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16 minutes reading time (3189 words)

Freedom as a destination? An essay by Sam Ngcolomba


Each of the 2017 Tutu Fellows were required to submit an essay on leadership in Africa. There were a number of excellent essays written, as can be expected from a specially-selected group of Africa’s finest emerging leaders. This essay by Sam Ngcolomba is the first of several we will publish over the next few months. She starts with an amazing story of courage and leadership by a young girl, and goes on to challenge the foundations of established leadership on the continent.

Leadership in Africa

By Sam Ngcolomba

"Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that this impact lasts in your absence". Harvard Business School

She put her hand up; in a room full of her classmates, mentors and strangers and calmly awaited her turn to ask what I thought would be a simple legal question that I could answer with ease. A young, beautiful and proud African woman she was, with a fervent strength in her eyes that was so piercing it almost hid the scar on the left side of her face. But what her eyes also exposed was deep pain and sadness that was saddled with courage she likely had no choice but to have. After answering a few questions from other young women in a room full of about 200 of them, her turn to speak finally came. I drew closer to her with the roaming microphone and a keen and sincere interest to listen and help as best as I could. My goal was to provide these young women with legal information that would equip and empower them to fight for their rights. But as she started speaking, I immediately realized that I was not ready for what came out of her mouth. How could I have been? Also, how could I have ever been prepared to run after and counsel young girls as they left the room in tears; triggered by what this brave young woman had shared?

With a firm and confident tone, she explained that her father was abusive towards her mother. Daily. On one particular day, she noticed that the violence was particularly excessive as her father was lunging at her mother with an axe in his hand. Instinctively, she ran towards them in an attempt to protect her mother, and as he swung the axe, it landed on her face, almost slashing her face in half. She bled and as she lay in agony, all she could think was, “at least umama is ok.” She continues with this story, which for her served as mere context setting and was not to be mistaken for a petition for pity. I stood strong, as the ‘leader’ I was meant to be in this context, fighting back tears, which was sadly too huge an ask for the other young women in the room, who started sniffing as quietly as they could. As tears began to fall from her eyes, she asks with determination, “what can the law do to protect my little sister, who I worry about leaving behind in this kind of environment when I go to University?” Not ‘how can we get this man behind bars or how can my mother and I get a protection order against him.’ She looked me squarely in the eyes and the moment was interrupted by an outburst of weeping by some of the other girls. The teachers also quickly and promptly wiped their own tears. We had to stop the session.

When I think about that young woman today, what continues to strike and challenge me are the leadership traits she immediately displayed despite and possibly, because of her trauma. “Nature vs. nurture” I wonder. Firstly, she had chosen to share her very personal and painful story, where others had come to me separately afterwards to share theirs. She likely did this for the benefit of many, realizing that no matter how vulnerable she may have felt, the information received would be helpful to others. She had valiantly charged towards an armed man and taken a blow to her face in order to protect her mother. While she was still visibly traumatized by this incident, the question she was asking was not even for her benefit, but for that of her sister. She was not seeking information about the legal process to follow in order to ensure her father ends up behind bars, nor did she exhibit a desire to punish him, but she just wanted to know how to protect her sister from the same, or worse fate. She was focused on that.

This young woman had me questioning a few things related to leadership:

  • In what context is one considered a leader? From the home or only in the institutional public and business arena?
  • If home qualified, did her father realize the harm he was inflicting on his family as the ‘culturally’ and ‘biblically’ recognized head of that home? Was she not in fact the leader in this home, or did being young, female and unable to provide financially automatically disqualify her?
  • What shaped him to lead his home with such violence? What molds our leaders?
  • Are parents leaders by default? Who determines their capabilities for the role? Clearly they had done something right in raising her.
  • Was her mother failing her and her sister by not somehow ensuring she no longer subjects herself and her children to this kind of torment?
  • Did her mother exhibit weakness or strength in her failure to leave this relationship based mainly on the realization that she could not financially support her children without him?

Mainly however, I sincerely wondered if leaders were born or made?

It was clear to me that should this young woman fit into our construct of leadership, she would be a brave servant leader. I just could not figure out whether it was her environment that shaped her or whether she was born with the traits of a servant leader. Despite the striking likeness to the story of Malala Yousafzai, she also exhibits similar qualities to those shown by our Nelson Mandela. He too was unjustifiably jailed and tortured, yet years later chose to focus not on his oppressor, but on the wellbeing of the people who looked to him. His declaration against revenge, preventing a civil war, is synonymous to this young woman’s choice not to seek punitive measures against her father, but rather a way out for her mother and sister. She knew that even if she reported her father to the police and he was arrested, whether he served his sentence to full term or if he got parole and was released early, it was her mother who would have to bear the brunt of his anger. Despite her experiences, she remained focused on attaining a University degree to ensure that she became financially independent and could offer her mother and sister a better life. This is also tantamount to Mandela choosing to focus on ensuring democracy, justice and the creation of a new state that embraced all South Africans rather than pursuing justice for himself. She was courageous, almost heroic and yet humble in her quest to identify a temporary plan to protect her sibling while she led by example in the pursuit of a better life for them all.


Before we can analyse African leadership, I’ll start by briefly outlining my interpretation of globally accepted benchmark of leadership qualities. As the teeth on a gear ought to be aligned in order to transmit torque to another for smooth motion, so must purpose, the person, requisite skill and a sound relationship with followers, be aligned and propel one another for effective leadership.


Purpose + Person

“Purpose is where your deep gladness meets the world’s needs”
Frederick Buechner

No leader can be without purpose and vision. The purpose and vision fuel this person and allow for the creation of a journey leading to a desired destination and fulfillment of the vision. The responsibility of a leader is not limited to ensuring that the destination is reached, but also that the journey to this destination maintains purpose and has direction and ample resource for all. While many people have identified various forms of ‘purpose’ for their lives, not all can be leaders. In addition to purpose, the qualities of the person recognized as a leader are a uniquely woven set based on their personality, natural gifting and character. Although not exhaustive, this includes courage, confidence, intelligence, patience, passion, creativity or innovation, generosity, grit and authenticity. While some leaders are born with most of these qualities, others may be developed over time. This brings to the fore the ‘nurture vs. nature’ argument. I do not think that these two are mutually exclusive, rather that they essentially function together and compliment the final make-up of the person.


Following on from the notion that nature and nurture function together, no one leader can ever be equipped to efficiently lead without the addition of some form of education, training and development. This includes but is not limited to formal education from primary school, up to and including tertiary education. Nowadays, it has become common that there are leadership-training courses, with this very fellowship being an remarkable example thereof. The African Leadership Institute has for a variety of reasons identified a number of people across several African countries as leaders. In order to then harness what they have identified as existing leadership qualities from their work, passions and achievements, AFLI has invested in further developing them through the fellowship. Thus, formal and/ or informal training to equip one with the skills necessary to hold a particular leadership role or office is an important component. In addition to harnessing and strengthening existing leadership traits, this extended training prepares the leader for roles that are pivotal to the performance of the duties such as presentations, coherent writing, articulate communication and strategic thinking.

While emphasis will not be placed solely on these qualifications alone, where one’s experiences and personal attributes have a role, I humbly presume that a person with a doctoral qualification in a particular field would be granted an opportunity over one with a matric level qualification. This however is the main source of confusion between management and leadership. We use the seniority of one’s role within office as the sole determining factor to deem them a leader, yet in most instances they are merely carrying out duty based management and may lack other makings necessary to be a leader.


Without followers, one cannot lead. Conversely, without purpose and a clearly articulated and commonly accepted vision and destination, one cannot convince anyone to follow.

What connects the two then? I say hope.

It is often in the face of disaster that leadership emerges. The same can be said of opportunity. However, it takes a special person to see beyond the existing crisis and furthermore, to be able and prepared to stir hope in others that can only see gloom. During these dark moments, one if required to bring the multitudes out of despair by describing a vision beyond the present circumstances and where possible creating tangible and immediate solutions. This is the foundation of the relationship between the majority of existing African leaders and their followers. These leaders emerged during or at the end of colonialism and despair, with hope ignited for a better life.

Followers however also have responsibilities. In order to ensure arrival of the anticipated destination or achievement of results, the main responsibility of the follower is to keep their leaders accountable. Also, followers must contribute towards the required skills, time, resource and other inputs for their own gain and that of others on the journey. The most commonly recognized forms of leadership are autocratic, democratic, task-oriented, transformational, charismatic, bureaucratic, laissez-faire and servant leadership. However, these are mere methods of leadership, used to guide followers to this agreed destination. The most important person is the one tasked to lead, the chosen leader. This person has perceived power; “[the] Power of One”, which is illustrated best by the impact of instilling hope in his/ her followers. Hope spreads. This video beautifully explains this notion of hope, inspired by the power of that “One”:


Important to note that effective leadership is measured by the attainment of prior outlined goals and objectives, measurable over time. Economic, social, environmental and political stability and growth are what have been commonly accepted as the global indicators. Leaders are therefore often judged by the effect that their period of rule has had over these indicators. This is applicable within the family, in business and on a larger country scale.

Leadership in Africa:

Nkosi, sikelel' iAfrika
Maluphakamis'upondo lwayo
Yizwa imithandazo yethu
Nkosi sikelela, Thina lusapholwayo
Yehla Moya, Yehla Moya,
Yehla Moya Oyingcwele1

When I think of leadership in Africa, the words above immediately come to mind. The translation is “Lord, bless Africa. May her horn rise high up. Hear Thou our prayers and bless us. Descend, O Spirit. Descend, O Holy Spirit.” Simply put, “Lord help us!” I am filled with trepidation when I think of the calibre and now common attributes of leaders around the African continent. They are becoming synonymous with not wanting to let go of power, reckless spending of state coffers and advancing self-interest before the interests of the people who entrusted them with power. There seems to be a general lack of ability or desire to prioritise duty over power and the perks it presents.

What happened?

The African continent does not lack people who exude the above-described leadership traits. There are many women and men of integrity, honesty, humility, purpose and vision. However today, in most African countries, we have millions of followers who no longer believe in their elected leaders, but almost depend on them for survival and continue to vote for. What happened? Why is our narrative marred with corruption, mismanagement of resource, nepotism, a lack of food security, inadequate healthcare, depleting natural resources and leaders who are a force amongst themselves and lead without accountability or integrity?

The reason I have deduced, based on my leadership gear above: our leaders continue to sell “freedom” as the desired destination to the followers. The same freedom they sold to their people during and at the end of colonial rule, instead of now focusing on delivering on the quality of life that was promised on the attainment of freedom. Furthermore, most African leaders manipulate the masses by making them believe that a change of this leadership that is currently failing them, is a re-surrendering of freedom back to oppressors. As Sean Lance highlighted, there needs to be an “emotional switch for good leadership, which will analyse the past and emotionalise the future, rather than the reverse”, which is currently happening. Also, African history is characterized by violence; torture and imprisonment where leaders like Jacob Zuma and Joseph Kabila come from a history of violence, with the latter coming into power days after the assassination of his father and former president of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Thus, we cannot ignore the history that shapes a large part of their experiences, beliefs and thinking and ultimately determines the kind of leaders they become in addition to any formal training (or lack thereof) and the role of their followers. I sincerely believe that traumatised leaders are leading traumatised followers.

“Destination Freedom”

Because the history of our African continent is marred by colonialism and pursuant atrocities such as Apartheid, the accepted definition of leadership is still very much centred on those who used freedom as the destination in order to garner votes. The trouble is, while freedom has been attained on paper, documented in the Constitution (Act 108 of 1996), in practice, a large number of previously margenalised people still live in poverty. In addition, elected leaders continue to use ‘freedom’ or rather, the loss of it, as a tool to control the millions who remain impoverished, in order to obtain more votes to continue in their offices. Unfortunately followers are trapped in what is now known as Mugabeism where “according to Mahoso, President Robert Mugabe [should] not be only viewed in terms of his person, but as a vessel of the African ancestral decolonisation resistance”.2 There appears to be a general inability by followers to separate what our many African leaders represented in the past liberation struggles and what they are today. It even extends to a warped sense of duty, incessant gratitude and a form of idol worship.


The notion of “Africaness’ is founded mostly on what we have come to accept as African culture and this narrative extends to the way we speak, dress, raise our children, engage in marriage, death and our beliefs in religion and ancestry. While there is definite value in acknowledging the unique things that make us African such as language, food and our cultural celebrations, this concept of Africaness now appears to be a justification of deferring from globally accepted standards of human rights and leadership.

The other perturbing hindrance to efficient leadership and progress across the African continent is the use of religion to instill a sense of ‘life will be better in heaven’  to followers. This allows leaders to continue to lead inefficiently and justify or be excused for current suffering and lack. Our people are so vulnerable that lately, they have become exposed to harmful practices by new age pastors that sees them drinking petrol, eating grass etc. all in the believe that one will receive blessings and a better life. Our people have created a supernatural reason and pursuant solution for poverty and other ills that totally excuses their leaders for irresponsible leadership practices. Further research into the psyche of the majority of the illiterate, margenalised and uneducated African population could yield interesting results that allow us to further understand the complexities of the leader-follower relationship and how to modify it.

In conclusion, I think that leadership standards for Africa should not be decreased from what is accepted globally. We need to ensure that the right leaders are appointed to office and that they possess requisite purpose, personal attributes, skill and an interest in leading for the benefit of the followers. Followers should in turn ensure that we keep our leaders accountable and that there be repercussions to unacceptable behaviour and actions. At this stage however, I think that only upcoming young leaders can be a force for actual change by challenging existing leaders by our actions and by actively changing the current form of politics on our beautiful continent. We have sadly accepted mediocrity and abuse from our leaders and it will not be easy, if at all possible to undo. We need to restore a renewed hope to reach a newly determined destination, for the sake of generations to come. Our key tools for change and staying in the global sphere are education, entrepreneurship, innovation and technology. Unless we challenge the status quo, we are no better than the leaders we continue to write about and criticise daily.


  1. Enoch Sontonga - composer of Nkosi, sikelel' iAfrikaNkosi, sikelel' iAfrika
  2. Mugabe is Africa's Jesus Christ


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Wednesday, 31 May 2023

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About AFLI




The African Leadership Institute (AFLI) is unique among leadership initiatives in that it focuses on building the capacity and capability of visionary and strategic leadership across the continent. Developing exceptional leaders representing all spheres of society, the Institute’s flagship programme is the prestigious Archbishop Tutu Leadership Fellowship. Offering a multifaceted learning experience and run in partnership with Oxford University, it is awarded annually to 20-25 carefully chosen candidates, nominated from across Africa. Alumni of the African Leadership Institute form a dynamic network of Fellows passionately committed to the continent’s transformation, bridging the divide between nations and ensuring that Africa is set centre-stage in global affairs.