Blog Post 3


Blog Post



It is a gross understatement to say that we live in troubled times.  Humanity is facing multiple planetary emergencies on many fronts: climate; pandemics; an ineffectual international governance architecture that was designed for a different era; and conflicts over resources that are seen as increasingly scarce.  It is fair to say that humanity is facing an existential crisis.

The UN Secretary General, Antonio Gutteres, had this to say on 2/12/2020 about our times:

“Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal. Nature always strikes back – and it is already doing so with growing force and fury. Biodiversity is collapsing. One million species are at risk of extinction. Ecosystems are disappearing before our eyes … Human activities are at the root of our descent toward chaos. But that means human action can help to solve it.”

It is a truisim that humanity has the capacity to act to stop the descent into chaos.  We live in a world with unprecedented opportunities.  We have progressed the development of our scientific, technological and other skills to the extent that our ancestors never could have imagined.  We have shrunk time and space through ever more sophisticalted technologies for travel and connectivity.  We have even perfected the capacity to create virtual reality, not only for entertainment, but also for conducting business meetings, transactions and other engagements; complex manouvers in surgical and other medical interventions; and exploring for life beyond our planet. Yes, we have the capacity to act to address the crises the UN SG Gutteres referred to in 2020.  That capacity needs to be deployed urgently. 

Today I would like to share some snippents from my 54 year old leadership journey in a troubled world.  Each era has its fair share of trouble, that looks ominous and insurmountable.  Yet, without confronting such ‘insurmountable’ challenges, opportunities that often lie ahead would become unreachable.

The journey of life is made easier and more enjoyable depending on how much work we invest in the continual process of self-knowledge and liberation from self-doubt, and the fear of failure.  Failure is a friend who reminds us of how much more we need to still learn, and that learning is a lifelong undertaking.  Life systems are sustained by learning and relearning from both obstacles and abundance of alternative pathways.  Turning failure into a friend enables us to be open to others, including our critics who help us to grow in knowledge of self and of our ecosystems.    

Human beings are wired to be interconnected and interdependent within a web of life.  We are one of the few mammals that have a long period of dependence on others at the beginning of life and at the end of it.  We are a relational species.  We are at our best when we are surrounded by those we love, trust, and are able to share with at multiple levels.  The value of our relationships cannot be measured nor reduced to material value.  Relationships are the essence of being human.  

My talk will focus on three main themes:

-    Leadership starts with You – who are you, and what matters to you?

-    South Africa – the Gap between Opportunities and Outcomes 

-    What Leadership Values are Required for South Africa to Live her Ideals?

Leadership Starts with You

I belong to the generation of radical student leadership of the late 1960s that redefined who we are as a people, and helped us shape the future of contemporary South Africa.  The late 1960s was characterised by young people across the USA, Europe, and some parts of Asia and Africa, daring to ask very uncomfortable questions of themselves, their parents, and leaders of the world at that time.  

In the USA, young people rose up against the Vietnam War and racism that excluded African Americans from enjoying their civil rights.  The  Civil Rights Movement that sprang up at the time had many sub-sets including:  Martin Luther King and his non-violent Civil Rights Movement; The Black Panther Group, comprising young people with radical anti-establishment approaches; Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam, who preached radical socio-economic and political transformation of the USA.  

In Africa Frantz Fanon, an Algerian psychiatrist, used the pen to inspire us with his analysis of how the mind of oppressed people works, and what is needed to liberate ourselves from mental slavery.  African intellectuals, largely based in West Africa and the Carribean Islands, spawned the Negritude Movement to explore what it meant to be a ‘Negro’ in a white supremacisit world.  Our generation was the beneficiery of all these global movements.  

What we learned then, and continue to learn as we are growing older, is that to be fully the person you would like to become, you have to free the inner person in you, and affirm unambiguosly that you are comfortable in your own skin.   This truism is particularly important to those who have grown up in a colonial apartheid society, in which human dignity and the value of human life, were colour-coded.  As a black African woman, I occupied the lowest rung in that hierachical society.  The top rank was assigned to white males, followed by white females.  To add insult to injury, we as black people had not only accepted that hierarchy, but had also accepted, and self-identified as non-European/non-white, in an African country! Just imagine that! 

Our awakening occurred when we realised that the only way a minority could hold down a majority population in the land of their own birth, was by controlling what they thought of themselves, their beliefs and cultures.  As John Hendrik Clarke, an African American Historian, said:

“To control a people you must first control what they think of themselves and how they regard their history and culture. And when your conqueror makes you ashamed of your culture and your history, he needs no prison walls and no chains to hold you.”(Google Quotes) 

My generation woke up in the late 1960s to the power within ourselves to take back control of ourselves from our oppressors, and to learn anew how to be human. We claimed back the agency to learn about our authentic history and culture.  Many of us shed the European names, imposed on Africans by missionaries as ‘Christian names,’ compulsory at baptism as a child or adult convert to Christianity. We rose up to name ourselves as Black and Proud!   We said that loud enough for ourselves to hear it, but also to give notice to our oppressors.  

Every analysis of our situation from then on, confirmed that psychological liberation from inferiority complexes imposed on us by our oppressors, is the essential step towards complete liberation from the tyrany of structural racist and sexist exploitation.  This truism applies to all forms of oppression, including sexism and gender inequities.

The beauty of awakening to one’s power to self-liberate is that it places one’s freedom to be whom one desires to become, entirely in one’s own hands.  We did not need anyone nor material resources to liberate ourselves.  It was a gift of mother nature to all her children!  Humanity is created to be free.   Once liberated, we unleashed the power to dream, and to live our dreams.   

We also challenged men in our movement to confront their own sexist and patriarchal attitudes and practices.  It was not easy, but had to be done!  We made them understand that freedom is indivisible.  One cannot be anti-racist, and yet be sexist. One cannot pronounce oneself a freedom fighter, when holding others hostage to gender inequity!  Making the personal political, is tough but essential to liberate both men and women from patriarchy.  Liberation from patriarchy is unfinished business, not only in South Africa, but globally!   

The Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) grew from strength to strength at universities; schools; work places; cultural spaces; civic bodies; and faith based organisations, to re-awaken ordinary people to their innate power to demand being treated with dignity.  Attempts by the colonial apartheid system to crush the BCM could not succeed for many years.  The BCM leadership structure was deliberately layered to ensure that, like a salamander, if you cut off its tail, and it grows a new one. 

The blanket banning of the BCM organisations and partner institutions, and the killings and imprisonment of its leaders in 1977, eventualy crippled our progress.  This was followed by a lull, before the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983.  Many of the former BCM activists and leaders such as Rev Alan Boesak, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, President Cyril Ramaphosa, led this reawakening and continued to conscientise and mobilise people to fight for their rights.

The pressure on the apartheid government became irresistable due to the combination of internal and external liberation movements acts of defiance, increasingly supported by international solidarity economic and cultural sanctions.  The negotiated settlement of 1994 brought great relief and excitement to our beloved country, as it transitioned to become a constitutitonal democracy under the iconic President Mandela.  Many saw the transition as a time to reconstruct our country into a social justice democracy anchored on the values of Ubuntu - the “I am because you are” in an interconnected interdependent web of life.

I decided much earlier on in life that my role in post-apartheid SA would be that of an enabler and bridge builder, to ensure that the ideals that so many lived, fought, and died for, would become the lived reality of all citizens.  I chose University of Cape Town (UCT), as my base for my contributions to the transformation of our society.  UCT was an important case study of how one could transform a good institution that was predominantly white, male and elitist, into an inclusive safe space for all students and staff, regardless of background, to develop their full potential and excel.  Disentangling creative, excellent scholarship from the pervasive  retrogressive white male institutional culture was a major challenge.  How does one uproot the weeds without killing the desired crops? 

My UCT days as a member of the Executive, first as Deputy Vice Chancellor, then as Vice Chancellor,  were the best of times in my entire career as a professional in many ways.  I succeeded Dr. Stuart Saunders, who was the most supportive predecessor one could wish for. He transcended his white male cultural upbringing to promote excellence and equity. He came to understand that it was impossible to sustain white male privilege in an African country without paying both opportunity and direct costs.  Imagine how many brilliant young people who could have become great scholars, artists, and leaders in many fields, were excluded from UCT and other institutions over the long period of white male dominance.  Imagine where South Africa could have been had this exclusionary legacy not reigned for more than 300 years?

My willingness to publicly aknowledge my outsider role contributed to my successful leadership at UCT.  I did not come from traditional academia.  I was an activist and transgressive whose mission was to transform spacess I was let into, or forced open against the odds.  Being the first black woman to lead UCT placed an inordinant responsibility on me to set the standard of transformative leadership, and to lead by example.  I deliberately assembled a strong team of leaders, who knew much more than I did about the institution, and were leaders in their own fields.  I also decided to promote more participatory processes to identify levers for change, decision-making, monitoring and evaluation, and course correction where necessary.

Re-visioning the institution as a Worldclass African University, and establishing a policy framework for transformation of the institutional culture to promote Equity and Excellence at all levels, was the first order of business.  Every aspect of the institution was then examined to ensure that we closed the gap between what was in place, and what should be in place in line with our Vision.  The energy mobilised in the entire institution was electrifying.  Over a period of nine years UCT became a model of institutional transformation that took the best from the painful past and built a platform of creativity and development that attacted significant support from donors and partners across the spectrum.  The South African higher education system today reflects much of what we modelled at UCT during that period.

South Africa – The Gap between Opportunities and Outcomes

You may well ask – what became of the spirit of self-liberation I described at the beginning of my talk in the post-1994 period?  Why is my country in such a sorry state today?  How did we allow state capture by political elites and the white male dominated private sector, to happen on our watch over the last 28 years?  The short answer is that we took our collective eye off the ball and allowed elites to lie to us.  Our failure to challenge the lie that the ANC liberated us, gave them persmission to reward themselves with state resources that are a common entitlement of all citizens.  

The idea that South Africa was liberated by the ANC, mirrors what happened eslsewhere in Africa.  Former liberation movements have successfully positioned themselves in the post-colonial era as sole liberators, entitled to “rule” regardless of their performance.  They have become oppressors of their fellow citizens, abusing state resources for personal and party purposes.  In some African countries such leaders are willing to abuse and even kill those opposing them.  South Africans are protected from open abusive practices such as political imprisonment and killings, by the legacy of activism that is still alive and well today,  and is often mobilised to challenge violation of our revered Constitution. 

The structure of our socio-economic system reflects the failure of successive governments to fundamentally transform a system designed over more than 300 yers to benefit less than 10% of the population, into a just society promoting wellbeing and prosperity for all.  The neo-liberal economic system that was adopted by the ANC on the advice of the Bretton Woods institutions and the myriad of private consultants who descended on our country, is ill-suited for us.  It has built-in mechanisms to promote inequity embedded in a winner takes all ethos of neo-liberalism, that has been taken as gospel truth by our leaders, despite the harm they have caused many poor countries that fell into the trap.  

The COVID pandemic has exposed the double standards used by the white male dominated global financial institutions, that have promoted financialisation of the global economy.  Whilst poor countries are hamstrung by the dominant use of foreign currencies for international trade, and the inequitous intellectual property regime policed by the WTO, wealthy countries merrily printed money to meet their urgent national needs, and suspended WTO free trade rules to privilege their own citizens’ access to essential drugs and vaccines.  COVID has also led small wealthy countries and jurisdictions such as New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, Scotland and Wales, to opt for refocussing their economies on promoting wellbeing for all as a measure of prosperity, rather than the traditional GDP.  

South Africa cannot prosper without dismantling the ill-suited socio-economic system inherited from our past.  Our sociology-economic system was designed to generate inequality.  The legacy of privileging owners of property - land, mineral and intellectual – dominated by whilte males, and now including a small black predominately male black elites, has to be fundamentally transformed.   Our country’s life giving resources remain trapped in the hands of a few at the expense of the majority.  State capture, started in 1996 with the arms deal and now embedded in almost all national institutions has to be dismantled. The dismantling of state capture is essential to freeing our commonwealth to build a future fit for generations yet to be born. 

The most devastating failure of the ANC in government for the last 28 years, is the failure to transform education into a platform for unleashing the potential of every child to grow into the best version each is created to become.  Despite our education expenditure as proportion of government expenditure being at nearly 23%, far higher than UNESCO’s benchmark of 15%, our education outcomes are far worse than poorer countries spending far less than us.  The primary problem is the quality of teaching and learning.  It is wellknown that the quality of education cannot exceed that of the teachers, who are the facilitators of the learning process.  The quality of our teachers reflects the aftermath of apartheid education socially engineered to produce inferior outcomes.  Poor quality outcome are also the costs of state capture that has undermined consequence management of the performance of teachers, and other public servants. Loyalty to the ANC trumps dedicated professional service.

The combination of incompetent, corrupt public leadership, wrong curriculum choices, poor unsafe school facilities, and humiliating poverty, has led to an education system that in many ways graduates worse products than apartheid education did.  Poor quality education perpetuates mental slavery, violence against the self, and those close to one.  Persistent racism, sexism and toxic masculinity, drive the high levels of gender based, and public violence in our society.  The high levels of unemployment amongst young people from the poorest levels of society, reflects the poor quality of education outcomes. High drop-out rates of more than 50% of each cohort of just over a million children each year, fuel the sense of worthlessness.  This generates anger and violence amongst young people caught up in this spiral.

My generation has the responsibillity to ensure that we support our children’s generation to once more liberate themselves from the tyranny of unaccountable governance.  They need to mobilise themselves as the largest cohort of educated professionals that ever was, to ensure that they reclaim control of their country from state capturers. This generation’s mission must be to complete the transformation process that so many of their mothers, fathers, uncles, and aunts died fighting for.  Our children’s generation must become the good ancestors to those yet to be born.  

What Leadership Values are Required for South Africa Today?

My country is in desperate need of leaders of courage, integrity, creativity, and competence to complete the unfinished journey for our country to become a constitutional democracy. Our constitutional democracy was designed for social justice and wellbeing for all on a healthy planet.  The good news is that we have a huge youth buldge with a significant proportion of the 15-55 yrs at 59% of the total population of 60million.  This age profile has the energy, creativity, and flexibility to mobilise themselves into the change agents needed to execute on the commitments we made to ourselves in 1996, when we adopted our Constitution to:

•    Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;

•    Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;

•    Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and

•    Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.

Despite the failure of successive governments to invest in the realisation of the above commitments, I am encouraged to see how young people are taking the initiative to heal themselves, and their peers, to become the leaders they have waited in vain for.  There is a growing number of professionals, entrepreneurs, civil society activists, who are demanding that the values that govern their relational lives, should also be reflected in their careers, and the political choices they make.  These young leaders are ready to embark on leadership journeys inspired by fundamental human rights and values encapsulated in the African philosophy of Ubuntu.  They are ready to become enablers of the healing process to liberate themselves, their peers, and younger generations from mental slavery.  Values alignment is paramount to these young people and the fellow travellers they choose at the personal, professional and political levels.

I encourage every young leader to learn from indigenous people across the globe, who are modelling how to relearn how to be human anew.  Learning to become human anew ensures that we are nested within mutually supportive relationships.  Our planet will become a healtheir place as each one of us makes the values choices that more and more young people are making.  Each one of us is in leadership positions that offer opportunities for transformation toward institutional, and national cultures that are aligned to the relational values essential to life, global equity, and a healthy planet.   

Mamphela Ramphele

Co-President Club of Rome



This website makes use of cookies. Please see our privacy policy for details.