Africa’s list of influence

2014-12-07 15:00

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Given the transformation that is happening at every level in every country, it might not seem the right thing to do to pick out just a handful of individuals as the continent’s most influential people.

But in every march and every movement, there will always be a few individuals who lead from the front and who are prepared to stick their heads above the parapet.

These people can be trendsetters, visionaries, groundbreakers, heroes and, at times, even rabble-rousers.

Their actions, or the lack thereof, can make or break the continent – politically, economically, socially and even in the religious sphere.

There are a variety of ways to wield influence and this collection portrays just that.

In what follows, we managed – with great difficulty – to pick out who the particularly significant figures were for the year.

Below are just a few of the more than 100 individuals featured in the final list who have been specially selected for City Press readers.

You can read the full Most Influential Africans of 2014 feature in the December edition of New African magazine.

It is available on newsstands across the continent.

You can subscribe to the print and digital editions at

You can also follow us on Twitter @NewAfricanMag and on Facebook at


Cyril Ramaphosa

Cyril Ramaphosa has consolidated his position as the front-runner to succeed his embattled boss, Jacob Zuma. Although he only returned to politics last year, after nearly two highly successful decades in business, he has become the ANC government’s chief troubleshooter.

He acts as a negotiator in South Sudan’s civil war, played a similar and successful role in Lesotho’s political crisis, attempted unsuccessfully to calm tensions in Cosatu (the ANC-aligned trade union federation), is the chair of the crucial National Planning Commission, and the Leader of Government Business in the National Assembly.

The contradictions he represents have been brought to the fore this year, especially during his appearance before the Farlam Commission of Inquiry into the Marikana mine massacre. In 2015, he will have to balance the tensions of being a former leader of the National Union of Mineworkers and having been a mining sector shareholder, including at the Lonmin-owned Marikana mine. If he can, he could very well emerge as the ANC’s leader.

Thabo Mbeki

Continental statesman and negotiator

It’s been six years since Thabo Mbeki stepped down as South Africa’s president, but his retirement has been far from uneventful.

The champion of an African Renaissance continues to play a leading role in events and issues across the continent, including as a crucial negotiator between the long-standing antagonists of Sudan and South Sudan.

This already challenging task has been made all the more difficult by the ongoing civil war and political instability in the South this year, but Mbeki will be hoping that his unique experience of mediating in seemingly intractable conflicts in the past will serve him well once again.

Thuli Madonsela

The Public Protector

South Africa’s constitution created the so-called chapter nine institutions to guard democracy, which sit outside of government. One of these, the Public Protector, is headed by Thuli Madonsela, who has used her office to investigate the Nkandlagate scandal, in which $20 million of public money was spent upgrading Jacob Zuma’s personal home in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal.

Her report into the matter made uncomfortable reading for the government, leading to calls from across the spectrum (but most loudly from Malema’s EFF) for Zuma to personally repay the state. Unsurprisingly, she has found herself under attack from Zuma’s allies, but she has not flinched. Her robust defence of the institution, both in principle and in practice, has ensured its independence, making clear that in South Africa, nobody should feel above the law.

You, The People

The real power

The sight of Burkina Faso’s long-serving strongman, Blaise Compaoré, fleeing the country following a popular uprising against his continued rule, demonstrates how influential ordinary Africans can be.

While the future of Burkina Faso is uncertain and events could develop positively or negatively, the Burkinabé have demonstrated that Africa’s young populations have the power to forge their own destinies. Africans, the future is in your hands.

Business and Economy

Côte D’Ivoire

Tidjane Thiam

The Ivorian insuring the world

Under Thiam’s leadership, Prudential has continued its ascent as one of the world’s largest insurers, with operating profits increasing by 17% in 2013. One of Prudential’s latest acquisitions, the Kenyan life insurance company Shield Assurance Co., is the second big move by the company in Africa, where it is looking to expand and develop.

With an annual growth of 20%, the life insurance market in Kenya is booming, mirroring the country’s rapid growth and robust economy. Last year Prudential bought Ghana’s Express Life Co., signalling the start of a new venture for the company, which is hoping to match the success it has achieved in South-East Asia, in the emerging African life insurance market.

South Africa

Elon Musk

Mr Future

Elon Musk made his fortune by cofounding PayPal, but it is now spacecrafts, electric cars and solar energy that get him excited. And so they should. This year, the South African entrepreneur’s company SpaceX won a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to shuttle astronauts into space, while his electric car company Tesla Motors announced that it would relax its patents in the hope that the sharing of information could accelerate innovation. Musk is a businessman who aims for the stars, and usually reaches them.

South Africa

Irene Charnley

Smiling all the way to the bank

Africa is leapfrogging its technological development in a growing array of sectors, especially for example telecommunications. Under CEO Irene Charnley, Smile Telecoms, which is based in Mauritius, has been busy rolling out 4G LTE across the continent. The plucky company became the first to launch the technology in Africa in 2012 and rolled it out in Nigeria this year, with more plans in the pipeline for 2015.

Civil Society and Activism


Obiageli Ezekwesili


On the night of 14-15 April, members of the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram stormed a girls’ secondary school in the town of Chibok, Borno State, and abducted over 200 schoolgirls.

Obiageli Ezekwesili heard about the kidnappings soon after, and immediately got involved. She was slated to speak at an UNESCO event in Port Harcourt, and when she took the stage, she called for solidarity and demanded that the government “bring back our girls”. One young man listening to the event tweeted her words, which soon went viral.

With Hadiza Bala Usman, Saudatu Mahdi and Maryam Uwais, Ezekwesili then officially formed Bring Back Our Girls and marched on Nigeria’s National Assembly. The movement maintained a daily presence in the capital Abuja with daily sit-ins at Unity Fountain.

Ezekwesili sees inequality as a major factor in the government’s poor response to the girls’ abduction. “These girls only suffered such aggravated anguish because of the social class they come from,” she says. “If these girls were the children of the elite, including myself, it wouldn’t have required and needed my having to go out on the street with other citizens for their anguish to be acknowledged.

“For me, it was basically a matter of voice. These people were without voice… So I made that vow like all the others that I would not stop being a voice for these girls until there is positive closure on the matter.”

While Bring Back Our Girls maintains that it is not a political platform, it has at times been treated as a hostile adversary by the government. But harsh words and counter movements have not deterred Ezekwesili. “I knew that I was putting myself out for all kinds of things to be thrown in my direction but I have my courage of conviction,” she says. “I haven’t done anything wrong and there’s nothing to defend.”

Eight months on, the Chibok girls have still not been rescued or returned home, but Ezekwesili continues to fight and remains hopeful. “We are expecting all of them to come back.”

Democratic Republic of Congo

Denis Mukwege

The doctor

When sexual violence is used as a weapon of war in eastern Congo, its aim is to destroy all hope, shame victims and tear apart communities. Dr Denis Mukwege’s Panzi Hospital, which has treated tens of thousands of women subjected to horrific sexual violence, cannot end the impunity that allows these brutal acts to continue.

But with its fearless staff, led by Mukwege, the Bukavu hospital provides treatment in a region where it is desperately needed. This year, the European Parliament recognised this work by awarding Mukwege the Sakharov Prize.

Religion and Traditional


Muhammad Sanusi II

The banking aristocrat turned traditional leader

2014 has been a rollercoaster year for Muhammad Sanusi II, formerly known as Sanusi Lamido Sanusi. He started it as Nigeria’s Central Bank Governor, with a global reputation for excellence but seen as being increasingly at odds with President Goodluck Jonathan.

In February, Jonathan suspended him after the governor spoke out about $20 billion allegedly missing from the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC). Sanusi had his passport confiscated and fought his suspension and subsequent harassment in court.

In June, the former Global Central Bank Governor of the Year became Muhammad Sanusi II when he was selected to succeed his great uncle Ado Bayero to become Emir of Kano, a position he had openly stated interest in.

His new role as a traditional leader places him above politics but will give him a loud and prominent political, social and religious voice. He ends the year knowing that there is now no way that anyone can silence him. And he got his passport back too.



Mosunmola ‘Mo’ Abudu

The ‘African Oprah’

Ebony Life Television CEO and day-time talk show host Mo Abudu is determined to erase the negative narrative long associated with Africa, so much so that she has built a media empire which is set to disseminate a wealth of original African content to the continent and beyond in order to combat it.

This year, production on the African version of Desperate Housewives began, the result of a lucrative deal Mo struck with Disney. Fearless Mo is fast becoming a media mogul who the real Oprah may one day have to reckon with.

Arts and Culture

South Africa

Trevor Noah

Africa’s favourite funnyman

Trevor Noah’s irreverence continues to entertain a global audience, best exemplified by his tour across southern Africa and his appearances on prominent shows such as the Late Show with David Letterman.

A 2014 Personality of the Year nominee at the MTV Africa awards, Noah has also sold the most DVDs of any comedian on the continent. What will he do next?


Sophie Okonedo

The actor who dominated Broadway

“What happens to a dream deferred?” Langston Hughes once wrote. Nigerian-British actor Sophie Okonedo would not know, despite taking to the stage as Ruth Younger in the revival of The Raisin in the Sun, whose title comes from the same Hughes poem. Okonedo’s dreams have readily come true.

She won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress, and received a personal backstage visit from the impressed Obamas. Not a bad way to spend 2014.

City Press and NewAfrican magazine are giving away five one-year digital subscriptions to the magazine. To stand a chance of winning one of the subscriptions, tell us who you think is the coolest African. SMS your answer to 34263 using the keyword AFRICAN. Each SMS costs R1.50 each. Please include your full name.

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