Date of speech: 
Monday, December 5, 2016
Speech venue: 
The University of the Witwatersrand

Thank you for inviting me to speak at the Young Global Leaders Programme. As this a programme for young leaders, we’ve chosen the topic: “Leadership Lessons from the Lives of Ahmed Kathrada and Nelson Mandela”.  It urges all of us to draw inspiration from the life of Ahmed Kathrada, who remains politically active in spite of his age, and from the life of our former President, Nelson Mandela. In a sense, it is a call to action; to roll up our sleeves and work for the development of our respective countries, communities and peoples. We should emulate their examples as these are leaders not only in word but in action and in deeds. 


In his autobiography, there is a moving passage in which Mandela states:

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.


In one of his many great speeches, Mandela said that “honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others – qualities which are within easy reach of every soul – are the foundation of one’s spiritual life”. Elsewhere, he remarked: “There is no passion to be found in playing small – settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”


In these words Mandela has captured the essence of his life and described with such eloquence his lifelong commitment to struggle in the service of his country and its people, and humanity at large. Having sacrificed the better part of his life in the struggle for national self-determination, the emancipation of the oppressed black majority in our country, and having won that struggle in 1994 through a peaceful transition to a democratic order, Mandela says that he “can only rest for a moment”. Why? He answers the question by saying that with freedom comes responsibilities and that his long walk had not ended. This road has been walked through with considerable grace, humility and integrity.  


Sadly, we now know that his long walk has come to an end and as his very friend and comrade, Ahmed Kathrada, has said - he has joined the “A Team” of our leaders such as Chief Luthuli, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Dr Yusuf Dadoo, Jack Simons, Moses Kotane, Bram Fischer, Dr Monty Naicker, J B Marks, Helen Joseph, Ruth First, Lilian Ngoyi, Albertina Sisulu and many others. These are all leaders worth emulating.


So what are qualities and the precise characteristics that made these leaders? What lessons can we learn from their lives? What should we emulate in our lives and daily work?


Many academics on leadership have written about Mandela’s life and his outstanding leadership qualities. Doug Lawrence, for instance, has identified eight lessons of leadership from the life of Mandela, and I will briefly touch on each one of these.


  1. Courage is not the absence of fear - it’s inspiring others to move beyond it. Real leaders admit their fears, but are not crippled by them. Their sense of resolve and clarity about future goals keeps them from being bogged down in their anxieties or the prospect of failure. They DO, and they ARE, and that’s enough. “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear,” said Mandela.


  1. Lead from the front but don’t leave your base behind.
    How many leaders do you know who focus all their attention on the future and completely forget about what got them to where they are. This is one of the most dangerous mistakes that a leader can make. So, while you focus on the future, don’t forget your past – your strengths and weaknesses. “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say.  Part of being an optimist is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward.” We saw this quality of leadership when Mandela - from within prison walls - started the early process of discussions with former President PW Botha on the prospects of entering into a negotiated settlement to the conflict in our country.


  1. Lead from the back and let others believe they are in front.
    Humility is at the core of good leadership. People are usually willing to follow someone who they believe in. but it’s not always necessary to lead from the front. Sometimes let them lead and you can support and encourage them. The more you are the affirmer, the more the affirmed will take the initiative and move the initiative forward. As he expressed it: “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.”


  1. Know your enemy and learn about his favorite sport. Remember the old saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” But a little knowledge can be an exceptionally helpful thing. What’s your adversary’s favorite sport and how much do you know about that activity that might break up conversational intrigue. Mandela didn’t like rugby, but he knew all about it because South African elitists and his political enemies all seemed to love the game.


  1. Keep your friends close and your rivals even closer. In your organization don’t only work with people you like or with whom you are compatible. Work also with those who you think are not on your side so that they do not become your permanent opponents.


  1. Appearances matter and remember to smile. Leaders sometimes forget that they were given leadership, they didn’t just wake up having it one day. Earn respect by showing respect! Remember, it was others who placed you in charge. Dress and carry yourself as though you appreciate that fact.


  1. Nothing is black or white. In life or in organisations things are not always straightforward. Careful choices have to be made. Tradeoffs are necessary. Compromises have to be struck and don’t be afraid to make the tough decisions.


  1. Quitting is leading too. Sometimes we must learn to give up; to give in and to change paths. In Mandela’s life he had to lead the ANC and its military wing MK to suspend the armed struggle and to give the negotiations process a chance to succeed. “Courageous people do not fear forgiving for the sake of peace,” he said. “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison,” he added.

Mandela had a great sense of humour. Leaders are too stiff and often cannot laugh at themselves. They get upset when cartoonists like Zapiro, who through their art offer socio-political commentary, draw them in funny ways. Who can forget that marvellous example of Mandela, when he referred to the official opposition as a “Mickey Mouse party”. The next day in parliament, Tony Leon, then leader of the Democratic Party, retorted that Mandela headed a "Goofy" government. Shortly after the heated parliamentary exchange, Tony Leon fell ill and was hospitalised in the same clinic as Helen Suzman. Mandela went to the clinic to see Suzman, who told him that Leon was there, too. Mandela spontaneously went to Leon's ward and announced himself: "Mickey Mouse, this is Goofy." 


Some academics make the mistake of taking a leader like Mandela outside of his socio-political and organisational context and almost present him like a super-hero or like superman. This is a fatally flawed approach to understanding the man and his times. I said this when Mandela passed away in December 2013 at the Gandhi Hall, and I will say it again here today. There could not have been a Mandela outside of the ANC. The ANC made him as much as he contributed in a profound way to the growth and development of the ANC itself. The ANC – its members and collective leaders – contributed greatly to who Mandela eventually became.     


No one in our time other than his lifelong friend and comrade, Ahmed Kathrada, has captured this more appropriately during his farewell speech to Mandela

Madala, your abundant reserves of love, simplicity, honesty, service, humility, care, courage, foresight, patience, tolerance, equality and justice, continually served as a source of enormous strength to many millions of people in South Africa and the world. You symbolize today, and always will, qualities of collective leadership, reconciliation, unity and forgiveness. You strove daily to build a united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa.

It is one thing to know about our leaders and their qualities. More importantly, it is up to us to continue their traditions and to walk in their footsteps. It is up to us to take up the cudgels and to continue giving the best of ourselves.


We have to deepen our democratic tradition and institutions; work to reduce and ultimately eradicate poverty; fight inequality; combat corruption; fight crime. Jobs and employment opportunities must be created, particularly for our youth. Narrow mindedness, xenophobia, racism and sexism stills persists in our community and society. Globally, so many societies are still fighting for freedom and real democracy or challenging imperialism and national domination. There are political prisoners all over who yearn for our solidarity and support. Some of these are the negative traits in our society and in the world that we must overcome if we – and our children – desire a life of decency, productivity, peace and security.


At the same time we must give impetus to the positive and uplifting things in life – our spirituality, the release of full human potential, the arts, culture and science, intellectual endeavours and human progress. Social organisations and community groups are the incubators of these developments, and we must build such organisations.   


Above all, we should be proud that in our country and the world over we have a plethora of religious, welfare, educational, health, cultural, social, business, labour sporting, media and political organisations. Many of these groups are run and managed by small, dedicated cores of men and women – some of advanced age and in need of fresh ideas and energy. They all need our active support, our involvement, our contribution, our time and our energy.


Let me conclude then by recalling Mandela’s first words when he was released from prison on 11 February 1990:

Friends, comrades and fellow South Africans. I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.


I put the question to all of us: Can we place the remaining years of our lives in service of our respective communities, our country and humanity at large?


Ismail Vadi

Gauteng MEC for Roads and Transport

Board Member – Ahmed Kathrada Foundation