South African freedom fighters in the period between 1600 to the present focused on total liberation and self-determination in the face of relentless colonial oppression. Their efforts began not only a philosophical foundation of leadership for equity in South Africa, but set the stage for future generations of leaders. This piece traces South African leadership for equity philosophy from 1658 to the present.
It demonstrates how each leader, through their connection, drew from a host of leadership philosophies which shaped their attributes, their characteristics, and their practices of leadership. It then illustrates how these philosophies influence contemporary leaders for equity in the country.
The earliest known South African freedom fighter is Autshumayo, a Khoi Khoi leader who fought against the Dutch in the Khoi Khoi Dutch War of 1658 (Guelke, 1992; Marks, 1972). Following the Khoi Khoi defeat, Jan van Riebeck banished Autshumayo to Robben Island. He is not only one of the earliest freedom fighters, but is also the only known person to escape the island. The battle against colonialism continued after Autshumayo’s death in 1663.
From 1818 to 1819, Xhosa Chief-Prophet Maqana Nxele led the Xhosa nation in the fifth Xhosa War against British settlers in what is currently the Eastern Cape province (Stapleton, 1993). Later, King Libalele of the amaHlubi, a clan in modern day KwaZulu-Natal fought colonial settlers in 1873. He was convicted of high treason by the British and imprisoned at Robben Island where he later died (Deacon, 1996). King Libalele ruled alongside King Cetshwayo kaMpande of the greater Zulu Kingdom, famous for defeating the British at the battle of Isandlwana in 1873 (Cope, 1995).
While history mainly focuses on men, Charlotte Maxeke is one of the most prominent South African women freedom fighters of the late 1800’s. Maxeke was born in modern day Limpopo province in 1874 and received a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in 1905 from Wilberforce University in Ohio, United States. Upon her return to South Africa, she setup the Wilberforce Institute promoting international education for Black South Africans. She was also actively involved in the anti-pass campaign of 1919 as a member of the African National Congress Women’s League (ANCWL). In 2013, the South African Broadcasting Corporation named her the “Mother of Black Freedom in South Africa” (SABC, 2013).
The African National Congress heavily influenced the attributes, characteristics and practices of leaders for equity in South Africa. These components were developed by its former body, the South African Natives National Congress (SANNC). Formed in 1912, the SANNC began resisting colonialism through political, economic and social avenues (Willan, 2012). Sol Plaatje a journalist and politician, famous for his 1916 book, Native life in South Africa, before and since the European war and the Boer rebellion (Plaatjie, 1969) in which he documented the South African War from the perspective of Africans is one of the organizations most notable leaders.
Plaatjie’s ideology of African liberation and emancipation laid the philosophical foundation of the movement. In response to the 1913 Natives Land Act in South Africa (Lephakga, 2013), Plaatje travelled to the United States where he began collaborating with American scholars and philosophers such as W.E.B Du Bois who founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 (Kellogg, 1967), and Marcus Garvey who promoted African American emancipation (Hill & Garvey, 2011). Noting the similarities between liberation fighters across the world, Plaatje returned convinced of the necessity to formalize the political structure of the SANNC, renaming it the ANC (African National Congress) in 1923. Benjamin (2012) describes the similarities and historical roots between the NAACP in the United States and the ANC in South Africa, concluding that both organizations share a common struggle against all forms of oppression.
Emancipation and liberation embedded by Plaatje extended through subsequent leaders of the ANC. In 1952, a former teacher born in Zimbabwe and educated in Kwazulu-Natal transformed the leadership philosophy of the ANC once more. Mvumbi, also known as Chief Albert John Luthuli is famous for being the first African, and first person outside of Europe and the America’s to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1961 for his use of non-violence against the repression of the apartheid regime (Cooper & Wright, 1992; Couper, 2012). Suttner (2010) argues that Luthuli was heavily influenced by Mahatmas Gandhi, who developed the tactics of non-violence during his struggle against colonial South Africa and colonial Britain in India (Guha, 2014).
Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence also inspired other advocates for equity such as Reverend Martin Luther King Jnr and Cesar Chavez in the United States. King (1958) describes in a chapter My pilgrimage to nonviolence the link between Gandhi’s philosophy and his own tactics in the Civil Rights Movement. Cesar Chavez, a Latino labor leader and activist used non-violent methods to resist exploitation from the Californian agriculture industry and gained equity and justice for migrant workers across the country in the 1970s (Pawel, 2014).
The similar philosophical foundations between King and Luthuli spurred collaboration. In 1962, Chief Albert Luthuli and Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr jointly declared the Universal Appeal for Action Against Apartheid in South Africa which called for an end to apartheid hegemony in South Africa and Jim Crow in the United States (King, 2013). The connection between Luthuli, Gandhi, and King solidified a leadership philosophy embodying the intersections of emancipation and liberation through non-violent means.
Emancipation and liberation, through non-violent means was given a further facet by women in the struggle against injustice. Although always present in shaping the history of South Africa, few women were able to build on the legacy on Charlotte Maxeke like the generation that emerged in the 1950’s. Women added the dimension of gender to the struggle against injustice. They intersected the struggle against racial injustice within the broader framework of women’s rights. In 1956, over twenty thousand women marched under the leadership of Lilian Ngoyi, Rahima Moosa, Albertina Sisulu, and Helen Joseph against the unjust pass laws in the country which restricted movement based on race (Miller, 2011).
Ngoyi became the first women to hold a National Executive Committee (NEC) seat in the ANC after joining the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) in 1952. This began to challenge male domination in the organization. Further, she actively lobbied internationally for the rights of mothers and women, eventually being arrested in 1956 and placed in solitary confinement for seventy one days (Daymond, 2013). Alongside Ngoyi, Rahima Moosa, an Indian women who was evicted from District Six in Cape Town under apartheid laws fought against racial and gender determined injustice (Moosa, 2015). Moosa is famous for her role in galvanizing the Indian community against apartheid laws. Sisulu, former president of the ANCWL and wife of former president of the ANC Walter Sisulu shaped the struggle against injustice through her philosophy of human dignity and Ubuntu (Oosterwyk, Oliphant, & Suttner, 2003). She brought the experience of being the wife of an antiapartheid activist Walter Sisulu into her leadership for equity framework.
Finally, Helen Joseph, a white woman from England was heavily shaped by her former boss Solly Sachs, a Lithuanian Jew and famous antiapartheid activist. Solly Sachs is the father of Albie Sachs, an advocate and constitutional court justice who not only survived an assassination attempt by the apartheid government which resulted in him losing a limb and sight in one eye, but is also noted as an author of the major tenets in the new constitution of South Africa (Sachs, 2000). Joseph met Ngoyi through her connection with Sachs and became galvanized into the fight against injustice in the country. She was one of the readers at 1955 Kliptowns congress of the people where she participated in the Freedom Charter, a document outlining a nonracial, economically emancipated, and liberated South African future (Ford, 2014).
While the 1950’s epitomized the philosophy of non-violence, the 1960’s and 1970’s changed the nature of the leaders for equity. Leaders in these two decades were met with sustained, and state sponsored violence. This context influenced their tactics and methods.
Oliver Reginald Tambo, one of two black African lawyers (Mandela was the second) in South Africa followed Albert Luthuli as president of the ANC. Tambo was instrumental in attaining two broad leadership goals: setting up the military wing of the ANC after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1961 called Umkonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation), and forming ANC international missions (Tambo & Tambo, 1987). Between 1967 and 1990, Tambo setup ANC missions in over twenty seven countries including all members of the United Nations Security Council (Madikwa, 2007).
On the ground, numerous men and women joined and led the ranks of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in exile. Their mission focused on eradicating the apartheid government and promoting the values of non-racialism. In its manifesto, the organization states that:
“We are working in the best interests of all the people of this country – black, brown and white – whose future happiness and well-being cannot be attained without the overthrow of the Nationalist government, the abolition of white supremacy and the winning of liberty, democracy and full national rights and equality for all the people of this country” (ANC, 1961).
Although MK has been led by numerous leaders over its sixty year existence, three leaders notably emerge as exemplars of the philosophy of liberation, emancipation, and equity. Lithuanian Jew Yossel Mashel Slovo also known as Joe Slovo served as General Secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and was stationed in Mozambique, Zambia, and Angola where he led attacks against apartheid forces (Wieder & Gordimer, 2013). Slovo signed the Freedom Charter at the congress of the people in Kliptown and acted as a primary negotiator at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) which led to a peaceful transition from apartheid to post-apartheid South Africa (Mamdani, 2015).
Slovo was surrounded by powerful leaders in MK, especially Chris Hani, also referred to as Martin Thembisile. Hani spearheaded the SACP and served as chief of staff in MK (Baines, 2011). Earlier, he fought against Bantu Education by joining the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) and later MK. Hani went into exile in 1963 to avoid arrest under the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 (Johns, 2007). His fierce loyalty to the ideals of liberation of South Africa set him apart from other soldiers and leaders of his time. He was assassinated in 1993 by Conservative Party member Clive Derby-Lewis (Dixon, 1993).
While Slovo and Hani fought for liberation from racial injustice, Thandi Modise, a women soldier in MK fought for liberation from racial oppression and misogyny from her male peers. In her 2000 article Thandi Modise, A Women in War (Modise & Curnow, 2000), she explains her dual fight against injustice. She describes how she was continuously forced to justify and protect her gender, sexuality, and body from male peers while simultaneously fighting for racial justice in South Africa. Modise was the first MK fighter to be jailed for her activities, and is known for promoting the inclusion of women’s stories in antiapartheid history. She currently serves a South Africa’s Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP).
Alongside the ANC, other organizations also fought relentlessly for equity in South Africa. Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe led the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), a breakaway from the ANC in the Defiance Campaign against unjust pass laws in 1960 (Gilmore-Clough, 2010). His strong convictions saw him found the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), heavily influenced by, and on, American thinker Malcolm X (Pogrund, 1991). Sobukwe was subject to the worse forms of apartheid brutality and bureaucratic oppression. In 1963, the apartheid government instituted the Sobukwe Clause, an amendment to the General Laws Amendment Act No 37 of 1963. This act allowed the government to detain Sobukwe for a further six years on Robben Island without trial after his initial arrest a year earlier (Boddy-Evans, 2015). Despite Sobukwe’s imprisonment and eventual death in 1978, BCM was strengthened by another committed fighter for equity who emerged in the early 1970s: Steven Bantu Biko. A medical student at University of Natal, Biko radicalized the South African Students Organization (SASO) as a vehicle for the struggle of the African people against apartheid (Biko & Arnold, 1978). His leadership philosophy was firmly rooted in the work of Frantz Fanon (Gibson, 2011). Records from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) reveal that was Biko was arrested in 1977 and died in police custody as a result of torture in Port Elizabeth (Siebert, 1997). His death galvanized the fight against apartheid and spurred on another generation of freedom fighters in the country.
Two South African women are connected to Biko and are known as leaders for equity in South Africa through similar and different mediums. Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, co-founder alongside Biko of the BCM, as well as mother to their two children was also one of the first qualified black African nurses in South Africa at the time. Ramphele promoted equity in South Africa mainly as an academic activist. She authored several books including Laying Ghosts to Rest (Ramphele, 2008) and Across Boundaries: Journeys of a South African women leader (Ramphele, 1996). After serving as the Vice-Chancellor for University of Cape Town (UCT) and then Managing Director at the World Bank, she formed her own political party in 2013.
Strict control of information by the apartheid regime under the Public Safety Act of 1953 resulted in the cause of Biko’s death in 1977 being reported as a hunger strike (Wilson, 2012). The Public Safety Act of 1953 sought to disrupt internal communication and detain dissident of journalists (Merrett, 1990, 1994). Despite this, Helen Zille, a white journalist is credited for fighting to reveal the truth and published the details of Biko’s death in 1977. Her work helped set the stage for global criticism of apartheid South Africa and intensified internal resistance against apartheid.
In post-apartheid South Africa, Zille is credited for her role in opposition politics and was voted mayor of the year in 2008 for reducing the city of Cape Town’s inequality and poverty levels dramatically (Hove, 2008). Zille is seen to follow the mold of anti-apartheid parliamentarian Helen Suzman who led the Progressive Federal Party (PFP) as the only parliamentarian to oppose apartheid (Merrett, 2014). Ramphele and Zille, closely connected to Biko, represent the intersectionality of women and the struggle for justice, albeit both use different strategies and tactics.
In addition to producing South African leaders who advocate for equity, the country also developed freedom fighters from other countries. Namibian Patrick Ilonga exemplifies the influence of the ANC on other liberation organizations. Namibia, formerly known as German South West Africa was colonized by South Africa between 1919-1990 (Wallace & Kinsham, 2011). In this context, one of the most well-known freedom fighters was Patrick Ilonga. Born in 1947 in the Omusati Region of Namibia, Ilanga was a trade unionist and a member of the South West People’s Organization (SWAPO) which fought South African rule. As a result, he was imprisoned on Robben Island alongside ANC leaders Mandela and Govan Mbeki from 1978 to 1985 (Hopwood, 2007).
Apartheid unleashed oppression in various forms, cutting across various intersectionalities. Not only did apartheid subject people of color, women, people with disabilities, and the poor to brutal subjugation, it also infringed on the dignity of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) and other sexual minority communities. In the face of this repression, three leaders emerged to play a large role in shaping the philosophy of leadership for equity.
Simon Tseko Nkoli was born in 1957 and is not only the first openly HIV positive gay man in Africa, but was also one of the strongest activists for the rights of gay people worldwide (Hoad, Martin, & Reid, 2005). In 1984, he was arrested for his anti-apartheid activities and imprisoned alongside ANC stalwarts such as Popo Molefe and Patrick Lekota. In prison, he educated people about the rights of LGBT people which heavily influenced the inclusion of sexual minority rights in the eventual constitution a decade later. Because of leaders such as Nkoli, South Africa is the first country in the world to protect the rights of LGBT people in this way.
Following the philosophy of inclusion embodied by Nkoli, Edwin Cameron a former Rhodes Scholar and Zackie Achmat a film director and activist, fought for the rights of LGBT and HIV positive people to receive access to treatment (Richards, 2007). Edwin Cameron’s work and life lead him to be awarded the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights in 2000 and an appointment as the first openly gay and HIV positive Constitutional Court Justice in 2008 (Cameron & Geffen, 2005). In response to the HIV pandemic gripping South Africa at the time, Achmat formed the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) which successfully changed government policy on HIV/AIDS treatment, saving millions of lives (Nolen, 2007).
Nelson Mandela, a product of all these leadership philosophies, emerged from prison and engaged in the project of building a united South Africa. His work drew upon the emancipation, liberation models of Sol Plaatje, WEB Du Boius, and Albert Luthuli; the strategies of non-violence proposed by Gandhi, and the necessary violence described by Tambo. Mandela was sensitized to gender by his encounters with the examples of Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa, Winnie Mandela and Albertina Sisulu; Black Consciousness promoted by Robert Sobukwe, Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon, and later by Steve Biko; the inclusion of sexual orientation as a fundamental component of equity as promoted by Nkoli, and later Cameron and Achmat. Using these influences, Mandela set the foundation for future generations of leaders who would advocate for equity post-apartheid.
On the shoulders of giants: Post-apartheid leaders for equity
Post-apartheid South Africa faces different and similar challenges to the country that existed before 1994. Embedded in these challenges are issues of equity. Each leader is the accumulation of leadership philosophies before them.
The ANC continues to produce young leaders who advocate for equity through various forms. Zwalekhe Theodore Moyo, former Johannesburg Junior City Councilor and legal advisor to the Gert Sibande Municipality in Mpumalanga promotes equity through the rule of law. He is recognized in various ANC structures as combatting corruption, promoting clean governance, and developing youth leadership programs.
In the field of education, two leaders have exemplified the philosophy of liberation, emancipation and human dignity. Sweetness Gugulethu Radebe, an ANCYL member is nationally recognized for her outstanding commitment to equity through teaching, especially in the township of Soweto. She identified the gap between urban learners and college access, and she developed numerous programs that have closed this gap rapidly in her community. Her model has been replicated with great success.
Samuel Fenyane is an internationally recognized advocate for equity in the field of teacher education through his policy research for the South African Democratic Trade Union (SADTU), representing over 250,000 teachers across the country (Amoako, 2014; Zengele, 2014). Fenyane is also responsible for the Career Counselling Initiative, which provides college information for students in rural schools. As a result of this initiative, over one hundred, first time students from these communities have accessed college. His policies and insight into education and the role of university councils has shaped the transformation agenda in higher education.
Biko’s brand of black consciousness is evident in post-apartheid South African leaders such as Julius Malema, Floyd Shivambu, Dali Mpofu, and Andile Mngxitama (Shivambu, 2014). Instead of operating from the current Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) structures, their struggle for economic freedom is realized through the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) formed in 2013. All founders of the EFF were former leaders of the ANC and, like Sobukwe left the ANC to form their own organization. In the 2014 elections, the EFF garnered 6.5% of the vote with over one and a half million votes. Their fundamental philosophical pillar is emancipation and liberation from the legacy of apartheid through African self-determination (Nieftagodien, 2015; Shivambu, 2014).
Leaders committed to equity in post-apartheid also operate through civic organizations. In education, activist Yoliswa Dwane co-founded an education non-profit organization called Equal Education (EE) which is a movement of parents, teachers and community members working for equality and quality in South African education. Their latest campaign used an equity audit to determine the current infrastructure and resources of schools across the country. EE has galvanized accountability measures for the Department of Education and resulted in action plans across the country (Matsha, 2011).
In the field of disability, Michaela Mycroft used her influence to promote the rights of people with disabilities worldwide. Her Chaeli campaign impacts thousands of young people worldwide. For her efforts, she was awarded the International Children’s Peace Prize (2012), was voted one of two hundred top young South Africans in 2012, and has been endorsed by Desmond Tutu as an exemplary South African.
Drawing on the tenacity and legacy of Dr. Ramphele, Sule Burger first began her career as Deputy Junior Mayor of Johannesburg in 2005. Following that experience she worked with fellow advocates Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, Puso Thahane, Warren Chalklen, and Mpumelelo Tshabalala to form Grow2Lead (G2L), a leadership and development organization which teaches life skills and leadership skills to young people. Their shared vision influenced over two thousand young people across the country in under five years. Further, she qualified as a medical doctor who provides services to the most vulnerable members of society: children and the elderly.
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh exemplifies the intersectionality of various strands of leadership philosophy. He grew up embedded in the anti-apartheid struggle which heavily exposed him to some of the great South African freedom fighters from a very young age. Alongside Burger, Tshabalala, Thahane, and Chalklen, he used these lessons to impact programming and the establishment of their youth leadership nonprofit organization which was nominated for a Southern African Youth Entrepreneurship Award in 2009.
Mpofu-Walsh also spent a portion of his life learning about the life stories, philosophies and leadership of great Xhosa chiefs since the beginning of time. This experience shaped him deeply and led him not only to become the first nonpolitically aligned Student Body President at his University. Later he co-founded one of the rising youth movements in the country which focuses on citizenship and democracy in South Africa. InkuluFreeheid (IFH), which translates to freedom, was formed by prominent advocates for equity such as Erik de Ridder and Saif Islam. In 2013, he was voted one of two hundred most influential young leaders in South Africa (Mpofu-Walsh, 2013).
Leadership for equity is also operating at the grass roots level across the country. In the arts, Kgosi Choene, Fhatuweni Mukheli, and Rendani Mukheli are recognized for using film and photography to highlight the reconstruction of South Africa. In the classroom, teachers such as Philip Khoza, Russell Chalklen, Ntokozo Sibiya, Michael Kgomotso Lebakeng, Moshe Rachidi, Masilo Mabeba, and Innocentia Mashaba exemplify a generation of teachers who are building an educated and equitable society.
The aforementioned represent the next generation of leaders for equity. Their pathways and philosophies are built on the foundations of those before them.
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