Lessons from a true leader
The audience packed out the auditorium at the Wits School of Governance in Parktown, Johannesburg, on May 16 for a panel discussion on Leadership Lessons from OR Tambo — as South Africa commemorates 100 years since his birth.
This Mail & Guardian Critical Thinking Forum was held in partnership with Sanral and the Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Foundation and was livestreamed across multiple platforms, including Soweto TV and Kaya FM, providing for interaction between those present and a digital audience.
Moderated by Kaya FM’s John Perlman, panelists advocate Ngoako Ramatlhodi, Sheila Sisulu and Barbara Masekela, veterans of the struggle, gave profound insight into the man, as well as his leadership lessons, which become more pertinent every day. They also shared their concerns about the present leadership in South Africa.
In his welcoming comments, Sanral chief executive Skhumbuzo Macozoma thanked the Tambo Foundation for its “generosity for lending us such an important figure. Comrade OR [Tambo] symbolises the ultimate person of sacrifice and a beacon of hope when all seemed so dark.
“I am humbled as a relatively young person to stand here with you commemorating the life of OR. Those of us in school in the eighties will remember campaign songs such as Oliver Tambo thetha noBotha akhulule uMandela [Oliver Tambo speak to Botha to release Mandela] went beyond just articulating the possibility of legal change, but gave us hope that someone was doing something to secure a free future for us.
“It is encouraging to see a new breed of leadership grow and fill leadership positions. Comrade OR’s work ethic, dedication to excellence and love of people continues to be an inspiration to me. He was a solutions-oriented leader driven by an ideal, commitment to the cause, [and was] hard working and a leader who believed in collective leadership — when to lead from the front and when from the back.
“He would bring people together to debate and was known to not take sides. Comrade OR’s values were entrenched in his rural upbringing, spiritual path and education. He served with distinction. He also understood the importance of education for emancipation and the struggle for the collective being far more beneficial than for the self.
“To OR democracy and freedom had no colour. He wanted it for all South Africans but he understood there were interventions that needed to be made to redress imbalances. We all have an obligation to this project of emancipation.”
Money the king
Perlman opened the debate with Sisulu, who said that she believed that “these days there are not very many leaders participating in politics we can look up to, unfortunately — the ones who are alive.
“Former leaders like OR and Mandela who have passed on were activists, where their lives could be on the line for fighting against apartheid and activists when there was no money. Since liberty, money has become the king, because people follow and use it to serve themselves and not complete the projects of liberation.”
Asked whether people are looking back to the past because the present situation is so grim, Sisulu responded to Perlman by saying: “We need to own these leaders of the past. We hear about these leaders through others and how they want to project them.
“During apartheid, those who remember when TV came around will remember that wherever OR had been speaking, the voice-over was telling us who he was from the view of the apartheid government — a villain, a terrorist — and now unfortunately leaders of today selectively remember what OR led for, and it is for this reason it is important to read what these leaders have said themselves.”
Turning to Ramatlhodi, Perlman asked him to translate these leadership lessons into a way of tackling the different kinds of challenges of trying to run this country now.
“One thing I have learnt from OR’s life and leaders like him who were in the underground movement is that him and leaders like Mandela did not succumb to the power of money. They had the opportunity to live as the heads of society within government and the ruling party but their lives were not centred around money.
“OR had a great sense of justice, was compassionate and had a high level of morality. In 1984 at a meeting in camps in Angola, he called for a commission of enquiry to see whether we were observing the laws of war or were committing acts in anger. The report concluded that in some instances, we had overreacted and the minister of intelligence in exile had to resign. We have not seen any minister resigning now.
“We were a government in ourselves. He foresaw the difficulties that would happen now and sometimes he would say to people: “You think the struggle is difficult, wait to when we get in power. It is much more difficult to run a country.” He had such foresight and such flexibility.”
Drive for inclusivity
Masekela took up the point, saying: “For me, the greatest lesson of OR was when he went out to the world and said: ‘South Africans are all just like you.’ He epitomised ubuntu. He managed under difficult circumstances to mobilise every corner of the world and all walks of life towards supporting the cause of the people of South Africa.
“The greatest thing about Tambo was his drive for inclusivity. This is pointing to the man interested in the individual welfare of every South African.
“One of the things we must remember about OR is that he was an ardent Christian and a religious man and at one point wanted to study theology. He was also a great scientist and thus a very adaptable man. If we had him today, he would be able to adapt to the present moment without abandoning his moral fibre and the fibre that he demanded from every member of the organisation.”
“I never saw him discouraged. I think he had so much faith that we would succeed and all of us were imbued with a spirit of victory and we knew we would succeed. It would also be remiss to talk about OR without talking about what a great feminist he was. He believed in the power of women and the need to develop their potential. He always said no man could achieve freedom without the contribution of women.”
Continued Ramatlhodi: “He had questions about the course we took at the time but did not want to kick up dust. If he came now and asked questions of particularly those people he raised himself, he would have been profoundly disappointed, in my view.
Emmanuel Mwamba, high commissioner of the Republic of Zambia to South Africa, raised with the panel that sometimes Africa as a whole feels South Africa does not appreciate the role other African countries played. “The liberation struggle was relevant to all of us and a collective project.
“We feel in the rise of xenophobic attacks against foreign nationals, there is disconnect between those people in the struggle to tell their story young people, about the role of Africa. We shared what we had. Our economy was burdened. The leadership and story needs to be told more for the young to accept the liberation struggle and where we are in such arenas as poverty and land issues.”
Responded Masekela: “OR loved the Zambians and Tanzanians and Angolans and was daily grateful for what they were doing to accelerate the struggle in SA, and this is a quality we South Africans are losing — we cannot love ourselves if we don’t love other people.
“I think we have been so inward-looking as South Africans, especially since 1994, and we have forgotten lives were lost in the frontline states for the liberation. It is a challenge we must take on to educate and the way to do this is to open up exchange programmes within the continent,” said Sisulu.
Closing the event, Linda Vilakazi, chief executive of the Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Foundation, said: “Tonight we should all leave this room with a lot of hope because of this engagement. No one person can help move South Africa forward. We need to mobilise energies and get back on track.”
Quotes from the forum
“I feel the [ANC] party has been sold to the highest bidder. What comes out clearly are OR’s ethics stand in sharp contrast to what we see in the leadership of today. [They are] blighted by social engineering that flies in the face of what OR stands for. If OR was alive today and saw what was happening, what would he say?” — Barbara Masekela
“The people of South Africa are their own liberators and carry responsibility for moral regeneration. Expand government-led initiative into societal-led. Create programmes for dialogue. Then we should be on the way to healing the wounds.” — Advocate Ngoako Ramatlhodi
“Former leaders like OR and Mandela who have passed on were activists where their lives could be on the line for fighting against apartheid and activists when there was no money. Since liberty, money has become the king because people follow and use it to serve themselves and not complete the projects of liberation.” — Sheila Sisulu
“Young man, I am 75 years old. I am tired. We are visiting our friends in hospital and burying them. It is time for the youth to also do the work to continue the struggle.” — Barbara Masekela, in response to a question from the audience on what elders are doing to continue their work with the younger generation