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Speech delivered at the Future Elect graduating cohort of Women In Public Office fellows


 Thank you Lindiwe Mazibuko for the invitation to this historic event today.  Who could have imagined in 1994 that we would be here today to celebrate the first two cohorts of graduates of a historic program that supports the professional development of the very first generation of women public representatives in democratic politics in South Africa?  It is also a first in Africa and dare I say, in the world that a program has been intentionally directed at professionalising public representation to enhance the quality of democracy.  


Lindiwe, you are simply the best!  Our country’s democracy will forever carry the imprint of this program and these graduating women leaders on the quality of professional, ethical, accountable public representation in our young democracy.  Professionalism and accountability in our public service is the key success factor for the future of our constitutional democracy.  


Wow!! How timeous is this intervention given the parlous state of leadership in our country, our continent and the world!  Humanity is facing multiple crises – all self-made: climate change, conflicts and wars, poverty and in equality, pandemics and much, much more!  These multiple crises demand nothing but bold leadership.  This moment in human history demands nothing less than the quality of leadership your cohort represents.  You are the leaders we all have been waiting for!  But just to be clear, everyone in this room has an important role to play in leading from where-ever each of us is!


Some Lessons Learnt From My Own Leadership Journey

I am a product of a period in our history in which there was a huge leadership vacuum.  Our country was gripped by a wave of fear post the clamp down of the PAC’s 1960s anti-pass campaign that led to the Sharpeville Massacre of 212/3/1960, followed by the Rivonia Trial and imprisonment of the leaders of the PAC/ANC in the mid 1960s.  Our parents were thoroughly cowed by the oppressive regime.  They kept their heads down and focussed on earning livelihoods to feed, clothe and educate their children.  Fear of the powerful brutal apartheid system permeated every nook of life.  My generation were the bundu-bashers: one of the early generations of significant numbers of university students in a segregated education system.  We were lumped together as non-Whites or non-Europeans at the Medical School of the then University of Natal. 


The novelty of sharing education, learning and training spaces at the Non-European Section of University of Natal with students from all over our country – different language groups; descendants of indigenous people (so-called Colourerds); and people of Indian origin - opened our eyes to our common humanity, and to our shared pain of being humiliated and discriminated against.  We met on many weekend partying occasions as a small group of friends – no more than 15  - to ask ourselves one puzzling question:  how is it possible that less than 10% of the population can hold in bondage more than 90% of the population? This is the million-dollar question of the dynamics of power and domination!


The first lesson that emerged from exploring this million-dollar question was this:  to the extent that you allow others to define who you are, to that extend will you remain captive to their biases, interests and their power games.  Agency in history emerges from self-definition and seizing the power within each of us.  When the scales fell off our eyes with the help of texts from Frantz Fanon; Paulo Freire; the Black Power activists in the USA, we stood up and declared ourselves black and proud!  Once we redefined ourselves as free people, we became unstoppable as agents of history determined to shape the future we yearned for.  We demanded the renaming of the Non-European University Section of the University of Natal to the University of Natal Black Section.  We were taken aback by how easy it was for the Principal of the University to accept our demand.  We then set out to spread the spirit of freedom in all university campuses across the country, including getting our University Principal to fund the first South African Student Organisation that gave birth to the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). It is the BCM that mobilised high school students who led the Soweto Uprising, leading to the Mass Democratic Movement of students, professionals, civic associations, workers unions, faith-based organisations that campaigned for freedom.  The BCM conscientised our parents and leaders in prisons and in exile to redefine themselves as black and proud.


The Second Lesson is that freedom is indivisible.  As a black woman I found the persistent male chauvinism in our activist ranks unacceptable.  I challenged my male colleagues at every turn.  The retort from my colleagues that I am dividing the struggle by asserting my rights as a woman to express my full femininity, could not be sustained.  Freedom is indivisible – the whole person has to be free, to be human is to be free. To the extent that women are unfree, men are also unfree.  The horrific gender based violence is an expression of this unfinished business of freedom.


The Third Lesson is that freedom starts with self-liberation.  No one can liberate you if you are not willing to travel inwards to ask the difficult question – who am I?  What is my purpose in life? What are my unique contributions to what it means to be human, and shaping a world where our essence as human can be manifest?  Human beings are inextricably interconnected and interdependent within the web of life. Our human family is as strong as each one of us is.


The Fourth Lesson is that sustainable freedom and effective leadership is an inside-outward process.  Effective leadership emerges from inner strength and embracing the values of Ubuntu.  As psychologists and neurobiologists tell us: you cannot give from an empty place.  Self-respect, self-love, and self-care are the wellsprings of respectful, people focussed and caring leadership.  This wellspring needs to be serviced regularly – retreat to check-in with the person inside about what has gone well, what not, what lessons, and what gaps?  Daily check-ins are key, but it is also important to build into one’s life rhythm quarterly and yearly retreats for major re-charges of one’s inner wells.  These practices are also critical for the success of your families and your teams.


The Fifth Lesson is to admit failures.  There is no point in pointing fingers.  You are the leader.  To err is human.  As President Rolihlahla Mandela said in an interview in 1994: Don’t judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back again.  The greatest leaders in history are those who have snatched victory from the jaws of failure.  This requires acknowledgement of the crisis at hand; boldness in thinking and acting to fight one’s way out of the crisis; learning the lessons of what went wrong, and how not to repeat the mistakes leading to the crisis.


Our country is in a crisis of unaccountability, devastating impact of state capture, crime and violence, levels of poverty and inequality that continue to humiliate the majority of our fellow citizens.  A major part of our problems stem from unacknowledged wounds of our ugly past that remain unaddressed.


Fr Michael Lapsley, an Anglican priest, who survived an apartheid assassination attempt using a letter bomb at a time he was an ANC chaplain in Zimbabwe, reminded us in a recent sermon at St Georges Cathedral about the dangers of unacknowledged wounds and pains.   He asked us 3 questions:

  1. How are our woundedness: physical; emotional and spiritual, negatively affecting us as individuals, families, communities, and as nations?

  2. How do my past wounds positively affect me, my family and my work?

  3. What can help us to transform our wounds from destructiveness to that which is life giving?


Our country and our world have unfortunately failed to turn our past wounds from the destructiveness of victimhood towards the lifegiving force of victorious wounded healers.  I continue to struggle to remain a wounded healer who emerged from the brutal loss of my life partner, loss of fellow activists, loss of hope when things began to fall apart in our democracy in the early 2020s. 


Today we are celebrating the graduation of a cohort of leaders who have taken the road less well travelled.  You are models of the inward-outward transformative leadership the world is yearning for.  The life giving force of your commitment to ethical public representation is flowing strong and renewing hope in a future we can believe in.  We celebrate the emergence of young women leaders like you who are determined to be the pathfinders is search of global equity for a healthy planet.


Mamphela Ramphele

Co-Founder of ReimagineSA/ Chair of Archbishop Tutu IPTRUST




















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