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Nelson Mandela's Legacy And The Next Generation Of Great African Leaders

Op-Ed Contributor

Published on 18 July 2014

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by Richard Stengel



A Young Woman Honors Former South African President Nelson Mandela
A Young Woman Honors Former South African President Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was not only a great leader; he was a student of great leadership. As a boy, he was dazzled by stories of African leaders from the 17th and 18th centuries, and he saw himself as part of that grand tradition. He was raised by the Regent of the Tembu tribe, who allowed him to sit in on tribal councils. Mandela once told me that the Regent would never speak until the end, and then he would summarize what had been said and try to form a consensus. When I was working with Mandela on his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, I sat in on many meetings with his own senior team. He would almost always wait until the end to speak and then see if he could forge a consensus. To him that was the African way.

Mandela was not only a student of great leadership; he was intent on creating great African leaders. He believed that there was a dearth of great leaders in Africa, and he was keen on motivating a new generation of leadership for the continent. Today would have been Nelson Mandela’s 96th birthday, and I believe he would have greatly admired President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative, known as YALI. That is something President Obama and Nelson Mandela share: a desire to inspire a new generation of great African leaders.

Next week, 500 YALI Fellows will arrive in Washington. They have been selected from almost 50,000 applicants representing all 49 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. YALI’s mission is to support young African leaders, enhance their leadership skills, spark entrepreneurship, and create a continental network of ambitious young men and women. The Washington Fellows are now participating in academic programs at twenty colleges and universities across the country, where they are studying business and entrepreneurship, public management, and civic leadership. Many of the YALI Fellows will be on hand to help President Obama and Secretary Kerry welcome more than 50 heads of state on August 4-6 for the largest summit of African leaders ever held. Then one hundred Fellows will go on to eight-week internships in the public, private and non-profit sectors with organizations throughout the United States.

I was with Mandela during many meetings with South African and international leaders. Afterwards, he would comment on a leader’s particular style or tactics, or even on what he wore. He would note if a leader was polite or deferential. He did not like leaders who were overly emotional or histrionic. If he described you as “measured,” that was a great compliment. He prized directness. He had no tolerance for leaders who were not honest. And he would sometimes smile ruefully if someone was in over his head.

Mandela believed that African leaders needed to be different than Western leaders. As the head of the African National Congress, and as the president of South Africa, he always sought consensus. He once told me that as a boy he had spent many days herding cattle, and that the way you lead cattle is from behind. By that he meant, you must marshal your forces and make sure that your people are ready to go in the direction where you want to lead them. Mandela led from the front and behind, and it is his spirit that is behind the Young African Leadership Initiative. And on Mandela’s 96th birthday, we get ready to welcome to Washington the 500 YALI Fellows who are the brightest of a new generation of great African leaders.

Mandela understood that leaders are made as well as born, and that circumstances bring forth great leaders. He liked the old English expression about leadership: “Cometh the moment, cometh the man — or the woman.” This is the moment for these young African leaders.


This blog post by Richard Stengel, under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, was originally published on the State Department’s blog, DipNote, on July 17.


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Posted 2014-07-18 18:02:00