#157: Leading in Crises

Good morning friends

Thursday, 27 April, was South Africa’s Freedom Day. It commemorates South Africa’s first democratic election, held in 1994. Two weeks before that, on 10 April, we remembered Chris Hani who had been assassinated on that day, a year earlier, in 1993.

Hani was killed just nine days after the ANC had returned to the negotiating table to try to find a way to take South Africa into democracy.

Talks had been suspended for months. The ANC was frustrated by the apartheid government’s intransigence and continued sponsoring of political violence resulting in thousands of deaths. Hani’s murder had the potential to destroy the negotiation process.

It was with those events in mind that I turned to Justice Malala’s recently published The Plot to Save South Africa.

Malala’s book focuses primarily on the nine days between Hani’s killing and his funeral on 19 April. I say primarily because Malala does a superb job of drawing the links between those nine days and the political context in which Hani’s killing happened.

Hani held positions of power – he was the Chief of Staff of the ANC’s armed wing and general secretary of the South African Communist Party. Beyond his formal power, he was widely regarded as South Africa’s most popular political leader after Nelson Mandela himself.

Hani was a man of charisma, courage, intellect, and integrity. He was one of those rare peace-seeking warrior-philosophers, the ones whose stories echo through the centuries, whose lives transcend their own. Like Mandela he was more than his role, he embodied and symbolised the hopes of millions.

On 10 April 1993, he was gunned down in front of his teenage daughter, Nomakhwezi.

His killer, acting on behalf of right-wing white supremacists, hoped to trigger widespread social unrest in order to shift power to the conservative securocrats in the South African government. They hoped that Hani’s murder would derail the talks leading to democracy.

Malala traces the actions taken by Nelson Mandela and his leadership team in the days that came after 10 April. His telling of that history provides us with countless leadership lessons.

If your job requires you to lead people through crisis, read it. If your job requires you to balance vision, hope, values, and pragmatic action (that’s all of us), read it. If you’re South African, read it.

He notes, “Today it may seem as if the defeat of apartheid was inevitable, but it was not. Extremists in De Klerk’s cabinet and in parliament armed hit men and galvanised paramilitary groups”.

Earlier in the year, I introduced you to the work of Oxford philosopher, William Macaskill. Macaskill writes about contingency, plasticity, and value lock-in.

Apartheid’s fall was undoubtedly accelerated by global political change and the increasing economic bankruptcy of the South African state, but the timing and manner of its fall was by no means inevitable.

The actions of Hani’s killers and the subsequent events spoke to the malleability, the plasticity of the moment and their desire to lock-in a repressive value system.

As Malala puts it “People were prepared to set the country on fire to regain the apartheid system”.  They hoped that killing Hani would unleash violence in turn empowering the military to act and seize control of the state.

He says that he wrote the book because our current world is retreating into narrow selfish short-term thinking. Many have opinions, few listen.

Malala writes “Nelson Mandela and – to a lesser but important extent – F.W. de Klerk offers us lessons in how to listen, learn, collaborate and lead in a complex and perilous situation. Leadership matters. And ethical leadership…can be the difference between going to war and doing something much more difficult: making peace”.

I will share just four aspects of his book with you.

In the hours after Hani’s death, de Klerk – then SA’s President – was confronted with a choice, the majority of South Africans would be overwhelmed with grief and anger, the risk of the country tearing itself apart was profound, should he address the nation?

Malala tells us “If there is one lesson we can take from De Klerk in the events of the week, it is this: he recognised that he had to step back and let Mandela lead. And so, De Klerk picked up the phone”. He asked Mandela to address South Africa.

Malala does not spare De Klerk. He notes how perilously close he came to empowering the securocrats. His public pronouncements failed to condemn police brutality or provocations from far-right paramilitary groups. Instead, he chose a route that criminalised the protests of people whose leader had just been murdered. And still, in that key moment, he stepped aside.  And that is a lesson for all of us.

Even when we carry the title (whatever that might be), we will never, can never, be the right person for all situations. Leadership, actually life, requires recognising when someone else is better for the moment or the situation.

The Plot to Save South Africa points us to the curiosity of memory.

Thousands of South Africans, Malala included, remember and quote Mandela’s speech from the night of 10 April, but it is not the one he gave. Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, also quotes the incorrect speech.

Malala reflects that the speech of 10 April was monotone, and Mandela’s delivery was wooden.

The context was that it was late at night, he’d flown from the Eastern Cape where he’d first gone to see Hani’s family. In the turmoil of the moment, there’d been little chance to review his speech, not even to change his clothing for the broadcast. And, of course, the person that in later years he would refer to as a son had just been brutally murdered.

The famed speech happened three days later and therein lies our second lesson, no matter how revolutionary that first speech was – for Mandela de facto assumed South Africa’s leadership at that moment – he deemed it to be inadequate and so he tried again.

The country was being rocked by outbursts of violence. The threat of the securocrats winning the balance of power was growing and Mandela decided that he needed to again speak to the country. This time around the ANC had to push the government to allow the speech to be broadcast.

He started the 13 April speech with these words, words that were quoted in hundreds of publications across the globe,

“Tonight, I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin”.

He ended it by saying,

“To the youth of South Africa, we have a special message: you have lost a great hero. You have repeatedly shown that your love of freedom is greater than that most precious gift, life itself. But you are the leaders of tomorrow. Your country, your people, your organisation need you to act with wisdom. A particular responsibility rests on your shoulders.

We pay tribute to all our people for the courage and restraint they have shown in the face of such extreme provocation. We are sure this same indomitable spirit will carry us through the difficult days ahead.

Chris Hani has made the supreme sacrifice. The greatest tribute we can pay to his life’s work is to ensure we win that freedom for all our people”.

Malala tells us that those who interacted with Mandela over those nine days were struck by his calm, despite the increasing violence, he knew that both that the violence was inevitable, and that he and his leadership had to be focused on a singular goal, getting to an election that he knew they would win.

In the heat of any crisis, it is easy to get caught in trying to control each moment. Mandela knew that was impossible. He allowed the moment to be what it was, working instead to the vision he had for the future. He ensured that his entire leadership team was aligned with that. He repeated it incessantly.

The ANC was determined that Hani’s death would not be in vain. In the months that followed, after three years of obfuscation, delay and state-sponsored violence, they manage to drive the apartheid government into agreeing on an election date.

One year and eight days after Chris Hani’s funeral, millions of South Africans voted for the first time. Those who killed him, hoping to trigger chaos, were defeated. That outcome was not given. It was the consequence of intentional, focused, brave leadership.

All our lives will contain moments of profound loss, that is what it means to be alive, and still, like Mandela, we can use those moments to give life and hope. That does not lessen the pain, it does not mean that we shouldn’t mourn, but it does make tomorrow possible.

I’ll leave it there for today.

Much love


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