Saturday, 11 September 2010

Lewis Nkosi: a giant of SA literature

A giant has fallen with the passing of Lewis Nkosi (Sunday 5 Sept. 2010). He was one of only a tiny few of the so-called Drum writers that lived on into the last five to ten years; not only that, he continued to be prolific and powerful with the written word for this extended period.

In this sense, he was an ongoing resource and a re-energising force in South Africa’s literary affairs and in critical discourses related to it, enriching in distinctive ways the dialogues, conversations and reflections on the emergence and future directions of our literature. He held a perspective and boasted an involvement that spanned several key phases in the development of black writing in Mzansi.

The experience of being a 'Drum writer' – a reference to black writers that worked at Drum magazine in the pre 1960s period – functioned as a powerful platform for Nkosi. It contributed to his qualities of always being engaged and refusing an ivory tower detachment from what fellow black South Africans were living through. Also, something of the wry humour, the twinkle in the eye, the brashness, the willingness to lash out at oppression –qualities associated with the Drum writers – always remained with him.

However, his journey and transitions took him light years beyond the Drum writer categorisation; in other words, he was so much more. Utilising his articulateness and perceptiveness, he has added in immense ways to the understanding of literature and black voices in literature. He was able to embrace the Drum writer identity and at the same time adopt a helicopter vision and critically observe the "Drum writer' phenomenon as well as other features of literary expression in South Africa.

In his literary criticism, he wrote with insight on the ‘schism’ as well as the common ground between the inzile and exile writer. He often bemoaned the fact that repression and censorship in the post-60s meant young writers were deprived of their heritage (access to the work of writers driven into exile).

Nkosi [author of Mating Birds (Perennial fiction library) and Mandela's Ego] was a master with words and a fount of insights; he was inventive, clever, bold in his novel writing and non-sentimental as a commentator. He possessed a deep understanding of the relationship between literature and society and of how the writer is influenced by, and illuminates, understanding of society. He applied this understanding adeptly to the dynamic and ever-charged South African situation. Lewis Nkosi is gone far too soon, but through his works (essays, plays and novels) he will continue to dialogue with us about a diverse range of issues related to our literature and its development as the process of democratic change continues in our society.

(For further reading, see also the following text on Nkosi: Still Beating the Drum: Critical Perspectives on Lewis Nkosi (Cross/Cultures 81) (Cross/Cultures: Readings in the Post/Colonial Literatures in))

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Mandela and leadership: Leading from the deck & leading from behind

One of the greatest leadership lessons from Nelson Mandela is that you can lead from the front or the back; and that the dynamic leader frequently alternates between the two.

At times the leader steps boldly to the front, setting the pace and spearheading decisions on critical and urgent issues facing the organisation. At other times, the leader opts for a more recessed position, providing a framework or an anchor that gives strength in the midst of turbulence.

During his long journey of social and political commitment, Nelson Mandela at times led as the captain on the deck, so to speak. At other times his leadership role was a background role, much more in line with the notion of a leader-filled society. Nelson Mandela's leadership style, and the approaches within that, has much to teach us. Here is a schematic view of how he alternated between the two leadership approaches:

Relevant period or initiative
Leadership approach
Defiance Campaign
Leading from the front
Rivonia Trial
Leading from the front
Internment on Robben Island & the period of armed struggle
Leading from behind
Leading from the front
Constitutional negotiations
Leading from behind
New democracy: Reconciliation
Leading from the front
New democracy: delivery and redress
Leading from behind
Eschewing a second term (as president of S.A.)
Leading from behind
Decision to retire (from active public role)
Leading from behind

During the Defiance Campaign, Nelson Mandela occupied the decidedly upfront role of Volunteer in Chief.

At the Rivonia trial, Mandela led from the front. Faced with the possibility of a death sentence in the context of a hostile courtroom and an unfavourable legal system, the trialists took a courageous and firm stand, based on a belief in justice. Nelson Mandela played the central role in forging that stand – cementing his reputation as a forceful leader in the face of adversity and a fearless campaigner for justice. In his speech from the dock (in 1964) he famously said that the ideal of a democratic society was one for which he was “…. prepared to die”.

Later while in prison serving a life sentence, Mandela appeared to understand that the leadership of others would be foregrounded. Oliver Tambo and Joe Slovo, for example, took up central leadership roles and Mandela regularly deferred to them on many questions facing the organisation. In prison, Mandela advised the other ANC leaders that they were inmates who should view themselves as political prisoners rather than leaders. This meant accepting the limitations on the role they could play – and also, critically, embracing the reality that political prisoners could not and should not engage in negotiations. Of course Mandela remained a leader and a symbolic force, but in the armed struggle context, he was not central (in the same way as before) in the day to day life of the movement.

Emerging from prison into the pre-democracy negotiations, he again stepped into the forefront, leading from the front. In the negotiations, and the period immediately thereafter, he was at the cutting edge.

Mandela very early on began to step aside from part of his presidential roles to allow Mbeki to become prominent. He skilfully prepared the public and the world for the reality of a democratic South Africa led by someone other than himself.

As leaders such as Mandela have shown, through leading from a position within the ranks, the leader can work more intensively and purposefully on the ethos, on general practice and on values. He or she can deepen the contribution to these aspects, in many cases a process begun but sometimes not consolidated when a leader is totally absorbed in the cut and thrust. From the rear vantage point, the leader has the space to elaborate certain ideas and to think about how he or she might institutionalise values. From that background position, he or she can provide the grounding and depth that nutures leadership and builds astuteness at all levels, thus promoting organisational sustainability.

In practice, leading from behind does not necessarily mean a leader has more time at their disposal, opts for a less intensive role or is retreating from responsibilities. The pressures and demands on time may be as great. However, because the leader that operates from the background is somewhat removed from the more reactive space, she has room to apply herself to broader questions – and to prioritise what is important (but perhaps less urgent) over crises and immediate pressures.

As Linda Hill has pointed out, Nelson Mandela has explicitly endorsed leading from behind and has done so through drawing parallels with how the shepherd handles the sheep in his care. In his autobiography, Mandela noted that the shepherd “stays behind the flock” steering them from behind. In this piece, I continue my theme of leadership lessons from the great man; I show how Mandela has used this leadership mode in conjunction with the more conventional “leading from the front,” depending on the requirements of particular situations.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Mandela's values: reconciliation & a complicated transition

The values of Mandela have been described and listed in a variety of ways; almost always, reconciliation features at the top and as a central part of his legacy. This reconciliation is also said to be embedded in the leadership style of Nelson Mandela, especially of the man that emerged from 27 years of imprisonment at the hands of the apartheid system.

The issue was brought to the fore again in a recent discussion (29 July 2010) at Wits Theatre Johannesburg where writers such as Nadine Gordiner, Achmat Dangor, John Kani and Chilean-American Ariel Dorfman shared a stage.

Reconciliation, according to John Kani, was flawed if it did not bring about social justice. In a segment from his play - Nothing But The Truth - that Kani read out on the night, the character Sipho insisted that he wanted a white policeman that shot his son during the apartheid conflict brought to court and found guilty.

While Sipho wanted the perpetrator to pay for his unjust deed (retribution), John Kani the author spoke of the need for justice, for reconciliation to be accompanied with 'righting' of wrongs and for payback in the sense of socio-economic justice for the black community. While retribution and revenge, taken either personally or historically, are never a resolution, Kani's call for restoration makes sense. If, for example, you steal my bicycle, it is not enough for you to say sorry to me when your actions catch up with you. It is reasonable that I expect you to return the bicycle to me.

For Dorfman, who spoke at a screening of a film in which he featured earlier in the same week, the question of reconciliation came to the fore in an oblique way. He did not use the term, but he noted that one of the greatest errors (leading to the downfall of the Salvador Allende government in 1973) was the failure to respond creatively to the middle class who feared that they would lose everything (property, farms, businesses, ownership rights, their wealth). "We should have realised we could not implement radical social change without getting the middle class on our side," he said. The 1973 coup ejected the democratically elected government and began a 15-year reign of repression that included widespread killings, torture and disappearances.

Reflecting on these two perspectives - Kani's and Dorfman's - one can see how Mandela's reconciliaton was, on the one hand, correct and, on the other hand, incomplete.

Emerging from prison to see close at hand a society fraught with violent conflict and as deeply divided as ever, Mandela was keen to undermine mobilisation of the right wing and to disrupt the possibility of solid (white) middle class sympathy for such forces. In this context, he skilfully crafted his reconciliation approach and led its implementation within the negotiation process and at various levels in society.

The 'Mandela Way', so to speak, involved - while putting in place universal political and civil rights - breaking down divides between people, establishing symbols acceptable on all sides, emphasizing a shared humanity and personally reaching out to various population groups and in particular the Afrikaner community. These approaches form core parts of his leadership style.

I term this reconciliation 'functional reconciliation'. Needless to say, it was critically important and a vital part of the transformation process - avoiding a slide into a sustained period of violent upheavel and militarised resistance to democratic change.It speaks to the astute leadership and the acute historical understanding on the part of Madiba.

The challenge now is to move from 'functional reconciliation' to a substantive reconciliation - one in which elements of restorative justice and reparations are strongly present and in which greater economic justice helped to create a well-grounded stability and a 'just peace'.