The Rise of Africa’s Atypical Leaders

African leaders will be converging under new leadership for the first time this week at the 20th African Union summit held annually in Addis Ababa. In 2012, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was elected the first woman chairperson of the commission since the inception of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963.

Dlamini-Zuma could be classified as belonging to an “elite” group of women, owing to her educational and professional background as well as her vast leadership experience at the political level. These are levels that are not typical or the norm as far as the lived experiences and realities of majority African women are concerned. Yet in spite of her impressive track record, the historic election did not come on a silver platter in a continent that is still dominated by traditional male leadership at all spheres of influence. Her election therefore brings an interesting dynamic and casts new light as far as the rise of atypical leaders in Africa is concerned and what this implies for the future of the continent.

In recent years, Africa has birthed a group of leaders that do not conform to our traditional notions and expectations of leadership. This group is comprised of ordinary women at grassroots levels who are not occupying political office; corporate boardrooms nor carrying heavy academic credentials but are nonetheless leading and transforming their communities in significant ways. In the same vein, young people are shifting from a government dependency paradigm and rising up as change agents to drive Africa’s development agenda forward as depicted in the recent events characterized as the Arab Spring.

Both groups represent a class of people whose voices have been excluded and marginalized in national political discourses. They may not be what we are used to, but their presence and impact can no longer be ignored. They are taking bold and risky steps daily and taking initiatives to solve issues that impact their lives and those of their constituents. They are deconstructing notions that: “young people should be seen and not heard and a woman’s place is in the kitchen.”

Borrowing from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the deceptive voice of history and culture continues to convince some leaders that “none born of woman shall harm them” and that they have nothing to worry about until Birnam wood moves to their castle. Atypical leaders are indeed not “born of woman” in a sense that unlike their predecessors, they are not the type to be silenced and subdued when they rise against inequality and demand social justice. Recent and current world events bear testimony to this wherein intimidation and violence proves futile in blocking the waves of change.

What inspires and drives atypical leaders to rise up amidst the obdurate cultural walls and hierarchically stratified environments that are often resistant to change? What challenges do they face and what tools are at their disposal as they chart new terrain?

The answers are varied but the common driving force seems to be passion and a strong resolve to see Africa transforming itself out of conflict, poverty and dependency. They seek to live in and thrive in a continent that utilizes its vast natural resources to meet the basic needs of the people.

Atypical leaders are driven by a realization that people’s destines are connected to their national destinies. Therefore the depraved state of the African continent at large is seen as an impediment to growth and transformation. Their individual and collective dreams and aspirations cannot find room for actualization in unstable socio-political and economic environments that characterize most of the countries. These leaders refuse to be defined and confined by the chains of ethnic, regional and cultural politics. Their visions impel them to see beyond territorial borders.

However, Africa’s new calibers of leaders are also cognizant that migrating overseas to escape hardships at home is no longer a desirable or a sustainable solution. Those in the Diaspora are also armed with knowledge and experience and want to contribute to practical changes to the conditions in their homelands. They are living testimonies that material benefits abroad can fill empty stomachs and secure personal comforts but will not satiate the soul nor silence their inner cry to re-build the continent.

Overall, these grassroots leaders know and identify with the needs of the people. They have the necessary formal and informal qualifications and represent a diversity of voices and skills. In Martin Luther king Jr’s words; “they should be judged by the content of their character and not the colour of their skin”… gender, age group or political connections. They should neither have to grease a few hands to gain access to services and opportunities.

As the AU’s first female chairperson, Dr Dlamini-Zuma is a model of what atypical leaders are capable of when given equal opportunities. Her appointment is an impetus for women at grassroots levels and other traditionally marginalized groups to forge ahead with the inclusive reconstruction and development agenda of Africa.

Government leaders therefore have an imperative to draw on this historic leadership feat at the AU and use it as leverage to adopt progressive resolutions with practical plans to benefit the people who are impacted the most by inequality. Women and the youth have to be seen, heard and included in national and continental governance agenda, lest the prevailing material conditions on the continent compel the woods to march to the palaces.

God Bless Africa

Pearl Mashabane


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