voice press accreditation for the Olympics. An Olympics with a stadium situated a mile from the Voice’s offices. An Olympics which was sold to the world on London’s diversity.

Leaders are fighters. Leaders particularly leaders from marginalised and oppressed communities are naturally inclined to, as Chuck D of Public Enemy would put it ‘fight the power that be’. The problem with fighting the power is that the power fights back. And when it doesn’t fight back – a proxy (and normally someone who doesn’t even know they are a proxy) will do their dirty work for them. So it did not shock me that in direct response to Zita launching her petition, one person attacked her by saying “I appreciate what you do but I think you are obsessed with racism”. As usual everything before the ‘but’ was unadulterated BS.

Yet comments and moments such as these serve a purpose. They are part of the de facto fight-back against any form of action against or disagreement with our ‘betters’. And of course, comments such as ‘you are obsessed with racism’ in the face of a person stepping forward to fight naked racism are also the hallmarks of leadership and effective activism. A sign that you are ruffling feathers and hence doing your job. So in a sense these comments should be considered a badge of honour.

Nonetheless, sticks and stones still break your bones, words break your heart. In these situations all are very hurtful and counterproductive. Yet they are thrown at activists and leaders all of the time. By the establishment, by the media and by those shackled by false consciousness. This makes being an activist or a leader a very dark and lonely prospect.

I often wonder what the final thoughts of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jnr and Patrice Lumumba were. As they lay on the ground bloodied did they think “was all this worth it?” or were they convinced that they did the right thing? As the suffragettes were being force fed and throwing themselves under horses – did they ever doubt their cause or indeed themselves? One has to wonder what people like Tommy Sheridan, Julian Assange, Lee Jasper and Peter Thatchell think as they faced (and face) persecution.

Being a leader or activist is horrible. You will look crazy. You will probably be portrayed as worse than that. Many people will laugh at your failures and frown at your successes. Many will root for your downfall. Most leaders and activists have little to fall down from. Your friends and family will doubt your sanity. Maybe you will even doubt your own sanity. And perhaps above all the overwhelming majority of leaders and activists will never be told how much they are appreciated when it still matters.

This column serves as an appreciation, a thank you, to Zita Holbourne and the thousands of people like her – the activists, the organisers, the true leaders, and indeed, the revolutionaries. The people who try selflessly to make this world a fairer, equitable and more just a place.
Zita, you are an asset, a treasure and above all a voice for us. Including The Voice.

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