Black Leadership in the 21st Century

On the 3rd of June 2010,Mr. Nkosinathi Biko delivered an address on Black Leadership in the 21st Century at the Zanele Kunene-Mbeje Memorial Symposium on Black Leadership. What is contained here is a excerpt of the address titled "Black Leadership through the African Perspective."

"Black Leadership through the African Perspective"

In explaining what Black Leadership means, perhaps two concepts become useful...The first is now the cliched African concept of ubuntu - the notion that I am because you are.

Few African cultural concepts have grabbed the public imagination quite like the notion of ubuntu. Since 1994 , it has become a regular if not cliched insert in political and business addresses,religious sermons, public conversations, academic papers and other many similar platforms. But despite the fact that references to ubuntu are plentiful the concept itself remains at once illuminated and blurred. At best it has been reduced to pacifist philosophy, devoid of any trace of the "African image being an assertive sovereign subject."
For my limited contribution I am indebted to Mogobe Ramose, Desmond Tutu , Steve Biko and a few others who have shed light on the subject. In common parlance the African term umtnu translates loosely to the Western concept of person, human being or homosapien. Yet, there is a vast philosophical difference between the Western notion and the African interpretation of umntu. All of us are born human beings. However , the term umntu is not a biological concept. It is a social phenomenon.It is a judgement pronounced in approval or disapproval, in affirmation or negation of a persons worth in terms of their social or ethical texture.
In isiXhosa it  is common to hear the following expression , "Ngumntu lowo!" meaning "that is a quality human being." This reference is used for a special category- the most outstanding.

Inversely , it is common to hear the expression "Akukho mntu apho!" meaning "that person is sub-human or not worthy of being regarded as a human being." In short , whereas we are  human beings by birth in the Western sense, only some human beings are of the status of umntu in the African sense- the latter being a higher state of being.
[In the 4th Steve Biko Memorial Lecture] Ngugi waThiong'o  refers to Hegel's  Phenomenology of the Spirit and the Science of Logic. Hegel distinguishes Being-in-itself, and Being-for-itself.Being-in-itself is mere existence. Being-for-itself is being aware not only of its existence but existence for a purpose, an ethical purpose, the distinction between saying I live to eat and I eat to live.
What  then is the foundation of this higher state of being, this state of eating to live? In African philosophy this affirmation derives from the notion of ubuntu.One is bestowed the status of umntu if they depict the qualities of  ubuntu .There are three main pillars that make up ubuntu:

  •  First, ubuntu is not a noun. Its not simply being a homo sapien.Ubuntu is a verb. It describes a way of life. It is not only theoretical, it is practical. In this regard, one cannot be said to have ubuntu only on the basis of their ideals but on the basis of how those ideals find expression in their daily lives.
  • Second, this way of life is based on values. Ubuntu is a qualitative factor that enables people to achieve a higher level of humanity based on the application of these values.

  • Third , ubuntu is underpinned by an inextricable link between the life of the individual and the life of the collective- between history and biography. In this regard, our humanity is indivisible from that of others. It is this link that informs the African adage "uMntu ngumntu ngabantu" ( a person is a person through others). If  ubuntu is indivisible, then one cannot celebrate one's humanity while undermining that of others nor for that matter be indifferent  to it ...
The relationship between citizens and society is perhaps best explained through the concept of a circle. The circle is used extensively to give form and design to the homes of many African cultures... Going further, the circle is the preferred form of  layout of  homesteads, providing both a sense of security and community.

But it is perhaps in the social architecture of so many African peoples that the circle is so prevalent. Whether in conversation, song, or breaking bread, most African societies tend to be seated in the form of a circle. Literally, the circle means there is no top table and everyone is seated in the formation is equidistant from the centre.Metaphorically it means hat even if there is hierarchy and rank in the group, there is generally adequate room for other voices, on a fairly equal basis. In the circle, the individual is not lost in the collective, rather their voice contributes toward making the collective more audible.

In this circle there is an invaluable balance between the individual and the group. For example food is served in groups, so is responsibility. As Biko opines, the boys rightly or wrongly look after the cattle and the girls fetch water . The effective execution  of such tasks is dependent on the individual contributing to the group. So within the group exists a well understood, self-enforced code of conduct, often built on a rotating basis of responsibility and management. If but one cow should go missing , the displeasure of the elders is borne not by the under performing individual, but by the entire group on the basis of  collective accountability. In short , the integrity of the group is based on the performance of the individual members.


... African Knowledge Systems have a lot to contribute towards the definition of the role of Black Leadership in the 21st Century. The African Philosophy on leadership teaches us that leadership  is not necessarily about the pyramid structure emphasised by the Western approach. It is not about occupying a seat at the top table. Leadership is in essence about taking your place in the circle. It is about linking identity agency and social action.

This approach makes leadership less about election and more about creating a movement characterised by an engaged citizenry.

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