Decoding lessons from Robben Island and tips for Africa’s emerging leaders

South Africa has a great story to tell, one of struggle and triumph. Many spots within the country give insight to the apartheid regime and democracy.

The conditions and circumstances that shaped leaders like Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada do not exist anymore. A new world has emerged with different dynamics and new struggles. Our modern world dictates a new path and a specific kind of leadership. Struggle veteran Mzi Khumalo looks back at his time on Robben Island and decodes lessons for Africa’s new generation of leaders.

I was the 27th prisoner of the year 1979 on Robben Island. My prison number was 2779 and I was 24 years-old when I was sentenced to 26-years behind bars for treason by South Africa’s apartheid government. It was a time of daily atrocities against black people, many of whom lost their lives in the fight for freedom. When I arrived on the island, I found fellow comrades who had been incarcerated for a long time. Among them were Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada and many others who were all part of the struggle and were jailed for standing up for freedom.

All of them were inspirational leaders of their time because they displayed the kind of leadership and qualities that are rarely seen or heard of today. They were not only motivated and decisive, but they understood the ins and outs of their plan and the execution of it. The conditions and dynamics that shaped people like Walter and Ahmed were different back then. Times have changed.

How we identify, nurture and promote leadership in Africa today is of deep concern, and for good reason. Smart leadership is crucial for economic growth, social stability and a political landscape that enables African citizens to achieve their full potential. 

As I look back at my time on Robben Island, I can identify lessons that I believe are applicable to new generation of leaders on the rise. Leadership requires a clear purpose and long-term planning

Prison life was designed to be hard, but despite this we had a clear sense of purpose and knew why we were there. As freedom fighters we knew beyond a shadow of doubt what needed to be achieved. We had a long-term plan and understood the building blocks to realise our objective. We were strong-willed, determined and passionate about what we were fighting for. We didn’t just get out of bed one day and decide to protest. Our resistance was not haphazard, it was carefully planned. We all knew there was a fairly-good chance we would not live to see a free South Africa and that our dreams may not be realised in our lifetime.

Today, we live in the digital age and despite its undeniable benefits to society, it negatively impacts the minds of our youth, who live in a snap chat culture. This new revolution lives for instant information and instant gratification. “Long-term planning” to them signifies a period of 5 years or less. The youth of today have overwhelmingly short attention spans, and in my experience, nothing great has ever been achieved overnight. Without a clear purpose and long-term approach, the contribution of Africa’s youth to the development of the continent will be minimal.

Leadership means decisions based on convictions and assessments. In business today, we need to make decisions based on assessments, not on Internet searches. If somebody is recommended to me for a job or business venture, I will not browse the internet for answers. My approach would be to meet that person, look them in the eye, talk to them and get the answers I need to make an assessment. Only if I am left with doubts will I conduct reference checks or commission a report. This approach has led me to do business in what some regard as Africa’s most volatile markets including Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

One also cannot formulate an opinion on a person or country based on what journalists write. I see many of our young leaders today making political, business and personal decisions based on what the media reports. It is difficult for people to provide leadership and make decisions on sustainability this way. Our continent and the wellbeing of our people requires them to do more. They must scratch the surface and take decisive actions based on convictions and first-hand assessments. Thus, leadership must fit the purpose. 

I grew up in KwaMashu, a township north of Durban in South Africa. It was a rough place. We lived in abject poverty in a country that had denied us any hope of a better future. I was raised by my mother, a single woman and widow. I was the sixth child of ten. My father died before my ninth birthday. I experienced beatings and bullying while growing up, and my attitude was shaped by my circumstances. My love for business was born early on in life when I realised there is much power in money.  As a young boy, I started collecting oil cans to sell to the ladies who sold sorghum beer in the township. I soon made a fair amount of money.

In 1994, there was an energy crisis in South Africa. Fuel was rationed so I bought fuel and sold it for a margin.  When I came out of prison, I started building the ANC structures and was elected treasurer of the KwaZulu-Natal branch. Then, I decided to go back to my business roots. My contribution in both business and politics was as a result of the circumstances surrounding black people under apartheid’s oppressive regime. The conditions and dynamics that shaped South Africa’s previous leaders were specific to the times in which they lived.

Today’s leaders must remember that those conditions have changed. We are not fighting the same fight, and therefore the type of leadership that is required is different. They must adjust accordingly. Today’s fight is about economic freedom, social cohesion and continental unity. We need to understand what our circumstances are now and promote leadership that fits the purpose. I know that Africa’s current young leaders have a long, bumpy road ahead of them but I am hopeful that they will achieve their objectives with time, conviction and an unshakeable sense of purpose.

Mzi Khumalo is a mining mogul in Africa and spent 12 years in Robben Island during apartheid. He also built part of the ANC structures and served in the KZN branch