Dashiki Dialogues: Decoding the cultural nuances of leadership

2012-10-06 09:39

South Africans are often at loggerheads about the meaning of good leadership and the kind of principles that should guide those who lead us.

But I’ve always found it curious that many in the chattering classes hardly reference the indigenous
cultures when making demands for better leadership in both business and politics.

There seems to be a disconnect between our purported expectations and the native cultural bases of the role of ruling.

In fact, culture has become something of a parallel pass time we invoke ceremonially, but never to help us engage with any of our serious roles.

Many of the qualms we have with President Jacob Zuma, for instance, have been interpretations of some cultural tenet or other as a guiding framework for what he does and says.

Whether it’s his apparent philandering or his relationships that amount to conflicts of interest, Zuma has often fallen back on the “culture card” to foul his critics.

In most cases, these critics are found wanting, if not arrogantly dismissive of African culture as a tool to critique the content of his leadership.

This has rekindled my interest in the language I was socialised in, Setswana, and how it captures concepts of leadership.

As an ancient language, I imagined it would be richer with native experiential lessons, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Setswana has two words that are used interchangeably to describe leaders. The Batswana talk of “moetapele” and “moeteledipele” to talk of a leader.

The two words can be used loosely to refer to the same thing: a person who is involved in leading. The last syllable on both words, “-pele”, refers to a position at the front.

However, a nuanced understanding of the words indicates that the two they are loaded with criticism.

“Moetapele” may refer to one who is in a token leadership role, while “Moeteledipele” may loosely refer to one who is advanced and deserving of that role.

The differences are conceptually important in the understanding of leadership.

It’s the difference between position occupiers and trailblazers, captured well by an indigenous language for our benefit. We would do well to salvage more gems from our heritage to shape our future.

It was the Afrocentric scholar Molefi Kete Asante who wrote that we will not be free until an African child can stand at a graduation ceremony and invoke the memory of his defied ancestors without feeling out of place.

Hence, it’s when our tongues pronounce a singular liberating dialogue that we shall truly own the dashikis that dress us.

»?Follow me on Twitter @Percy_Mabandu

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