The following essay is by Ronak Gopaldas, a 2019 Tutu Fellow. The Tutu Fellowship Programme requires each participant to write an essay on leadership in Africa. The quality of submissions is very high as demonstrated by this piece by Ronak. He points out that by the year 2050, Africa will have the largest population and workforce in the world and will be too big to ignore. 

But its demographic bulge could either be a huge boon, or disastrous. Despite its size and scale, Africa is constantly referred to as having “vast potential,” whilst being excluded in global affairs.  With the right leadership in place, there is an opportunity to reshape this state of affairs.  His essay follows.

The challenge of leadership in Africa

Tutu Fellowship Essay by Ronak Gopaldas

By the year 2050, Africa will have the largest workforce in the world. By then, one in every four people in the world will be from Africa. Its population will surpass India and China and will play a major role in the global economy, both in terms of production and consumption. In simple terms, Africa will simply be too big to ignore.

This is both exciting and incredibly scary. Exciting – because if we as Africans get it right, it’s going transform the continent and lift swathes of people out of poverty. But if people don’t get jobs, education and healthcare, then the social upheavals we will witness are going to look like a Disney movie in comparison to what we are seeing today.

As it stands, the continent is not industrialised and its demographic bulge could either be a huge boom or disaster. This is one of several reasons why, despite its size and scale, Africa is constantly referred to as having “vast potential,” whilst being excluded from meaningful discussions and debates around global affairs. Now, with the right leadership in place there is an opportunity to reshape this state of affairs.

To fulfil its untapped potential, the continent needs to find “smart cuts” to deliberately shorten the path to success. American author Shane Snow defines a shortcut as a rapid but short-term gain, whereas a “smart cut” is sustainable success achieved quickly through smart work. In simple terms, Snow argues that instead of following the conventional path to success, one should “hack” the ladder with sideways moves that skip rungs and use lateral thinking to find solutions.

The principle is particularly relevant in an African context, as the continent now needs to create more than 11-million jobs in the formal economy every year in order to absorb the number of young, working-age people entering the workforce. This is according to the Brookings Institute. There is simply no way that Africa can achieve this if it continues doing what it has always done. The quality of leadership will be central to any transformation. As noted by Fred Swaniker, founder of the African Leadership Network, “In Africa, where you don’t have strong institutions, one good leader can have a tremendous impact on society, but similarly, on the downside, one bad leader can destroy society”. Understanding the unique nature of leadership in an African context is critical to developing the solutions required to “hack the ladder”. Below, I outline seven priorities that are needed to achieve this.

1) Reject African exceptionalism

The scale, nature and intensity of the challenges in Africa are enormous. But they are not unique. Across the world, the effects of rising inequality are being felt, from terror attacks, escalating regional tensions, rising nationalism and extreme political instability. These issues are just as applicable to Europe as they are to Africa. Indeed, we currently find ourselves in a global geopolitical recession with a universal crisis of leadership. Following this trend is simply not an option for Africa. Instead, the continent needs to exploit this leadership vacuum by adopting policies that allow it to leapfrog in development.

To do this, there needs to be a shift in mindset around the concept of leadership on the continent. As Africans, we have this propensity for “African exceptionalism” – a sense that Africa is so different, so behind, such a basket case that any undertaking is practically pointless. It heightens the temptation to look at the continent as a problem. But the challenges are not insurmountable. Rather than being passive bystanders, laggards or victims of global circumstances, we need to embrace the concept of African agency, where Africans will take control of their own destiny by making their own choices. We need to start changing the way we think from viewing everything as a problem, to a mindset in which we identify opportunities.

2) Embrace ambiguity

To solve its most pressing challenges, Africa needs leaders who are going to be able to think in diverse and daring ways and wrestle with complex issues.

Doing so is not easy in an age where it’s easier to frame everything in binaries – Either Africa is rising or it’s the hopeless continent; either it’s a continent plagued by poor governance, political crises, wars, disease and poverty or it’s a thriving frontier for foreign investments and bursting with potential; either you’re an afro-optimist or you’re an afro-pessimist; either you can do well for yourself or good for society – and there is seemingly no room for anything in between.

This is lazy and limited thinking. Africa is a continent of 54 countries, each with its own set of complexities. Our challenges are so severe that we cannot afford to place such a narrow limit on our thinking. Presenting two issues as polar opposites then demanding that people pick one is very attractive, but that doesn’t make it right. This creates an "us" or "them" mentality that shuts down the necessary debates we should be having.

Indeed, the continent faces complex, “wicked” problems, which do not have simple solutions. This ability to embrace ambiguity and navigate uncertainty are essential tools in the arsenal of a modern African leader.

We like things to be black and white. But life isn’t like that. Africa requires leaders who are able to deal with shades of gray. Leaders willing to engage with the limits we place on how we view the continent. Leaders who seek out different lenses. Leaders who empathise with different points of views. Leaders who question their individual and collective responsibilities.

3) Prioritise significance over success

As a leader, one can be a ‘Big L’ or ‘Small L’ individual.

The Big Ls are the likes of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, the Nelson Mandelas, and Martin Luther Kings of this world. These are the moonshot thinkers who build products and technologies and movements that change the world. These guys are pioneers, the dreamers – the people who give us the inspiration to be better and do better.

But leaders can also be Small Ls. These are often the unsung heroes, the people who don’t get the publicity or recognition but quietly get on with the business of shaping and changing their spheres of life. They get the required done quietly on a micro level. These are the people who collect clothes and food for the homeless in winter; and that tutor for free at schools.

Make no mistake, these people are leaders too. In fact, they are the type we need in Africa. Africa needs leaders who are significant – not just successful. Success is about accolades; significance is about impact. Significance is about asking the question ‘so what’? It’s about realising that you’re too influential and privileged not to do something bigger and beyond yourself. Significance is about doing well and doing good and doing it in a big way.

4) Bridge the generation chasm

In Africa, a demographic disconnect exists between the continent’s leaders and those they lead. While the average population age in Africa is below 30, its leaders are likely to be twice that age and, in many cases, far older. This is indicative of a massive dichotomy – between disengaged governments and their young and increasingly demanding populations.

For Africa to continue to grow sustainably and be globally competitive, it is critical to blend the leadership structures in government, and ensure that the leadership baton is passed from the elder statesmen, many of whom are out of touch with situations within their countries, to promising youth leaders, who can learn from the experiences and mistakes of the elders.

5) Reshape the role of business

The question of leadership needs to transcend just political leadership – the responsibility lies with all of us. We can all state the problem and point fingers. But how are we going to disrupt old models of doing business and politics? How are we going to create solutions rather than offering critiques?

Here, the roles of the public and private sectors need to be properly understood. Both African sovereigns and businesses have to accept that it is not simply a case of ‘government versus market’, despite the convenience of simplifying complex problems to simple binaries. African governments need to recognise that they cannot solve their
development challenges alone. Without a strong, vibrant and active business community, their administrations cannot sustain the investment and growth of financing required to create jobs. A more collaborative approach is needed, focused on value creation rather than destruction.

It would be easy to frame the business community as a victim, but much of the backlash is self-inflicted. Global businesses – particularly in the resources sector – don’t have a savoury track record on the continent. Exploitation, non-compliance with tax requirements, and poor labour practices are just some of the major failings of multinational enterprises operating in Africa. So, when mud is thrown – it sticks. In short, business generally needs a fundamental reset of the way it conducts activities in Africa. Like governments, the private sector also needs to think beyond the short term. The reality is that two-dimensional capitalism will not succeed in Africa.

Such complex dynamics bring the spotlight on “Africapitalism” – a call on the private sector to lead Africa’s development through long-term investments in strategic sectors that can create both economic prosperity and social wealth. According to Tony Elumelu, the chairman of Heirs Holdings who first coined the term, “Africapitalism is as much about financial return – and for that we make no apology – as it is about social good. The two are interdependent and the relationship can perhaps be best explained as the space where business and philanthropy meet. Africapitalism marries the financial motives required for business to exist with the good intentions that drive philanthropy to create a powerful unique force that Africa needs today.”

Societal problems can neither be solved nor prevented by the state alone, or by development organisations working on their own. Today, it is widely recognised that unequal societies are unsustainable. Social responsibility needs to be embraced and driven by an intrinsic incentive, rather than external compulsion. Policymakers around the continent must help to build more enabling business environments. Private sector business leaders need to do more to tackle poverty and drive social progress by ensuring that long-term value addition – as well as short-term gain – is built into their business models.

This will require a paradigm shift in thinking. In an era of polarisation, it will also be a hard sell. Yet, if the continent is to prosper, all hands need to be on deck. Otherwise, the political payoffs of short-termism will end up doing unquantifiable long-term damage.

6) Own your privilege

Elites have come in for a lot of criticism of late for being out of touch and uninterested in the plights of the poorest in society. We need to understand that our futures are inextricably linked to the people lowest rungs of society.

From Alexandra to Sandton, from Khayelitsha to Constantia – it’s easy to say it’s not my problem, until eventually it is. As Paul Collier, and Oxford economist and author of The Bottom Billion, notes, sooner rather than later that “the impoverished ghetto of 1 billion people will be increasingly impossible for a comfortable world to tolerate”.

The bottom line is that unequal societies are both unstable and unsustainable. Unless we collectively and individually take responsibility for this we will be in deep trouble.

But what does this mean in practice, especially for those of us who are in influential and privileged positions? Determining how to react is a difficult choice that many of us face, and how we adapt to these realities will be crucial to the continent’s fortunes.

The choices are clear. If you’re an optimist, you sit back, and you hope for the best and continue to live in your bubble. If you’re a pessimist, you leave for greener pastures and say that the continent is doomed. But if you’re a realist that requires something more than being simply being a passive bystander. It requires both sense urgency and a sense of agency. And it requires asking key questions of ourselves. It requires us to introspect, to shrug off our apathy, and to be uncomfortable with the emptiness of wasted privilege. This is where leadership assumes a unique form in Africa. Whereas in most parts of the developed world, the ability to effect wholesale change in society is limited given their already advanced levels of development, the capacity to achieve a transformative exponential impact on society is enormous in Africa. This offers a compelling value proposition – leadership in an African context sits at the perfect intersection of passion, purpose and profit, where it is possible to simultaneously to do good for society and do good (financially) by solving the continent’s most pressing challenges.

7) Be pragmatic

Lee Kuan Yew, the former Singaporean prime minister under whose leadership Singapore transformed from a poor, rural and agrarian nation to one of the most advanced and high-tech economies in the world, offers some important leadership lessons for African leaders as they attempt to transform their economies and achieve prosperity.

In reflecting on Singapore’s success, he remarked that, “We were not ideologues. We did not believe in theories as such. A theory is an attractive proposition intellectually. What we faced was a real problem of human beings looking for work, to be paid, to buy their food, their clothes, their homes and to bring their children up. So, whatever the final outcome, we have the responsibility of getting the economy going and getting jobs and income.”

The need for such flexibility extends to various elements of leadership in Africa, ranging from economic diplomacy to the business sector – where rigid ideologies and inflexible copy paste approaches have often hindered Africa’s progress.


Policymakers, businesses and individuals on the continent will need to adapt to the world’s changing realities with more creative and innovative strategies than in the past. Navigating these ambiguous conundrums will require skill, dexterity and pragmatism. It will be tough, but getting it right is essential to successfully reshaping the continent’s future and moving it from the back burner to the forefront of the global agenda.