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Storytelling, Past Influencers and Leadership

Young African Magazine

Storytelling, Past Influencers and Leadership

Published 13 April 2018

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For over almost 15 years, The Mandela Rhodes Foundation has been running a Scholarships and Leadership Development programme with the purpose of building exceptional leadership in Africa. Focusing on the four principles of the Foundation, namely Reconciliation, Education, Entrepreneurship and Leadership, young leaders from 25 different African countries have travelled inward and outward journeys of self-discovery, created community across differences, and found themselves growing and learning more about Africa, its peoples and the Scholars’ contribution towards the development of the continent.

But what are some of the topics that are covered in these gatherings? And more importantly, how do they inform our approaches towards constructing a more humane and just society? This article inaugurates the process of circulating stimulating dialogues and reflections from the themes covered in our programmes. This series shall begin with airing the considerations from our Introductory Workshops – whose theme was the MRF principle of leadership – that took place in January and February 2018. We shall cover three focal topics in this piece: the power and necessity of storytelling in building a sense of community, lessons from past influencers, and insights about leadership from our guest speakers Mr Parks Tau and Ms Rebecca Sykes.

The Necessity of storytelling in building a sense of community

The divide, conquer and rule projects of the colonisation of Africa, with the ‘golden age’ of this domination ranging from 1807 up to the late 1900s, precipitated fissures and discord that obfuscated the sense of identity, sovereignty and community that had existed for millennia amongst Africans. From the Ashanti to the Zulus, the Kikuyu and Nubians alike, who, how and what they had understood and represented themselves to be was censured, suppressed and demeaned—thus hastening the process of cultural erosion.

Stories of resistance to imperialism by African heroes – such as Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi – where censored and disavowed in the tendentious historical records and the discourse developing about the inhabitants of the African continent. Erasure and distortion proliferated, resulting in representations that reinforced the negative ideas that the colonial agents had of Africans as being inferior and barbaric. It is little wonder then that one of the major challenges facing the post-colonial reconstruction projects is establishing a sense of community and pride in the identity of being African. Therefore, conscious work is needed to bring people together from different geographic locations and cultures across Africa to affirm, rehabilitate and recuperate our past and lived experiences, as well as our collective hopes and aspirations for the future we want on the African continent. One of the vital pathways to this is through building a sense of solidarity and unity amongst likeminded Africans who want to use their intellect, talents and skills to transform the continent for the better. The intervening years on the Mandela Rhodes programmes have awakened us to the necessity of storytelling in enabling a group of diverse individuals from across the continent to connect authentically and begin to build a sense of community. Storytelling acknowledges that the best way to see and understand someone else is by allowing them to tell their own story, and listening to them intently. Storytelling is a primordial and ubiquitous social practice, particularly powerful amongst the diverse cultures spanning our African continent. It might seem obvious, and hence superfluous, to enumerate its importance. However, one of the most immediate facts that warrant reiterating is that through the myriad oral traditions and their pedagogical practices, cultural folklores, myths and legends are passed down from one generation to its descendants, making storytelling a necessary precondition for communities to preserve themselves.

The Nigerian writer Chris Abani, in a TED Talk, speaks of the practice where people congregate to tell and hear stories as an encounter. In the literal sense, he means that this practice is an exercise in discovery and recovery, as well as it may also serve the complimentary function of edifying the gathered listeners. Through this encounter, he continues, other people present us with a mirror of our own humanity and by looking deeply we affirm that all life is sacred.

Abani narrates a story about a village that would come together as a community to create their deities. Whenever any of these deities would begin to make demands that were too great, the community would return to their gathering place to adjudicate over the matter, and depending on the unanimous pronouncements, they would renounce the god on trial or suggest amendments. Similarly, beginning with an encounter in which we unveil ourselves, enables us to further establish the atmosphere we want to create as well the decorum required to preserve it.

Similarly, Mulenga Kapwepwe’s TED Talk, titled African Proverbs are my Life Hacks, at its essence reiterates and reinforces the above sentiments—that the community raises its people. Hence asking Mandela Rhodes Scholars to express their life narratives from the very beginning of the programme invites them to share the unique seeds they bring from their life journeys, then placing them into fallow ground for the germination of a new family. From this covenant we are able to derive and establish an idiomatic set of ethics and principles, and like the community of Abani’s tale, these constitutive values are subject to recurring reevaluation; where they fail to safeguard the greatest happiness for the greatest number, we obviate or amend them since these matters are, after all, always collective and collaborative.

The process of storytelling necessitates vulnerability and a trust that the space is safe enough to hold whatever is shared. So it is vital that the right container is created by skilled facilitators when hosting such processes, and that participants have a genuine sincerity in both how they share and listen. In sharing our stories as human beings, we are also bound to reveal our insecurities and vulnerabilities. Thus, we are intentional in our programme about creating a space whose safety and sensitivity hold whatever is entrusted to it. The confidence that one is received as they are, with compassion and empathy, precipitates the feelings of belonging and of intimacy, thus transfiguring a secular space into a home. Vital of course in the leadership development context is to be conscious that the storytelling process is not just a means to an end. Rather it is seen as a crucial catalyst for building a breathing sense of community that is open to having the rigorous and sometimes difficult conversations required to build a more just, reflective and humane society.

Lessons from past influencers

In order to comprehend the contemporary leadership challenges and opportunities on the African continent, it is important to look back into history so as to learn what worked and what did not. As such, Mandela Rhodes Scholars were invited to engage with the legacies of historical figures on the African continent, using the symbolism of Rhodes and Mandela as conduits for this excavation. The juxtaposition of these two figures – Rhodes representing 19thcentury colonialism and Mandela 20thcentury liberation history – presents us with historical handles and footholds to locate ourselves within the past. Of course, Africa’s 19thand 20thcenturies do not begin and end with these two characters. However Rhodes and Mandela do allow for the practice of historical investigation through their dichotomous juxtaposition, and allow for combing through the past in order to recover, discover and complicate it. Thus the two figures function as symbols that can be replaced with any other influential (be they oxymoronic or compatible) figures on the African continent, to serve as channels into the discussions on morality in leadership and power, intentionality and context, human rights as well as many such topics that are usually invoked when discussing historical figures.

Having Mandela and Rhodes in binary opposition enables them to accentuate each other as well as to further draw out both the underlying and salient values motivating them. It is commonplace knowledge that Rhodes was spurred by the desire for acquisition, profiteering as well as an almost fanatical desire to facilitate the absorption of Southern Africa in particular, as well as the rest of the continent, under the dominion of the then-British Empire. In contrast, Mandela’s preoccupations exemplify a resistance to domination by colonial rule and its successor, apartheid and its segregationist and discriminatory practices and policies. He dedicated himself – resulting in the sacrifice of 27 years of his adult life incarcerated and sequestered from all aspects of public life – to fighting the unjust socio-economic and political oppression which served as a yoke trapping Africans in conditions of deprivation and destitution. And although it would be easy to merely vilify Rhodes and venerate Mandela, the discussions amongst Mandela Rhodes Scholars complicated this simple distinction between the two figures; some finding Rhodes noteworthy for his determination and business acumen, while others saw Mandela as complicit in the still-ever-present poverty in South Africa due to the perception of having compromised too much in ensuring a more speedy economic transfer from the minority white population to the majority black populace.

This generative activity of investigating history indicates one way of looking into the annals of history with equanimity so as to diagnose and address the existing societal malaise. Indeed, devastating vestiges from our past such as state engineered poverty, geo-spatial marginalisation and institutional exclusion persist, and continue to influence and regulate contemporary social life in Africa. Therefore, wading back in time is necessary if we are to identify the origins and motivations that gave rise to current socio-economic arrangements and if we are to address these anomalies effectively.

The efficacy of our interventions is dependent on access to accurate historical information. Being simultaneously retrospective while advancing is a balancing act that requires mindfulness. This takes on an especially urgent quality when we acknowledge the sobering fact that continuing excesses of exploitation and extraction – often of colonial proportions – by oligarchs have been continuous in the postcolonial state, thus revealing that no one is immune to venality.

Lessons from past influencers that emerged during our programme also came from us examining 19th and 20th century influential figures originating from elsewhere on the African continent. The primary revelation from this exercise was that the records of history and its repositories yield limited and sometimes overtly tendentious archival information about black African leaders in the 1800s in particular. The exercise revealed that the past has more to offer up than that which has thus far been unveiled and recorded. A great deal has been obscured, eroded and even censored; therefore, a great task awaits us to recover a nuanced, dynamic and holistic history. It is stark, yet unsurprising, to be apprehended by the limited representation of women as autonomous, sovereign and influential agents. Heeding Maya Angelou’s advice – “know that history holds more than it seems” – we must commit ourselves to unearthing the hidden figures, who for one reason or another, have been sidelined by inveterate patriarchy.

Despite the difficulty entailed in excavating knowledge of influential African figures outside the established realms of political discourse, including colonialism and the resistance to it, the attempt to do so, nonetheless, proves revelatory. Indeed, by looking back at the 19th and 20th century, it became clearer that the category “leadership” (its experience and embodiment) can be seen actualised in various spheres of African social life and espoused by innumerable people from all walks of that life. It isn’t an esoteric practice limited to the selected elite operating in realms where common people are ineligible. Perhaps this is labouring an apparent truth but there can be no harm in continuously repeating that anyone with the requisite tutelage can be a leader and that a leader can come from anywhere. Furthermore, after the recovery of these peripheral figures, the process invariably presented the participants in our programme with admirable African leaders from the past after whom to aspire. These lost-and-found individuals such as Wangari Maathai, Dr Joyce Banda and President Seretse Khama, presented themselves for analysis and evaluation, allowing us to draw out the virtues they manifested as well as the contemporary context within which they embodied them. Inversely, these figures also presented the unsavoury parts of themselves, of which the exposition was as useful as that of their virtues. Thus it presented the reviewer with a holistic character to parse. As a result, the fact that everyone has human flaws is illustrated and, upon our acceptance of this, we can then comprehend what Mr Mandela meant when he wrote that, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying”.

In A Question of Identity, James Baldwin writes that, “The truth about the past is not that it is too brief, or too superficial, but only that we, having turned our faces so resolutely away from it, have never demanded from it what it has to give.” Demanding facts, figures and evidence from history is not simply an academic pursuit; it is necessary if we are to discredit the narrow way in which African history has been perceived. This redemptive exercise offers a practical means to expedite the process in which African traditions and knowledge systems can be validated, and finally to foster a sense of agency and sovereignty amongst Africans that continues to be disavowed by persistent derogatory stereotypes and the conditions of abject poverty constituting the lives of many Africans.

A sense of capacity and legitimacy amongst Africans would be axiomatic if, for example, it was widespread knowledge that, to quote Teju Cole, “The fourteenth-century court artists of Ife made bronze sculptures using a complicated casting process lost to Europe since antiquity, and which was not rediscovered there until the Renaissance.” Teju continues: “From their precision and formal sumptuousness we can extrapolate the contours of a great monarchy, a network of sophisticated ateliers, and a cosmopolitan world of trade and knowledge.” Indeed, we can counteract the idea of barbaric Africa with this knowledge, which reveals to us the cultural ferment that was West Africa, as well as the rest of the continent: the gold work of the Ashanti courts, military achievement of the Mandinka Empire, the intricate brass sculptures of Benin and many more than can be elaborated. Even the seemingly inveterate corruption that has become synonymous with African governance in the present day brings somewhat of a balance of perspectives about Africa in the face of the historical facts about the egalitarian government of the Igbo as an example.

What is intrinsic in Africans and of Africa, if we are reduced to naming it, is that which exists in every human being of every place in the world, namely: agency, intelligence, sovereignty and other aspects that constitute the human being. And so as we attempt to build exceptional leadership in Africa in the 21stcentury, we need to excavate from the past so that we can build more wisely and more humanely for today and tomorrow.

Insights about leadership from guest speakers

Our keynote guest speakers bequeathed to us a wealth of knowledge and wisdom informed by their experiences. Mr Parks Tau, former Executive Mayor of the City of Johannesburg and current Chairperson of the South African Local Government Association, with his experience in governance and municipal management as well as his knowledge of international municipalities, spoke on the importance of South Africans and Africans being prepared to stay abreast with technological advancements coming out of the highly industrialised countries.

This is an iteration of the theme that encapsulated the 26th World Economic Forum on Africa, held in 2016. Mrs Graça Machel, a strong supporter of the MRF’s mission since its inception, said at this forum it is crucial that Africa is not left behind as the wave of the fourth industrial revolution engulfs the world. Mrs Machel continued: “the first three revolutions left Africans as a whole behind, with women in particular being abandoned”. This is both a warning against perpetuating ongoing exclusion as much as it is a reminder that Africa has not been subject solely to external tyrannies, but to internal ones too. Mr Tau, like the stateswomen and men at the economic forum, stressed the importance for the local to position itself in a way that allows it to preempt technological changes as well as anticipate new fields of occupation relevant to the future. Further, he stressed that our education and individual fields of study were relevant to the degree to which they could withstand susceptibility to redundancy by technological innovations. Mr Tau left us with the provocative question of whether we can conceive of an Africa that meets the world’s foremost technological advancements on an equal footing.

Ms. Rebecca Sykes, President of the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation, approached her address in a personal manner, speaking of her life experience, of leaving the segregated United States South as an African-American woman for Harvard. This trek subsequently led to her current position where she spends half the year in South Africa at The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG) and the other half back in the USA. She drew on her experience to share lessons about leadership, emphasising that leadership does not make a person but rather reveals who they are. Her message was that if one wished to serve, one ought to be selfless—literally, to think of one’s self less. An axiom that caught the attention of Mandela Rhodes Scholars in attendance was: if something is not great, then improve it. This linked to Mr Tau’s proposition that we have to be proactive in initiating the difference we would like to see, even if what we do seems futile in relation to the scale of the overwhelming problems or deficit we intend to address.

Ms. Sykes shared that an overarching conclusion emerging for her from a life of occupying a wide range of positions, is that leadership is indeed service. And since the priority is serving, the place of the leader is not at the front of the people, but amongst the people. Additionally, if the emphasis is on the people (that is, self-less), then as leaders the biggest audience is not the mobilised and cordoned-off crowed, that cannot engage us in direct dialogue after hearing us pontificate. The biggest and most important audience is each individual with whom we are in conversation with and the people around us – even family, for leadership is not a nine-to-five shift – but a constant daily act wherever we may find ourselves.


The stories we tell reflect not only where we come from – our heritage and our history – but are also emblematic of our aspirations, material interests and hopes, for our present and the future. In our encounters the stories we told served an introductory purpose, but primarily were important in revealing our common humanity, reiterating the ethics and principles uniting us in our quest to rehabilitate the African continent through our passions and skills and, additionally, enabled us to consummate a meaningful community that each one of us can call home.

Moreover, connecting via storytelling seeks to remedy the fissures and discord amongst Africans in relation to our identity and community, exacerbated during the colonial era. The encounter in which we unveil and disrobe ourselves, embracing vulnerability, is itself a process where we begin to inscribe a new identity – or perhaps recuperate one via remembrance – that isn’t over-determined and foreshadowed by essentialist or derogatory tropes. Plotting a path to such a course of self-actualisation and realisation requires that we dig back into the past and recover the ennobling factual information of the diverse cultures and traditions that continue to populate the continent. Harnessing data that are unlike what we have received from colonialism and its flawed logic of superiority, affirms the dignity of those who were categorised as barbaric.

Further, we can enlist the innumerable examples of the heroes that resisted, subverted and rejected imperial domination and socio-political and economic marginalisation. These heroes are the champions of democracy, who, from their resistance to tyranny, have contributed immensely to the establishment of a viable liberal humanism that strives for the preservation of all life and the eradication of unnecessary suffering; the inclusion of the marginalised and the consideration of the ecology. Agency, autonomy and sovereignty in Africa does not begin in the period following independence from colonial rule. These were displayed before, endured during the darkest moments of oppression, and continue to be inalienable in the contemporary context. Perhaps they found their most insistent expression in the crucible of domination, where the most atrocious brutalities were borne, but the point remains that these characteristics are inherent in every human being. Affirming this is especially urgent for the majority of Africans that find themselves still tethered to devastating material insecurities such that their agency, potential and dignity is compromised.

This is the context within which informed leaders will be useful, for indeed, leadership is indicating and displaying the capacity, potential and skills innate in people who have long since been pathologised as inferior by the abject poverty overshadowing their lives. Leadership in our current context on the continent has also to include rejecting the impoverishment that afflicts Africans and the conditions making that destitution possible; it requires affirming the sanctity of all human life and the cultivation of the ethics that catalyse the promulgation and germination of a new judicious and equitable Africa.

*Minor edits have been made since the article was originally published.

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