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05 July 2022

From beating the odds to changing the odds: Transformative leadership in Africa

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

Food security, conservation, girls’ schooling and human rights organisations, infrastructure projects, and robotics lessons for young people. These are just a handful of the initiatives led by young graduates of the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program, who attended the HSRC conference on transformative leadership from 21 to 26 March 2022, in Zanzibar, Tanzania. These young leaders gathered with social science researchers to debate what transformative action looks like in African contexts. How does it differ from social action? And what is the impact of education on young people’s leadership skills? Andrea Teagle reports.

The documentary, Kanju: leaders transforming Africa, was part of research activity in The Imprint of Education study, which sought to explore young graduates’ understanding and implementation of transformative leadership. The study also included qualitative and quantitative research towards the same end. 

Former HSRC CEO Prof Crain Soudien and Prof Sharlene Swartz at the conference in Zanzibar, Tanzania, 21 March 2022. Photos: Antonio Erasmus

The imprint of education

In interviews, the majority of the 117 participants identified themselves as leaders, speaking of leadership in transactional terms. However, only about a quarter of those participants spoke specifically of their understanding of transformative leadership: leadership that brings about social justice as a clear goal. 

After the first year of data collection, 60% of the 403 university graduates who took part in a quantitative survey reported possessing skills such as the ability to transform good ideas into action and being able to motivate people to work towards a common goal. Far fewer, however, were able to say they had the skills to bring about systemic change. The survey found that a fifth (21%) of participants thought they had ‘the skill to use government policies to solve problems in my community’, while just over a third (36%) had ‘the skill to show people how all forms of injustice are related, for example, racism, sexism, and prejudice against those living with disabilities or who were immigrants’. But many (71% and 58% respectively) expressed a desire to learn these two skills. 

Not surprisingly, given that the average age of these university graduates was 27, very few aimed to make major impacts beyond changing individual lives in local communities, and very few were measuring the impacts of their efforts, Swartz said. Most were silent on the effects of structures of oppression like sexism, racism, greed and nepotism. 

Researcher Nothando Ntshayintshayi of the HSRC’s Inclusive Economic Development research division said that the Imprint study suggested that many of the programme graduates saw transformational and transformative leadership as existing on a spectrum, with some identifying systemic change as a future aspiration. 

Incorporating African perspectives

To change the odds of individuals and entire communities being able to thrive, the continent needs transformative leaders who can speak truth to power, and to mobilise projects, programmes and people committed to systemic change, Swartz said.

But what does this kind of leadership look like in practice? How can transformative leadership be assessed and developed in different African contexts? In this respect, keynote speaker Prof ’Funmi Olonisakin argued for the importance of incorporating African outlooks and practices such as Ubuntu and Harambee. Similarly, Western-based leadership concepts should be made visible and interrogated and discarded where they are not useful or relevant.

In his presentation on pre-colonial leadership in Africa, the HSRC’s Matthews Makgamatha emphasised the diversity of leadership types and societal structures, ranging from just to unjust. This kind of nuanced exploration of the kinds of societies that promoted equity and freedom is critical to formulating a workable, useful leadership model. And Olonisakin argued that despite the variation on the African continent, a shared history of colonisation connects more than it divides us and offers opportunities for building new African understandings of leadership action.

The HSRC’s Matthews Makgamatha in discussion with Rahab Wangari, a data scientist and Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program graduate, during the transformative leadership conference in Zanzibar, Tanzania, 21 March 2022. Photo: Antonio Erasmus

A cost too great? 

The late Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, is credited with having once said, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river and find out why they are falling in.” 

Referring to Tutu’s words, Swartz said that real change requires going upriver to find out why people are falling in, and to change the systems that allow them to continue doing so. But she acknowledged that changing systems often comes with a heavy cost: in some places, individuals who speak out on political issues put their lives at risk. “Is this what we are expecting of these young people?” she questioned. 

Mastercard Foundation alumna Sepiso Mwamelo, who studied Africa and international development at the University of Edinburgh, pointed out that, while scholarship programmes were life-changing opportunities, the expectation of driving social change can be a heavy one for young people to bear without support. She challenged the audience to hold the state accountable to its people, and to think of ways of caring for young leaders. 


Prof Sharlene Swartz, divisional executive, and Dr Alude Mahali, chief research specialist, in the HSRC’s Inclusive Economic Development research division


Andrea Teagle, science writer in the HSRC’s Impact Centre 

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

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