The birth of the concept of the African Leadership Group of companies pre-dates the demise of apartheid or the advent of open democracy. Many agree that the period after the 1976 Soweto uprisings unleashed a period of robust, disciplined and forward-looking dialogue about the shape and form of South Africa without apartheid. Much of this dialogue centred on the subject of leadership. One of the most frequently asked questions was, “Is the country in a position to produce the calibre of leaders capable of taking the new South Africa along Clem Sunter’s “high road” to freedom, peace and prosperity?” More specifically, captains of industry sought assurances that the country’s black community would deliver into the country’s corporate boardrooms the men and women who possessed a higher brand of leadership discipline, ethics and morality. Assurances were duly given that this leadership subscribed to loftier yet highly principled leadership values and conduct.
During Randall Robinson’s “Democracy Now” visit to South Africa, Nelson Mandela announced to the gathering of South African and African-American business representatives that Eric Mafuna would take charge of the deliberations. Whilst his action may not have been motivated by serious leadership considerations, to visiting delegates Eric Mafuna suddenly emerged as a leader worthy of Mandela’s attention. As a result, over the next two to three years, Mafuna was involved in the formation of an institutional bridge between black South Africans and African-Americans.
One of the tangible outcomes of Robinson’s visit to the country was the establishment of new business links and partnerships between black South Africans and American businesses wishing to re-enter the South African marketplace – Reebok was one such partnership. As part of this business association, Eric Mafuna and his colleagues took to spending time in the Harvard book stores, otherwise known as The Coop, for publications on leadership. On one occasion, one of the eminent Harvard professors asked, “Why would you people be looking for leadership lessons from Harvard when the global leader of the movement is right amongst you?” He then enquired about the possibility of hosting himself and a delegation that was about to go to Africa to try and figure out the world’s new moral leader – Mandela.
This showdown at The Coop provided a humbling wake-up call for a generation of South Africans that had grown so dependent on America for its intellectual and leadership capital. As a result, Eric Mafuna, together Reuel Khoza who was the Chairman of Eskom at the time, resolved to find the necessary resources needed to research the leadership challenges and opportunities in the Mandela era. Khoza used his connections at the time with both ex-Presidents, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, to give this leadership initiative the much-needed political clout. Within months, Thabo Mbeki announced Eskom’s commitment to fund an exploratory foundational study. The study sought to answer questions such as, “What is the X-Factor behind individuals or race/ethnic groups who become more effective leaders in their fields, whilst their peers or members of their own generation fail to provide outstanding leadership?”. The study also attempted to understand the leadership experiences amongst indigenous African people – South Africa’s first people, the country’s Semitic groups. It was hoped that answers to these questions would encourage leaders across diverse communities to share their unique experiences and join hands in providing adaptive leadership that is grounded in our respective histories and experiences. This provided the basis of what was to be termed African Leadership – a brand of leadership whose DNA and footprint represents the best that our respective race/ethnic groups are prepared to contribute. In the idiom of the Freedom Charter, our definition of African leadership encompasses leaders or leadership concepts or lessons from all communities that call themselves African.
The encounter at The Coop, momentarily, soured the relationship with the American brand of leadership at the time. On returning to South Africa, Eric Mafuna, together with his consulting team, set upon the task of mounting serious research about the history and evolution of the leadership concept across Africa, culminating in the delivery of one of the world’s most revered moral leaders – Nelson Mandela. The findings of the study were shared with delegates at the 2004 World Economic Forum in Maputo and President Thabo Mbeki lead the discussion about the value of the research findings. Two years later, Mbeki presided as a keynote speaker at the formal launch of the African Leadership Group and its affiliates.
The South African public’s overwhelming response to this leadership initiative drove a few positive and not-so-positive messages home – that our society harbours severe leadership hungers; that the Mandela moral leadership is one of the rare occurrences; that our new democracy calls for a rare breed of leadership; and that nurturing a decent leadership cadre calls for serious investment in resources – it takes time and funding. Leadership development programmes cannot be funded from the levels of CSI budgets that we have been accustomed to.