Business and political leaders must walk the Madiba talk

11th December 2009 By: Aubrey Matshiqi

A few years ago, I watched a documentary in which former President Nelson Mandela regaled the television audience with stories of his life in the African National Congress and in prison. Towards the end, he said something I found terribly depressing. As if to prepare us for the day, despite wishes to the contrary, we all know is coming, he talked about how he saw his grave beckoning.

As we come to the end of the year, I find myself spending many a moment of solitude thinking about how I missed Madiba’s smile and reassuring voice this year. I have no doubt that his absence from public life has left us feeling less grounded than was the case when we took it for granted that the Madiba jive would always be the rhythm of the nation. As we approach the dawn of 2010, it feels as if I spent most of this year dancing alone, bereft of the guiding hand of Madiba. In this, I suspect ,I am not alone.

For those around the world whose struggle is to keep at bay the dogs of war, hunger and disease, the Madiba jive forms part of the rhythm of the struggle for life and mindful leadership. Mindful leadership is the main challenge facing leaders in facets of life through which human development must be advanced. The fact that people all over the planet have taken ownership of Madiba and what he stands for suggests the existence of a common and global hunger for mindful leadership.

This is a kind of leadership that puts people first. It demands that leaders in business, politics,and elsewhere in society work in pursuit of ends both narrow and broad in our search for opportunity, peace and prosperity. In a sense, the Barack Obama moment of 2008 was a Madiba moment since in it was encapsulated a universal yearning for leadership that pursues power not for its own sake but in the interests of the underdog in every corner of the globe. It is, therefore, not enough for people in this country and elsewhere in the world to claim ownership of Madiba if there is failure to appreciate that this sense of ownership must go hand in hand with the responsibility of being your brother's and sister’s keeper. Also, it means we must conceive of leadership in terms that do not absolve the ordinary citizen or follower of his leadership responsibilities.

When, as business leaders, we fail to speak out against business practices that are prejudicial to the interests of consumers, such as the fixing of the bread price, we contaminate our right to demand effective leadership from politicians, and we must forfeit the right to invoke Mandela as an example to be followed by others.

When people in business focus on government corruption in a manner that ignores the complicity of some among them, their calls for good governance sound hollow and hypocritical. When Madiba is invoked as an example of selfless leadership and, therefore, the antithesis to a culture of corruption and the looting of national resources, we must remember that his name is being used in vain if we turn a blind eye to evil in the name of profit. In other words, there must come a day when we demand that no business or political leader should invoke the name of Madiba if, through their actions, they have not earned the right to do so.

In fact, we must stop public and other institutions from being named after Madiba and other icons of the liberation struggle unless the name change is justified by demonstrable evidence of the delivery of high-quality services on a sustainable basis. To name an underperforming institution after Madiba is an insult to what he has come to symbolise to millions around the globe. In short, business and political leaders must walk the Madiba talk. They must do so out of the knowledge that egregious failures in leadership expose the country and the world to the danger of putting leadership responsibilities on wrong shoulders.

A lack of mindful leadership is fertile ground for the emergence of demagogues and village depots who speak things noble while they trample on the hopes and dreams of followers. For those who are socially and politically marginalised, mindful leadership on the part of politicians must respond to the expectation that their lot matters as much as the interests of powerful groups and individuals in society. But mindful leadership on its own is inadequate if it is not fortified by the understanding that human salvation is dependent much less on the words and deeds of great men and women and much more on the desire for greatness by ordinary people.


Written by: Aubrey Matshiqi, Centre for Policy Studies