Winning the Peace

Developing & Defining Good Leadership


In South Africa, we have had to confront the desperate need for the right combination of skills to manage and lead the country. We have seen, with interest, the revolving door of leadership at parastatals and government departments while watching the Zondo Commission unravelling Machiavellian behaviour. There is an assumption that those who are elected to positions of authority are equipped to lead. This is not necessarily so.

We need to develop and define good leadership – an oft-cited example of which took place in 1993, when the country was reeling from the shock of Chris Hani’s assassination. It was a full year before democracy would become a reality, and Nelson Mandela was not yet in power when violence erupted as rage took hold of much of the nation and patience began to run thin. Though he wasn’t yet elected, at such a critical juncture of our country’s history, Mandela addressed the nation on national media from the studios of the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

"It is the mark of a true leader that he sensed the country’s mood, the potential derailing of negotiations for a peaceful transition to democracy and he appealed to the country not to lose hope and faith."

Of course, we will never know what path our history might have taken had he not spoken to us, but suffice it to say that in a moment of turmoil, Mandela forged unity. We experienced a similar moment when we were faced with the coronavirus pandemic. President Cyril Ramaphosa immediately addressed the nation on television, painting a picture of the unreal and relentless pandemic that had gripped much of the globe and had now arrived on our shores. What reassured the people of this country was evoking the sense of one nation and a clear plan of action with the key objective of keeping us all safe. If social media is analysed, Ramaphosa himself had unprecedented numbers listening to him and applauding his leadership.


What does all this tell us? It tells us that to be a leader, you have to prioritise the wellbeing of the people and be seen to possess moral stature and fortitude, ethical leadership, courage, clear purpose and benevolence. But what we all have to understand is that these qualities – and it is not an exhaustive list, can be meaningless and ineffectual if they are not replicated at every leadership tier.

Without doubt, it is an incredibly complex task, especially in democracies, to lead government while at the same time having to navigate political forces. As we look to the West in the aftermath of the 2020 United States presidential election, the Trump-Biden stand-offs have left the public in much confusion.

Donald Trump’s extraordinary response to the pandemic has been well documented, and many an eyebrow raised. When faced with numbers of positive cases, almost touching the hundred thousand per day mark of new infections, it is decidedly odd to see a leader questioning the validity and safety of wearing face masks. What type of leadership does one call this? On the other hand, we have the example of New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has been held up as an example of strong leadership by the likes of WHO.

As Richard Calland wrote for the Mail & Guardian in 2020: As South Africa emerges out of the darkest and most delicate period so far and begins to contemplate life after COVID-19, the question arises: Does South Africa have the right leadership at this hour of greatest need, and moreover, a leader who can ‘win the peace’? It’s a question being asked of leaders all around the world.

By Professor Tshilidzi Marwala


Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor & Principal of the University of Johannesburg (UJ). He holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (magna cum laude) from Case Western Reserve University (USA), a PhD specialising in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Engineering from the University of Cambridge, and a postdoctoral fellowship at Imperial College (London). He is the author of Leadership Lessons from Books I Have Read, published by Tracey McDonald Publishers and available at all good bookstores and online.

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