We celebrated the 2021 Mandela Day on the 18th of July, in the shadow of the riots and looting that have taken place in South Africa in the last few days. The Mandela Day has inspired me to reflect on two things: the importance of collective leadership and the need to heal from the traumas of our history.

On a day such as the 18th of July, we can easily lose sight of the collective nature of leadership. Recently, I listened to Dr Akashambatwa Mbikusita-Lewanika, a Pan-African Scholar, as he was reflecting on Kenneth Kaunda’s legacy. Dr Mbikusita-Lewanika situated Kaunda’s legacy in the context of the many giants on whose shoulders Kaunda stood to make the contribution that he did to Zambia.

While learning from great qualities and contributions of individual leaders, we should never lose sight of the collective nature of leadership for, among many, the following reasons. First, it is never true that we individually achieve anything significant. We always need and are in communion with others — Ubuntu. Second, as we focus on the falsehood of ‘lone-ranger heroes,’ we create fertile ground for the many “monster leaders” and “despots” we see in public, business and civil society sectors. Third, we rob society of its power to co-create the future we want, the future we know is possible.

Nelson Mandela himself was cognisant of the collective nature of leadership. In one of the stories I have captured in the book Leading Like Madiba: Leadership Lessons from Nelson Mandela, I share a story of the 2002 interview between Vuyo Mbuli, a celebrated South African broadcaster, and former President Mandela.

Vuyo joyfully began the interview: “Tata [Father] Mandela, how do you feel about the fact that this Saturday the nation will be launching the CD on which your greatest speeches are captured?” Mandela cleared his throat, his face sombre. “Vuyo, I feel very bad.” Vuyo was visibly shocked. Mandela paused. “I feel very bad, Vuyo, because the CD does not give a fair picture of this country’s history. You and I know that I am not the greatest of speakers among the men and women that waged the struggle against apartheid.” Vuyo recovered enough to ask, “Tata Mandela, what situation would you have liked to see?” Mandela answered, “Vuyo, I would have been happier if my speeches were simply some among the great speeches that were made by our country’s eminent personalities such as Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani, Walter Sisulu, among many others. By so doing, we would be painting the right picture of our country’s history. Vuyo, the reality of our struggle is that no individual among us can claim to have played a greater role than the rest.”

In some circles, Mandela is criticised for not leveraging enough the trust and goodwill that he and his fellow freedom fighters had, to do more, to heal the traumas of South Africa’s history. Africa’s history.

I think it is legitimate for us to ask: could Mandela and his fellow leaders have done something that could have prevented the riots and looting we have seen in South Africa in the last few days? I am of the view the riots were not simply about people rising in support of former President Jacob Zuma. I hold the view that the riots are a sad reminder of the unfinished business in Africa. We, the people and our leaders, have not gone far enough to heal the traumas of 401 years of slavery and colonialism. I have heard colleagues argue that we — independent countries of Africa — are using slavery and colonialism to mask our ineptitude. Surely, can the traumas orchestrated over a period of 401 years be overcome by 40 or 60 years of the so-called independence, a very short period in time that does not even acknowledge the depth of the harm caused? Are we able to STOP in order to think and feel so that we get an idea of what four centuries of treating others as beasts of labour, less or non-humans does to a society? Can we genuinely fail to comprehend how advantaged — in terms of economic and political power — certain sections of our global community are as a result of slavery and colonialism? Do we not see that, to date, global institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation and even the United Nations are part of the rigged colonial system? Many of our leaders of “independent Africa” have failed to acknowledge the reality and impact of slavery, colonialism, and the rigged international system (neo-colonialism). Failing to acknowledge this truth means we are only tinkering with problem solving. Africa suffers a double whammy when she is beaten by the rigged socio-economic world order and having thieves for leaders at home.

What is the way forward? I can merely repeat what has been said before with the hope that the voice continues to grow stronger leading to action:

  1. Use taxation to re-allocate economic opportunities. This needs courage because the old capitalist story will be loudly screaming, “You are chasing away investors?” Riots like we have seen in the last few weeks will only increase going forward if we do not make genuine efforts to correct ill- gotten historical economic advantages.
  2. Re-invent and democratise education. The education we currently have is of little value. It teaches us almost nothing about how to relate with one another, with nature, our ancestors and posterity. How to activate our deepest sources of innovation and creativity. Our education system is designed to feed the old (dying) capitalism in which a few people who make it into the so-called world-class learning institutions return to their people as their superiors. We are living an era where quality education that transforms head, heart and actions should be accessible to everyone.
  3. Continue to demand that the global international systems that perpetuate the current rigged systems are reformed. If they are impervious to reform, we must create alternatives that can render the old and unjust systems irrelevant.
  4. Africa must use her traditional wisdom to heal the traumas of slavery and colonialism. The wounds and scars will not go away because we ignore what happened and continues to happen. Our children are being born without even realising what runs through their blood — centuries of injustice that manifest through racism and economic plunder of one country by another.

Emboldened by this year’s Mandela Day, I invoke the spirit of courage in us Africans — and the good-willed citizens of nations that had and continue to have colonies — to ask ourselves tough questions about our history and its impact on the future we want to create. The Africa we want is possible. It is this belief — that a new and different future for Africa is possible — that three years ago inspired a few colleagues of mine and I to create Ubuntu.Lab Institute. Since its inception, Ubuntu.Lab Institute has initiated over 2,000 participants into the knowledge and practice of how to move from “Intention” to “Action.” The institute offers online-to-offline learning programs that are anchored on the life-force of “Ubuntu,” which means my well-being and your well-being are inseparable. I cannot speak of or seek my own happiness if I am not speaking of or seeking your happiness. We are one. In the next article, I will reflect on how at Ubuntu.Lab Institute we are interpreting the philosophy of “Ubuntu” in current times.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.


Teaser photo credit: Mandela receiving the freedom of the city of Tshwane, 2008. By South Africa The Good News / www.sagoodnews.co.za, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81149784