Leading from Behind: African Leadership Style

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long walk to freedomLong Walk to Freedom is a must read for every self-respecting black person. It should be a on the reading list in all schools not just because it is the story of one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century. It is also a brief history of the South Africa one of the most influential countries in Africa and an understanding of the forces that have shaped the people of the south.

One of the most insightful pieces in the book is on leadership during precolonial times which was still practiced when Mandela was a young man growing up in the Transkei.  Mandela learned about leadership first hand at the King’s court at Mqhekezweni. He was trained as an adviser to the Thembu King. It was at Mqhekezweni that Mandela first saw democracy in action as the members of the community participated in the national discussions of the day.

This is in sharp contrast to the post- colonial African leaders who ruled from the 1960s-1990s who often serve as  powerful dictator as the supreme ruler with no room for dissent or other voices. This shows that the leaders of the newly independent states had adopted foreign practices of leadership from their colonial masters and had rejected the traditional African leadership model that was still practiced in places such as Thembu village in the Transkei even in the 1950s

Mandela gives voice and insight  to the leadership structures and practices of the Thembu who were part of the Xhosa tribe. According to the Thembu

A leader, he said, is like a shepherd, he stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble to go out ahead, where upon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.   “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur.  You take the front line when there is danger.  Then people will appreciate your leadership”.

The King’s court was the first place that Mandela learned of democracy where the Thembu people came to resolve issues that affected them. Every person was given a chance to express their opinions on a proposal in the area that would affect them. After everyone had spoken the King would sum up the contribution of those who would have spoken and lead everyone to come to a consensus rather than the King ruling with an iron fist.

By Anna Mosi-Oa-Tunya 2014

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