Address of the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, at the Launch of the African Leadership Initiative, Sandton Convention Centre, Johannesburg, 13 July 2006

Master of ceremonies
Distinguished guests
Members of the media
Ladies and gentlemen

"If Africa is serious about its claim to make the 21st century the era of its rebirth, we need to invest considerable resources in the reconstruction of credible and competent leadership capacity. New generations of leaders will not mushroom naturally. Leadership development cannot be left to chance it requires a deliberate, calculated, well-researched effort. The crux of our argument is that there must be an institution that serves as the backbone of leadership development and that this institution must be African. South Africa is a well-reported example of the need for such an institution. Because we have successfully negotiated a transition from oppression to freedom, from tyranny to democracy, it is tempting to believe that effective leadership emerges 'automatically'. The truth is perhaps more sobering. As we enter the second decade of democracy, we run the risk of complacency in leadership development: yet the context of the struggle in which our most effective leaders emerged has given way to a new democratic framework."

With much humility, I must confess that I did not craft the passage I have just read. I have stolen it from a text prepared by Eric Mafuna and his colleagues, who have conceived of and today launch the African Leadership Initiative.

What they have said poses the stark question, does Africa have the cadre of leaders it needs to ensure the renaissance of our continent. Given where our continent has been and what needs to be done to improve the lives of the millions of Africans, the value system upheld by this cadre of leaders must be one of the central issues of concern?

My great pleasure at being here tonight, to share this auspicious occasion with you, is tinged, I must confess, by one small note of regret.

Hemmed in by these four walls, with this ceiling high above our heads, we are unable to lift our gaze to the southern sky.

We are unable to marvel at the very view that held our ancestors in thrall, hundreds, thousands, millions of years ago.

It is a comfort to know, in this epoch of cell-phones and satellites, when unseen rays blaze the trail for us to follow, that some trails have changed little, if at all, since the awakening of time.

It is a comfort to know, amidst the flurry of fleeting moments that define our span on this earth, that we can anchor our highest hopes and ambitions on the distant pulses of light and energy that mark the pathway to infinity.

It is a comfort to know that these distant pulses reflect the afterglow of our ancestral memory, as much as they harbour the light that will shine on generations and generations to come.

And so I ask you tonight, to picture that celestial canvas in your mind's eye, as we celebrate the birth of an initiative that sets its own sights no lower than the stars.

I am told that the African Leadership Foundation is inspired, is energised, by the power of a constellation that watches over us, as much as it watched over the stonemasons of Great Zimbabwe, the God-Kings of the Nile, the hunter-gatherers of the Kgalagadi and the proto-humans who first stood upright and left their footprints on the sands of Maropeng.

To the Hindu astrologers of old, this constellation was "Trishanku", named for the impatient King who sought to ascend to heaven before his time, and who now lies suspended midway.

To the Dogon people of Mali, this constellation is the "Eyes of God", seeing everything and everyone from the bejewelled blackness of night.

A French astronomer, seeing a vision of his faith made real, named the constellation "Crux", and we know it today as the Southern Cross, emblazoned like a marker on our corner of the sky.

Centuries ago, there were mariners who followed that marker, as their vessels crashed through dark waters en route to Terra Incognita - Lands unknown.

The ancient mapmakers warned that they would sail off the edge of the earth, and into the jaws of waiting dragons. But these mariners, as we know, did not find the edge of the earth, and they did not find dragons.

Instead, they found us!

Something in our spirit was stolen in the aftermath of those tall ships cresting our horizon, driven by the wind and the power of what seemed to be an expression of Manifest Destiny. Something was surrendered, something was abandoned, something was drained from our blood, on the day that the proud leaders of Africa, became The Led.

For as a consequence of those ships finding their moorings, we lost ours. And even now, when we once again hold title to the land, when we no longer wear shackles on our feet, when we are no longer marked according to what we are not - not white, not European, not capable, not equal, we are drifting still, we are searching still for that something we have lost.

Even in this century, this century that we call the African Century, when we speak of the Spirit of African Leadership, we speak with yearning; we speak with the hope of rebirth and restoration. But hope on its own is a poor ship on which to sail these waters.

To live in hope alone is to die little by little, unless we can draw from that hope the energy to find a way, the strength to reclaim our spirit, the will to sail the ship that leads.

Leadership! Some may think this to be the most simple and basic of concepts, embedded in the law of natural selection that favours the strong and the bold. Yet, it is more than that.

Indeed, in the bush the lion does not seek from the impala permission to govern, or invite the warthog to convene an imbizo to discuss the condition of his burrow. It imposes itself through its brutal strength while, at the same time, the elephant asserts its presence in a silent and dignified demeanour.

But in Africa, too, we, the descendants of the upright-walkers of Maropeng, have long held that there is a force mightier than the might of the one who has taken charge, whether that might has been assumed through birthright or the ballot or the barrel of a gun.

In Africa, we know that force…as Community.

A little while back, Eric Mafuna and I shared some valuable time in Maputo under the African sky, sitting in the shade of an old school tree, ruminating on what it takes to make a leader, and then, what it takes to make that leader work.

He told a story of the Barotse or Lozi leader who was elevated to the position of a king or a Litunga. He was brought from his village to the capital, whereupon the great tidings were conveyed to him.

What did he do in response? He did not pump the air with his fist. He did not puff up his chest with pride. He did not recline on his throne with a self-satisfied smile.

Instead, he sighed deeply and declared: "Now you've gone and killed me." What he meant by that, was that the "me" in him, his sense of self, had been surrendered, and had been sacrificed, for the greater good of the people over whom he would now rule.

Or, to put it more precisely, he had surrendered his individual freedom to the people with whom he would now rule, in solidarity, in consensus, in the fellowship of leadership, the African Way.

It is the way of the wild that the strongest will survive at the expense of the weaker individuals in the pack. It is however the way of African Leadership, the Great Way of our ancestors that the community as a whole must survive so that the survival of every individual in the community can be assured.

This is why the African traditional model of leadership is the collective, made up of men and women who are, first, equals among equals, and second, first among equals, who must serve the needs and aspirations of individuals, without ever allowing those needs and aspirations to rise above the best interests of the community.

This is why, in Africa, those whose destiny it is to lead, are destined to lead lives of paradox, as much loved as they are hated, as selfish as they are selfless, as flexible as they are decisive, as much looked down upon as they are looked up to.

This is why, in Africa, leadership is marked by fairness, by transparency, by egalitarianism, by the vigorous cut and thrust of the imbizo to which even the humblest of burrow-dwellers is cordially invited.

This model, in the words of Eric Mafuna, is the model of "Cohabitation Leadership", and I hope Eric will not think me too starry-eyed if I say we can also call it "Constellational Leadership", for it is a model in which the stars that shine brightest are the stars that reflect and absorb the brightness of the stars around them.

This is a form of leadership that seeks not to mould followers, but to mould leaders. This is the Grand Ideal. This is the dream. This is the spirit of African Leadership we have lost, in this age when the sacrifice of the self gives way too easily, and too often, to the sacrifice of others.

And yet, if we have lost the spirit of African Leadership, it is not just because of the way we have been led, but because of the way we have been led to believe that we are the forsaken, that we are the abandoned and that we are those left-behind by history.

In response to this, we must assert that leadership begins from within, with the rediscovery of what each of us can contribute, and what all of us can achieve, together, for the benefit of the community, of the people and of the nation.

In too many minds the name of our continent has become a byword for things that go wrong, for disasters wrought by nature and by humankind, for the catalogue of catastrophes, epic and mundane, that colour our perception of ourselves.

The Chairperson of the Board arrives 40 minutes late for the meeting, with no word of apology or explanation. "Oh," we shrug, "it's Africa."

The crops wither and fail in a year of good harvest, because the new farmer who lives on the land has not taken the trouble to learn to live off the land.

"Oh," we shrug, "it's Africa."

The shipment of charitable aid arrives at the harbour, to be seized by men with guns and sunglasses, and sold as merchandise for private gain. "Oh," we shrug, "it's Africa."

The power goes out, the bus breaks down, and the crime docket goes missing. "Oh," we shrug, "it's Africa."

Or is it? Is this the Africa we see through our eyes, or is it the Africa whose prophecy of self-destruction we unwittingly seek to fulfil, through our own actions, our inactions, our perceptions?

Is this the only Africa we know, or is there another Africa, waiting to take its place?

Africa 2,0, we might say, if we were conversant with the language of computer technology. This is Africa the upgraded version with more memory, more processing power and better networking capability than ever before.

We have a duty together to build the Africa of the Entrepreneur, the Scientist, the Artist and the Visionary. We must bring back the Africa that lies within us; the Africa that gave the world civilisation; the Africa whose high priests of knowledge taught the Greeks mathematics, philosophy, medicine and the alphabet.

Many centuries ago, drawn by the glimmer of the Southern Cross, and the rumour of riches and infinite possibilities, those tall ships docked on our shore. The rumours were true, and even today, we are counting the cost.

But let us turn the tide. Let us turn our eyes to tomorrow. Let us build on the foundation that has been put in place in this room tonight. Let us seize the opportunity to re-examine, to re-interpret, and to reconnect the Africa we once were, with the Africa we can and must become.

I commend the African Leadership Foundation, for the work they are doing, for the seeds they have sown, for the initiative they have taken. I commend them not just for their vision of a new way of African Leadership, but for the energy, inspiration and toil they are investing in making that vision real and in sharing that vision with all of us.

Now is the time, I believe, for Africa to send its own tall ships across the waters, not to conquer, but to proclaim that Africa has found its will, that Africa has found its way and that Africa has earned its right to lead.

And yes, let us look to the stars; let us look to the Southern Cross, not to learn what tomorrow holds in store for us, but to show the world what we hold in store for tomorrow.

Thank you.

Issued by: The Presidency
13 July 2006

 

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