RCA Flag
RCA Flag
Connecting Africa’s Skilled Professionals
RCA Flag

ReConnect Africa is a unique website and online magazine for the African professional in the Diaspora. Packed with essential information about careers, business and jobs, ReConnect Africa keeps you connected to the best of Africa.

Library of Articles


By Frances Williams

Image As the African continent struggles to retain and build on its capacity for democracy and the rule of law, the role and nature of leadership – whether social, economic or political - is one that must concern us all.

What makes a leader? What inspires someone to raise their head above the parapet and answer a call to service? And, once in power, what keeps a leader grounded in reality and able to resist the many sycophantic voices that will want to acclaim even his or her less than heroic exploits?

I was extremely grateful for the chance to pose some of these questions to a man who has raised his head above the parapet of privilege to stake a claim for what he sees as equity and justice.

Mbhazima Shilowa, the former Premier of Gauteng Province of South Africa (which takes in the country’s biggest city, Johannesburg), is one of the leaders of the Congress of the People (COPE), a new political party launched in South Africa in December 2008.

Man on a Mission

As South Africans head to the polls in their forthcoming elections, COPE, which has been described as a "breakaway" group from the ruling ANC, has generated controversy and excitement in equal measures. Whether or not COPE succeeds in ending the ANC's hold on power, what is clear is that the launch of this party is the most significant political event since South Africa's liberation in 1994. It has offered an alternative choice to South African voters and dramatically altered the political scene in the country for the foreseeable future.

Born in 1958, Mbhazima Shilowa moved to Johannesburg to seek employment and, at the age of 23, joined the Trades Union movement. From the position of Shop Steward, Mr. Shilowa rose to become Deputy Chairperson of the Congress of South African Trades Union (COSATU) Gauteng before taking up the position of Vice-President and later President of the Transport and General Workers Union.

In 1993, as General-Secretary of Cosatu, Mr. Shilowa played a key role in the National Economic Development and Labour Council, engaging extensively with both government and business in determining strategies and practical options for developing South Africa. He also participated in the Mass Democratic Movement prior to the unbanning of the ANC and was involved in the multiparty negotiations process which led to the writing of South Africa's democratic constitution.

From 1997, Mr. Shilowa was a Member of the National Executive Committee of the ANC and became Premier of Gauteng Province from June 1999 until his resignation in 2008, following the recall and removal from office of former South African president, Thabo Mbeki, by the ANC. At the time, Mr. Shilowa described the ANC National Executive Council's action as one he could not "publicly explain or defend" and that any action taken by the ANC had be "based on solid facts, be fair and just."

During his recent visit to London, ReConnect Africa was given an exclusive interview with Mr. Shilowa, a man who has been pivotal in electrifying the South African political scene over the last six months.

Facebook savvy, articulate and passionate, Mbhazima Shilowa is the very model of the new generation of African leaders. Deliberate and measured in his use of words, Mr. Shilowa exhibits the controlled energy of a man on a mission and with little time to waste in getting his message across.

His passion for his country is evident as we talk about leadership, not only in South Africa, but across the continent.

"Facebook savvy, articulate and passionate, Mbhazima Shilowa is the very model of the new generation of African leaders."

Mr. Shilowa prefaces our discussion by emphasising that South Africa is bigger than any party and any man.

"What it is important for us all to realise," he says," is that the country will endure, no matter the political direction. Sometimes it's easy to feel a sense of hopelessness but we have got to start on the basis that our people have the capacity to ensure that, regardless of challenges, there will always be a way to respond. We must deal with the leadership issues and the challenges they present, but democracy has taken root."

RCA: Tell us about your path to the leadership of Gauteng Province.

MS: Leadership is shaped by both your values and your environment – where you were born, who you grew up with, who you associated with, whose politics you espoused. All of these have helped to shape me as a leader. I view leadership as the ability, in any given situation, to find a way to survive and to move out of it.

ImageWhen I was asked to go to Gauteng, it was seen as a new experiment in leadership as I was in the Trades Union movement. After the elections, there was very little time for the transition but I was able to put together a team of dedicated men and women – some of whom had been in local and municipal government. Together with them, I was able to identify what we needed to do to grow the economy, create jobs and focus on the issues of the poor.

We may not have achieved everything but, over time, we were able to look back with pride to say that the plough is in the furrow.

RCA: What principles or values led you to recently give up such a high profile position as Premier of Gauteng Province?

MS: I would say a number of things. Primarily it would have been when the judgement around the South African government was taken. [In declaring the National Prosecuting Authority's (NPA's) decision to charge Zuma invalid, Judge Chris Nicholson said the South African President or the cabinet had interfered in the functioning of the NPA]

The decision by the ANC [to recall Mbeki] was taken on the basis of what the judge said in his commentary – which was not even part of the official judgement. I said then that if we go that route, as was taken, we will split. I knew that I was not going to be able to toe the line because I felt that the issues and the approach taken by the party were wrong. I didn't feel that I could keep quiet about a matter that I felt so strongly about.

I view leadership as the ability, in any given situation, to find a way to survive and to move out of it.

This [decision] wasn't so much the spark, but more the straw that broke the camel's back. At that point many others were raising issues about what was happening in our organisation, how people were being treated, and so on. So for me, it came down to issues around honesty, integrity, solidarity, humaneness and the rule of law.

My position was not about whether they should have recalled Mbeki but that you cannot have a situation where a Justice Minister is named in a judgement and stays while the leader goes. If they had said that the entire cabinet should go, I would have felt that there had been no singling out of an individual.

RCA: What qualities of leadership is COPE offering as an alternative to the ANC?

ImageMS: In the COPE manifesto, we say that, in some respects, it's the whole issue of commitment to serve rather than being for me, my family and my friends. It's about ensuring the prudent use of resources rather than seeing the state coffers as mine.

It must be about honesty, values and integrity; it must be about leaders who are above reproach to the greatest extent possible.

RCA: What lessons did you take from Ghana's recent Presidential elections, which gave a knife edge second round victory to the country's opposition candidate after a first round win by the incumbent party's candidate?

MS: While many people did not expect the final outcome – and did not like it – what we took to heart is the fact that the Ghanaian people accepted it. That is the essence of democracy; to understand that there's always another day.

RCA: As we are a publication that goes out to many Africans in the Diaspora, what would be your message to South Africans abroad?

MS: I think the UK is unique in the sense that the majority of South Africans here regard themselves as South Africans and have kept ties with their country. In the South African context, it has been mainly about people travelling to the UK for job opportunities and they have retained a deep love of South Africa. This is the message that comes across from my friends on Facebook.

But their skills remain required. There is a brighter future in South Africa with them participating. It is the poorer without them.

It must be about honesty, values and integrity; it must be about leaders who are above reproach to the greatest extent possible.

At the same time, in a globalised world, people will move to other areas to seek what they feel are greener pastures so it is more about how we ensure that new skills, resources and entrepreneurship can be placed back in South Africa.

RCA: Who has been your greatest influence as a leader – and why?

MS: My mother. Because she inspired in me my values – and also no sense of entitlement. We grew up very poor but, throughout my early years, I had no sense of how poor we were because she always found the means and ways of providing. However, she never tried to solve all my problems for me, but rather encouraged me to explore to find my own answers against a framework of honesty and integrity.

My mother may have had enemies but I don't know anyone, right from my childhood until she passed away aged 82, who could say that they were my mother's enemy.

RCA: What is the best advice you have ever received?

ImageMS: To be yourself. Also, from my uncles on both my father and my mother's sides, I was told that no matter how successful you may think you are; always remember that you are up there because someone lifted you up.

That you are standing on someone's shoulder and you would not be there if someone had not helped you get there.

RCA: So, what have you learned along the way?

MS: That, in life, you will always have ups and downs; life is never smooth sailing. You discover many areas; some you get to know, to like and to explore even further. With others, you learn and don't want to go back. The way I see it is that the 'good' experiences are the ones that help you succeed and give you strength and that you want to revisit.

The other experiences are what you must learn from in order not to repeat them and to never go back there.

Welcome to the new, upgraded ReConnect Africa website.
Please help us provide you with information relevant to your needs by completing the fields below (just this once!)