Alumni Apply
Thought leadership: Empowering the next generation of Mandelas

Foundation News

Thought leadership: Empowering the next generation of Mandelas

As we celebrate Africa month in May 2024, imagine an Africa governed by principles of humanity, encompassing values like compassion, empathy, respect, fairness, and kindness towards all, regardless of background, beliefs, or circumstances. An Africa where importance is placed on understanding, supporting, and uplifting one another to create a more harmonious and compassionate society.

Published 13 May 2024

Whatsapp Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Email

Nelson Mandela once said, "Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future”. Known for his unwavering commitment to reconciliation, this quote underpins his dream for an Africa with a new generation of leaders committed to justice and equality, designing policies and systems to uplift the marginalised and empower all citizens to reach their full potential. By choosing a path of peaceful negotiation, Mandela paved the way for a humane and just African society, where leadership practices incorporated emotional intelligence and humility.

Africa's current socio-political and economic landscape is varied. The world’s second largest continent by land and population, the region is fast-growing in terms of technology adoption, boasts a rapidly expanding workforce, abundant untapped natural resources, and vast potential for sustainable agriculture. Africa is also the world’s youngest continent with 70% of its total population under the age of 30. Add to this various transformative free trade agreements and improved women’s rights policies, one might argue that the continent has ‘earned sufficient stripes’ for a seat at the global table.

Yet, challenges persist. Colonialism and post-colonial leadership practices have left an indelible mark on the continent due to the exploitation of resources, and disruption of social structures. This is further complicated by high levels of poverty, inequality, and unemployment, particularly among the youth population. Political instability and conflict continue to hinder progress, resulting in low confidence from the international community, sorely needed for representation on worldwide platforms. Corruption, famine, drought, inadequate infrastructure, and limited access to education and healthcare pose significant challenges to leaders, who have had to prioritise resolving intractable domestic matters, instead of playing a meaningful role on transformative initiatives on the global stage.

Leadership skills in Africa vary. Some leaders adopt autocratic or authoritarian styles, relying on centralised decision-making and top-down directives to tackle issues. Fuelled by the desire for power and control, this method of leadership tends to suppress dissent with minimum respect for democratic principles. While this approach may offer swift action via bypassing bureaucratic protocols, it lacks inclusivity and doesn’t promote accountability. Short-term gains achieved, tend to mask deeper underlying issues like inequality and social unrest.

Authoritarian leadership has in most occasions led to human rights abuses and political instability. A lack of democratic leadership undermines governance, resulting in corruption and weak institutions. Oligarchic practices that benefit just the ruling few, often breeds rampant nepotism and a division in society.

Some African leaders are, however, embracing softer, more adaptive styles of leadership. Their approach towards leadership and transformative change prioritises empathy, collaboration, and inclusivity as South Africa’s founding democratic president Nelson Mandela demonstrated.

The African continent is no stranger to the spirit of Ubuntu, collective participation, and collaboration. Africa has a long history of community-oriented leadership and governance, rooted in traditional values and practices that prioritise collective wellbeing over individual interests. Given this cultural backdrop and deeply ingrained approach, the African environment lends itself to leaders equipped not only to lead, but also able to commit to values of transparency, accountability, and service to their communities.

One of Nelson Mandela’s three legacy organisations, the Mandela Rhodes Foundation (MRF), is a scholarship programme that aims to build exceptional leadership in Africa. It provides educational opportunities for young African graduates to develop their leadership skills so they can contribute meaningfully to making positive change on the continent. In its 21 years, nearly 700 Africans from 36 countries have been awarded scholarships.

Recognising the need for a different style of leadership, the MRF scholarship includes a leadership development programme which is deeply embedded in the belief, that effective leadership starts from within. This holistic approach acknowledges the inherent complexity of human nature, by embracing both positive and negative aspects of ourselves. Through workshops and experiential learning opportunities, every Mandela Rhodes scholar undergoes a transformative journey of self-discovery and personal growth. This equips them with skills, like empathy and understanding, needed to navigate the challenges of our polarised world.

The leadership development programme goes beyond academic knowledge, in that it encourages scholars to acknowledge and confront their own inner shadows – the blind spots, triggers, and defences that can hinder leadership potential. Scholars are guided through practices and reflections to enhance their self-awareness, learn to understand, and manage their emotions, and dive into their inner world to confront limiting beliefs. The MRF believes that embracing the whole self, including strengths, vulnerabilities, and shadows, is critical for personal growth and effective leadership.

By cultivating self-awareness and embracing their own wholeness, scholars learn to genuinely accept and embrace others. A humanising process, it facilitates deeper human connections and helps bridge divides to cultivate authentic engagement and trust. Through the programme, scholars learn how to establish a foundation for welcoming diversity, learning from others, and practicing vulnerability to express their true selves. Encouraged to practice these skills within our workshops, scholars learn how to amplify their impact in Africa and the world.

By nurturing these qualities in emerging leaders, the MRF is cultivating a new generation of ethical and visionary leaders equipped to drive genuine change across Africa, and tackle the many, multifaceted challenges of the 21st century.

As social worker and academic Professor Brené Brown said, “Leadership is not about being in charge, it's about taking care of those in your charge." This quote captures the very essence of empathy, compassion, and responsibility that modern day African leaders need for fostering trust, collaboration, and ethical decision-making.

The more leaders empowered with 21st-century skills, the more critical thinking, creativity, effective communication, collaboration, and adaptability there will be. These skills are essential for navigating the complexities of the modern world with empathy and compassion, where diverse perspectives are truly valued and respected.

With a different kind of leadership, Africa would forge a path towards a continent that Nelson Mandela envisioned. Investing in these leaders’ development, is investing in the collective wellbeing of the African continent, promoting a legacy of progress and compassion for generations to come.

As published in the Daily Maverick.

Share this article:

Whatsapp Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Email

© Mandela Rhodes Foundation ·  Privacy policy  ·  Contact
Website by Entle