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Leading with Dignity by Professor William Gumede

Updated: Feb 5, 2023

ONE REASON FOR the development failure of many African countries in the postcolonial era is the predominance of leaders who lack dignity.

Dignity involves ethical behaviour in your personal life, treating others with compassion – no matter their ethnicity, political affiliation or sexual orientation – and governing in the broadest interest of society, not for families, ethnic groups, or party political supporters.

Broadly speaking, leaders with dignity act responsibly, with integrity, and have a strong moral value base.

Societies that have emerged from traumatic experiences, such as colonialism, apartheid, and defeat in war or civil war, need leadership driven by dignity; leaders who care, have self-awareness and are less inclined to seek refuge in victimhood.

However, African countries, with their high levels of poverty, contestation over legal, cultural and moral codes, appear to catapult a disproportionate number of psychopathic, narcissistic and mean-spirited leaders into power.


Leaders who govern with dignity, see the humanity of others – including those with different views, colours, genders, religions, or sexual orientations – rather than dehumanising them.

They respect the dignity of others and govern in everyone's interest, delivering the public services to which all citizens are constitutionally entitled.

They act from a point of forgiveness, rather than anger, bitterness, and revenge. They live and act in the present rather than in the past, and are pragmatic, rather than dogmatic or ideological.

Dignity involves taking responsibility for your actions and not looking for scapegoats.

Dignified leaders use language that is inclusive and civil, not violent.

They are at peace with themselves, centred and emotionally intelligent.

They don't make judgements based on preconceived political, cultural, or communal beliefs, which are not fact-based, the truth or reality.

Crucially, emotionally mature means leaders accept that they do not know everything, seek out multiple viewpoints and are open to learning. ADDING INSULT TO INJURY In its postcolonial history, Africa has largely lacked dignity-based leadership. Too many African leaders have lacked personal ethics and governed in the interest of small groups. They are often disrespectful of opponents, rude and can be violent. They are threatened by criticism and opposing views. Liberation movement leaders such as Tanzania's Julius Nyerere, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and South Africa's Thabo Mbeki appeared to believe they knew everything as “intellectuals”, and no one should contradict them on policies. Others have a false sense of self and their egos need to be regularly nursed through praise-singing. Some have generally been angry, resentful, and bitter, such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. They often viciously attack “enemies”, including political opponents, or blame former colonial powers, Western countries, and foreign investors for self-inflicted failures. Some African leaders have been calculating, treating citizens as the “masses”, rather than human beings with value beyond being used as uncritical loyalists, supporters and voters. Rather than behaving with dignity, some leaders have laws to protect their “dignity”, insult laws as in Zimbabwe, Uganda, or Angola. Former South African president Jacob Zuma, facing allegations that he raped the daughter of a close friend, said in court he could see by the way a woman sat when she wanted sex. Zuma's supporters within the SA Communist Party at the time, called for a law to “protect the dignity” of the president. ABOVE AND BEYOND In contrast, many leaders in successful East Asian developmental states or 'tigers', and successful northern European democratic welfare states, embraced dignity. They went beyond self-interest and self-aggrandisement and governed in the broadest interest of society. They exercised accountability and followed the laws and proscriptions of society which others are expected to follow. They led through setting an example. Japan's post-war prime minister Shigeru Yoshida exuded positivity, projected humility and prioritised inclusivity while rebuilding his country after the humiliation, poverty, and divisions of defeat. Mary Robinson, the former prime minister of Ireland, united diverse groups, showed openness and honesty, and an ability to listen to others. Germany's post – World War II chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, was an inclusive leader who led the rebuilding of a politically divided and defeated country with maturity. He drove the country's economic miracle, the 'Wirtschaftswunder', through fostering a social market economy, a mixed capitalist economy with social welfare and Christian social norms, and building a quality democracy. There are African leaders who have shown more dignity than others. Nelson Mandela epitomised exemplary individual leadership, based on democratic morality, ethnic inclusiveness, and compassion. Botswana's Seretse Khama treated everyone, including opponents, with respect; he was humble – stood in queues at shops, for example, like any other citizen – and governed in the best interest of all communities. Former Cape Verde president Pedro Verona Pires, who was awarded the 2011 Mo Ibrahim prize for good governance in Africa, is known for his humility, personal integrity and for building a model democracy. – William Gumede is chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation and author of 'South Africa in BRICS, Each One Hold One's, advisory board member'.

This is a repost originally published in the Namibian times

Much Love

Each One Hold One

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