Missing Mandela: Lessons on Leadership from Madiba

Attending a charity event last week, I sat in awe as a lithograph signed by Nelson Mandela was auctioned off for £25,000. As a relentless African advocate, I marveled at the potential impact these funds could make. In reflecting on the current state of South Africa I realized that Mandela continues to do more while deceased than his contemporaries do while alive.

Today we honor and remember the death of Nelson Mandela exactly one year ago. As a young lawyer he represented the grit and gumption needed to challenge apartheid. During his 27 years behind bars he embodied a stoic strength, and as a free man he graciously shook the hand that held him captive. Even in the rocky quarries of Robben Island that burdened him with Tuberculosis, he wore uniform 46664 with pride.

The magnanimity of Mandela is even more acute when juxtaposed by the vacuum of leadership left in his wake. Since 1999 his successors in the administration have rendered the political system more a means to self-enrichment than one of governance. Revelations of graft scandals have become a daily and expected occurrence.

Such a lack of integrity endangers the future of South Africa. It not only mars the country’s reputation at a time it needs foreign investment, but it sets a toxic precedent that cascades through every level of authority. It disillusions the next generation that the country’s future so critically depends upon. Although apartheid ended 20 years ago, racial tensions and classifications are still tangible in almost every aspect of life. While efforts such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have made progress in redressing the past, there remains a formidable division between Blacks, Whites, Coloureds, Indians, and every discernible shade in between.

The leaders of South Africa perpetuate this division by fanning racial flames and siphoning off the public budget. Through misappropriation of funds they have denied citizens adequate funding for healthcare and education, widening a wealth disparity that is amongst the highest in the world. They have embodied an attitude of entitlement that suggests their former struggle justifies their illegally procured largesse. It is symptomatic that the most advanced economy on the continent is still plagued by strikes for the most basic needs such as toilets, water, and sanitation.

South Africa is in need of leadership. Its successful growth story over the past two decades has been largely a result of its reintegration with global markets post-apartheid and its bounty of mineral wealth. Without fundamental change this trajectory is unsustainable. As global growth decelerates and the price for commodities declines, the cash pumping metal conglomerates will slowly dry up. Pressure from decreased demand and fractured labour unions will start to diminish the margins of an industry that has anchored the lucrative mining towns and employed thousands of unskilled workers. Today a majority of children are denied access to effective education and around 10% of the population is living with HIV.

South Africa is at a pivotal point in history. It has the potential to emerge as a source of stability on a continent of chaos, but it first must enact change and revive the morality of Madiba that united a nation. Only by establishing a functioning system based on trust and transparency will the rainbow nation prosper. Today, on the 5th of December, the world should honor not only Mandela’s ability to fight, but the ethical standards he set, and his ability to move forward.

Erin Summe, South Africa


Erin is currently a student at London Business School. She studied Economics at Georgetown University before spending three years on Wall Street at Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. In 2010 she moved to Cape Town and spent two years working with Grassroot Soccer, an NGO that leverages sport to fight against HIV across sub-Sahara Africa. She is fluent in French, an avid yogi, and a firm believer in paying it forward.

© 2017 OpedSpace.