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Investing in future leaders’ development is investing in Africa’s collective wellbeing


Judy Sikuza is the CEO of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation and was recently selected as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader in the Class of 2024. She has psychology degrees from Nelson Mandela University (as a Mandela Rhodes Scholar) and Columbia University (as a Fulbright Scholar).

By choosing a path of peaceful negotiation, Nelson Mandela paved the way for a humane and just African society where leadership practices incorporated emotional intelligence and humility.

As we celebrate Africa Month in May 2024, let us imagine an Africa governed by principles of humanity. These encompass values like compassion, empathy, respect, fairness and kindness towards all, regardless of background, beliefs or circumstances.

Picture an Africa where importance is placed on understanding, supporting and uplifting one another to create a more harmonious and compassionate society.

Nelson Mandela once said, “Our human compassion binds us – one to the other – not in pity or patronisingly 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 sociopolitical and economic landscape is varied. The world’s second-largest continent by land and population, the region is fast-growing in terms of adopting technology, 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, and 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.

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 in 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 on 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 breed rampant nepotism and a division in society.

Adaptive leadership

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.

Mandela Rhodes Foundation

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; it goes beyond academic knowledge and encourages scholars to acknowledge and confront their own inner shadows – the blind spots, triggers and defences that can hinder leadership potential.

The MRF believes that embracing the whole self, including strengths and vulnerabilities, is critical for personal growth and effective leadership. This equips them with skills like empathy and understanding needed to navigate the challenges of our polarised world.

Bridging divides

By cultivating self-awareness and embracing their own wholeness, they learn to genuinely accept and embrace others. The process facilitates deeper human connections and helps bridge divides to cultivate authentic engagement and trust.

Scholars learn how to welcome diversity, learning from others and practising vulnerability to express their true selves. Encouraged to practise these skills, they 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 to tackle the many, multifaceted challenges of the 21st century.

As social worker and academic Prof 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 are 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. DM


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