Transformational leadership is the ability of a leader to guide nations and organizations alike, focusing on a clear vision, motivation, being a change agent, and building trust. These are the cornerstones of great leadership. One such leader that comes to mind is former President of South Africa, the late, Nelson “Rolihlahla” Mandela. At a time in history when the worse form of segregation, codified into a statutory system called Apartheid, was taken place, Mandela emerged as the first-ever elected President. He dismantled the legacy of the apartheid regime, institutionalized racism, poverty and inequality. He brought diversity into government, established the truth and reconciliation commission to foster racial reconciliation, and reestablished the balance of power for land owners. What did it take for the nation’s heart transformation? It took time, people’s lives, and 27 years of imprisonment of the greatest leader of all time.
Has history taught us anything? We read books about our famous heroes that marched for justice and equality, for the right to vote, and to have equal and fair wages, thinking that these are problems of the past: We are free now. In the 1930s, our honoured Nelson Mandela was also free. Free to get an excellent legal education, free to marry and to become the next chief. Yet, when the 22-year-old ran away to south Johannesburg, now called Soweto, he saw for the first time what the lives of native Africans were like: Confined in overcrowded shantytowns or slums, where it was insanitary, no electricity, no telephones, and poor road conditions. Police visited these slums continuously in search for vagrants. This is where Nelson’s political education began, yes, this is where the vision was birthed (BENSON, M., 1994, Nelson Mandela:The Man and the Movement, Penguin).
May Day 1950 was when the workforce stayed home. Protesters called for the removal of the colour bar in parliament, in education, in industry and in the administration. This became the turning point in Mandela’s life because he saw first-hand the ruthlessness of the police, as well as being deeply impressed by the support African workers and Indians gave to the May Day call. “Chiefs and followers, leaders of political associations, ministers, teachers, journalists and lawyers came together from all parts of South Africa and overcame division of tribes and languages, rural and urban backgrounds” (BENSON,1994).
70 years later, May 25, 2020, an African-American was killed because a police officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes in Minneapolis, USA. Similar ruthless police practices sparked worldwide protest, every continent, language, and government came together to protest by kneeling for change. “The fight against all forms of racism and racial discrimination remains a priority for us,” said Michael Ungern-Sternberg, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Germany to the United Nations Office at Geneva. “The past weeks, many people around the world raised their voices and took to the streets to send a clear signal that racism and excessive use of force by law enforcement officials against minority populations cannot (any) longer be accepted.” Again, has history taught us anything?
See my blog: Police Abusive Use of Force: Yatim and Floyd Case
Uprisings and protests were happening in the 1950s just as they are happening now in 2020. As the unrest of protesters and anti-apartheid leaders spread and became more effective and militarized, state organizations responded with repression and violence (BENSON, 1994). The government banned all opposition, and police officers enforced curfews, causing many anti-apartheid leaders to be imprisoned, including Mandela. Similarly, the United States chose to respond to the nationwide demonstrations after police in Minneapolis killed African American George Floyd, in a manner that undermined our fundamental rights “…the right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly,” said Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the UN Special Rapporteur. We are watching history play over again, the police brutality and the governments adverse response to the protests.
In 1951, Mandela chose to become a change agent for his nation and his people. He was a lawyer, a founding member of the Youth League of the African National Congress (ANC), and appointed as volunteer-in-chief of the defiance campaign. “This campaign was designed to organize a large-scale resistance movement and work toward the repeal of discriminatory legislation” (JAMES, R., 2011, Nelson Mandela, Great Neck Publishing, Database: MasterFILE Premier). Mandela was arrested because he was fighting for his nation’s heart transformation. His prosecution for treason, and a lengthy prison sentence did only one thing; it bolstered Mandela’s vision for justice and equality. It was behind bars, that the transformational leader emerged. Upon his release, Mandela built the South African civil rights movement; and in 1991, became the president of the ANC, the rest is history: South Africa held its first-ever free elections on April 27, 1994. With majority of the votes given to ANC, Mandela was elected president. It was victory, not just for one race, but for an entire nation.
The death of Floyd has stirred our nation’s heart in a profound way. And it is the spirit of 46-year-old Floyd that became the transformational leader that the world desperately needed to see the vision. So, transformation requires time, people’s lives, and imprisonment. Sometimes history has to be repeated for our nations to take a stand for the vision that our beloved heroes, like Mandela stood for.