#FreedomDay – Transformative Leadership – The teachings of Nelson Mandela

I am part of the ‘hope’ generation, while at the same time I am caught in the middle of generation X and Y. The reason I say this is that I am too young to have my career accelerated by South Africa’s (SA) economic transformation over the last 20+ years, while at the same time I am old enough to remember the sense of hope that was in the air when Mandela was released in 1990. In 1994 I was too young to vote, but I was old enough to understand the importance of the event. It was a watershed moment for South Africa and was crowned in 1995 (Rugby World Cup) and 1996 (African Cup of Nations) by successful sporting events.

As someone who grew up on the Cape Flats, I understand the cruel injustices of apartheid. While I was too young to be involved in the struggle, I was old enough to understand poverty, neglect, and my cousins being shot by rubber bullets, tear gassed and beaten by South African Police (SAP) I could also understand the pain felt by my family on the passing of my father, and the lack of remorse shown by the police officers during my mother’s period of grief, and also the absence of investigation around the entire incident. I have experienced the ‘terror’ of the law with abuse from policemen during the transition period as a juvenile delinquent, and I have been harassed by the SA army when they shut down our communities during the People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) bombings. I have reason to be bitter, but that bitterness will not help me to be a leader of relevance in the new South Africa.

In 1994, under President Nelson Mandela’s leadership, South African’s had a renewed sense of hope. The peaceful transition was viewed as a miracle, worldwide. The miracle was not so much about our democracy, but the ability of our country to go through a peaceful transition without the bloodshed expected by the majority.

When I look at the leadership of our country, be it in government or in corporate world, transformative leadership has all but disappeared. It is only when those CEOs or Cabinet Ministers have filled their own coffers that they are willing to voice their concerns around corruption and the state of the nation. Our current government is blamed for most of the challenges faced by our country, but many businesses have not embraced transformation in the true sense of the word. CEOs still fill their coffers and so do those investors who were enriched when South Africa was looted and bankrupted during apartheid and colonialism.

When Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president, he negotiated a peaceful transition and prevented a civil war because, as one can imagine, many South Africans were bitter and hostile about the decades of oppression they had endured. Whites were apprehensive about their loss of privilege and frightened about the likelihood of violence. This same fear is what is currently being experienced by middle class South Africans across race groups today. The current situation is that very little has been done to significantly progress as a country, and only a few minorities have become wealthier, while the majority are still living in poverty.

Transformative leadership is about accepting the past, navigating the present and driving a future ideal, inclusive of all South Africans. What leadership in both government and business has not embraced is that the true essence of transformation is about creating an environment with fair playing fields and opportunity for all. Businesses, through attorneys, accountants, and tax practitioners, have created complex schemes to ensure they maintain the status quo and thereby not create true empowerment (for the country?). Government officials have procured services from non-empowered corporates, thereby creating more white millionaires than black, in return for kickbacks or other favours.

Mandela transformed during his imprisonment. He went into prison an angry young leader and came out a leader who put humanity ahead of the ideals of his party, his tribe and himself. He transformed as he forgave those who had oppressed, and wanted to do what was best for all races. Unfortunately, this was not reciprocated by those with the economic resources who saw it as an opportunity to continue the capitalist enrichment of themselves and their own demography.

Transformative leadership is about mastery of self. Mandela used his time in prison to grow in awareness, to reflect and envision a new South Africa, and he grew in strength knowing that at some point he would have to negotiate the South Africa of tomorrow. While in prison he followed external developments, knowing that he would need to ensure a peaceful transition. While blacks were seeking retribution, Afrikaners were jockeying for tribal advantage amongst themselves and the Indians and Coloureds.

While in prison, Mandela entrenched himself in writings related to human psychology and the human condition. It is through this understanding that he confronted himself and transformed, putting the interests of the country before himself, his tribe and his party. By holding on to the past and allowing our fears to influence our decisions, we may not be in prison physically, but we are mentally imprisoned. It is this fear that the apartheid government used against the ‘disadvantaged’. By creating an environment of economic slavery, the apartheid government could put ‘brother against brother’, all while promising a better life if their interests were given priority. Currently, our corporate leaders use economic slavery through mechanisms of restructuring, performance management, and passive aggressiveness, to create work places controlled by fear. Economic slavery in a ‘democratic’ society.

Transformative leadership requires emotional intelligence and interpersonal leadership. Those who met Nelson Mandela, speak of his warmth, his ability to make you feel human and his charisma. When the apartheid government wanted to negotiate with Mandela while he was in prison, he advised them that legally one cannot negotiate with a prisoner. He understood the law, and understood his enemies, but most of all, he was steadfast in his convictions, knowing that in order to lead all South Africans, he would have to empathise with ‘all’ South Africans. His display of support to a majority Afrikaner Springbok team in 1995 reflected his leadership. In the book The Crucible by Don Beck, Beck articulates how “Afrikaner hardliners cheered and wept with emotion as Nelson Mandela wore Piennar’s No.7 jersey before the final game. Black newspapers, which had ignored Rugby as a white sport, went into frenzies of excitement with each succeeding World Cup Victory”. Mandela used culture to transform a team with little chance of winning the World Cup, as an analogy for expressing his ability to transform not only a team, but a nation.

Transformative leadership means serving for something greater than one’s own needs, and in order to serve others, one has to understand ‘self’. This is not easy when, for example, your own tribe and colleagues are against you. To transform requires one to speak the truth and not be afraid to set a clear path forward. Mandela was clear in all his communications about what he envisioned for South Africa’s future. It was a South Africa that was “non-racial and unitary” (unified?). A South Africa that did not allow fear to stand in its way. A South Africa that was democratic, created promised a better life for all, and allowed every one of its citizens to share in the fruits of its success.

While we officially live in a democratic South Africa, a better life has not been created for all and neither have the fruits of success been shared. The foundations and vision were put in place and it is unfortunate that those leaders in corporate and government have forgotten these foundations.

Transformative leadership starts with self. It requires courage, conviction and a shared vision. It requires service-orientated leadership that is able to empathise with the needs of others. Unfortunately, there are not enough leaders in government, business or civil society, who portray these characteristics. Transformative leadership enables people to live with authenticity, to express their concerns, and to act with freedom. As we celebrate Freedom Day, we should start a dialogue that will provide South Africans with a platform from which to express their concerns and build a South Africa that is inclusive and encourages for economic freedom.


  1. Good piece Jerome!

    We all need to pull together to enable us to achieve the ideals of our forebears. It will require vision, patience, tolerance, empathy…(the list is endless) but most of all… the spirit of Ubuntu, and caring for our neigbours, to be ever present amongst our people

    Government and Business could also aid immensely in getting us to the SA we all envisage;
    What we require = equal opportunities for all (and assistance where needed), so that the platforms from which we (Black and White) operate, become more equal over time

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