From our research library: Lessons from Nelson Mandela for Africa's development

You're reading

From our research library: Lessons from Nelson Mandela for Africa's development

Chukwuka Onyekwena

Precious C. Akanonu

18 Jul 2018

4min min read
  • Sustainable development--Developing countries
  • Democracy

As the world celebrates Nelson Mandela's birthday on 18 July, we look back on an article written for his centenary celebration in 2018 in which it was argued that Africa governments should draw upon his leadership lessons to achieve their developmental goals. 


he Africa Union aspires to build “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the international arena”, as outlined in Agenda 2063. Achieving this vision requires battling with the most pressing challenges to integration, prosperity and peace in Africa including poverty, violence, corruption and state inefficiency. Leaders and their governments should urgently draw on the leadership lessons from global icon and father of democratic South Africa, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, to achieve their development goals.

Building a prosperous and integrated Africa

The AU projects that by 2063 Africa will be a continent of shared prosperity, financing and managing its own growth and transformation. However, poverty levels are climbing at an alarming rate, with sub-Saharan African countries consistently topping poverty rankings. Estimates from the World Poverty Clock show that 642 million people across the world live in extreme poverty, two-thirds of them in Africa. Nigeria, the oil-rich ‘giant of Africa’, recently overtook India to become the world's poverty capital. It has the highest number of people (estimated at 87 million) living in extreme poverty (less than US$ 1.90 per day). 

When Mandela took office, he inherited an essentially bankrupt state that had been isolated through economic sanctions, with high levels of unemployment and inequality that persist till today. But under his leadership, South Africa made strides in combating poverty and promoting socio-economic development. His underlying goal was delivering, at least in part, on the promises of the 1955 Freedom Charter, which laid out the people’s democratic demands for equality, education, human rights and socio-economic development. 

"It's difficult to find the words to describe Nelson Mandela's huge contribution to the stability and progress in South Africa's early years of democracy after 1994 ... Madiba's steadfast focus on nation-building and the development of pragmatic economic policy were critical in building investor confidence," said chief executive of Business Unity South Africa, Nomaxiabiso Majokweni, reflecting on his economic legacy.

African governments should aggressively pursue programmes that lift citizens out of poverty sustainably. Providing and maintaining basic social amenities especially reliable power supply, travel infrastructure (air, rail, road and sea), health facilities, education, and security services are critical to this. If African countries are to have any chance of prospering and participating in the global economy, they will require large-scale modern energy systems to power industry and commerce. Infrastructure development in Africa is also critical to alleviating the dangers of the unhealthy migration of capital and skilled personnel to areas/countries with developed infrastructure. 

“Development and peace are indivisible. Without peace and international security, nations cannot focus on the upliftment of the most underprivileged of their citizens." – Nelson Mandela

Mandela was also a keen promoter of economic integration of African countries. He emphasised the need for connectivity of markets through regional cross-border transportation links and free-trade agreements in order to promote investment and development in the region. This is in contrast to the slow pace of regional integration witnessed in Africa today. Intra-regional trade is still low, at just 18 percent. Recent efforts to strengthen it through the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is a crucial step in the right direction, but Nigeria is yet to come on board. 

Pursing a peaceful Africa

The continent has continued to experience waves of gruesome violence that present a major challenge to peace, security and development. Pre-election violence, herdsmen violence, ethnic clashes and terrorism are some of the issues affecting the region. The existence and, to some extent, growing influence of different extremist groups such as al-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa (especially in Kenya, Somalia and Uganda), Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region (Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria), and Al Mourabitoun (among others) in the Sahel region (Mali) are fuelling instability. 

African citizens and their leaders can learn a great deal from Mandela’s commitment to peace, reconciliation and cooperation. He was a promoter of peace: not just the absence of conflict, but the creation of an environment where people from different backgrounds can coexist and flourish. 

“Development and peace are indivisible. Without peace and international security, nations cannot focus on the upliftment of the most underprivileged of their citizens,” Mandela said in a speech he delivered in India in 2004. 

Realising the value and importance of maintaining unity, Mandela was able to reconcile with his fiercest political opponents and antagonistic parties, and worked closely with them. As he emphasised, a new, prosperous and peaceful Africa can only be built by united people. Unlike the unrelenting conflicts in South Sudan, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the recent evolution in Ethiopia-Eritrea relations is in the spirit of Mandela's vision of peace and unity. It is time that other African leaders follow suit and prioritise national wellbeing over their personal interests and agendas. 

Pursuing a well-governed Africa

In the developed parts of the word, resignations and/or recalls of presidents and politicians often follow when abuses of power are exposed. However, in Africa, state inefficiency and corruption have remained the norm, with the political elite and government officials seen to be operating with impunity. There is little to no accountability for the misuse of public funds. Throughout Africa, corruption is impeding economic development, damaging democratic gains and eroding public trust in government and key institutions. 

As we mark the centenary of Mandela’s birth, it is his moral and ethical leadership that African leaders should reflect on and strive to emulate. Such leadership is a prerequisite for any country’s development – and for achieving the objectives of Agenda 2063, which include accountable and efficient governance.  

(Main image: South African President Nelson Mandela takes the oath of office on 10 May 1994 during his presidential inauguration at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. – Walter Dhladhla/AFP/Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.