5 things we can learn from Dumisa Ntsebeza

Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza
Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza

Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza has enjoyed a career of great magnitude – a political activist, lawyer, acting judge, teacher, commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chancellor of the University of Fort Hare, chairperson of the Desmond Tutu Peace Trust. He was the first black chairperson of Barloworld ...

At 70, and with the benefit of hindsight, he can connect the dots of his story forwards and backwards to see how decisions he made at each point shaped the trajectory of his life in unimaginable ways.

He steps down as chairperson of Barloworld.

Following his passion and purpose and defending his values resulted in a life of impact, for himself and others.

I was privileged to listen to one of our eminent elders and leaders at a Passing the Baton event recently. These are the five life lessons I receive with gratitude from Bra D:

1. Follow your passion

When asked to reflect on the highlights of his career, Ntsebeza recalled one of his most humble roles: that of school teacher. He spoke of the great privilege of being able to influence and shape the minds of his students (among them one Bantu Holomisa). Early in his career, he left the profession to work as a bank teller but returned to teaching and later in law.

Sometimes in your career it is necessary to prioritise pay over passion, but these moments should be used as stepping stones that lead you back to your calling.

2. Be guided by your values and be true to your purpose

Throughout his life and in every role – teacher, lawyer, business leader – Ntsebeza has been steadfastly committed to transformation. It is the thread of purpose running through his story.

In his legal career, he saw deserving people overlooked for roles in the judiciary in the name of transformation and called this out. He makes no apology for it: “In 1994, there were 168 judges in South Africa, two were women and three were black people. There is no way that anyone is going to feel they have justice in a society where they can’t see themselves reflected in the judiciary.”

When dealing with questions of ethics, and right and wrong, be guided by your values and remain true to your purpose.

3. Put reputation before wealth

“You can earn a lot of money but still be replaceable. Reputation is true wealth.”

These words resonated not only with me but with the entire audience.

Two of Ntsebeza’s most important roles came at the invitation of the most eminent leaders of our times: then president Nelson Mandela asked him to act as commissioner on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Later, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan invited him to join the UN Human Rights Commission to Darfur.

“This was one of my proudest moments; to be recognised by a great leader and be given a great responsibility on an issue of international humanitarian law.”

Being recognised and respected for what you do and how you do it is more important than how high you rise in your career. Even the most senior leaders can be replaced – aim to be irreplaceable because of who you are.

4. Know your worth

Being appointed the first black chairperson of Barloworld was not without challenges. A suggestion at the time that a deputy chairperson be appointed to support him was both an affront to Ntsebeza’s dignity and his professionalism. He remained resolute in his refusal to accept that arrangement.

“When I made myself available, I was not looking for a job, I was looking forward to doing a job. By appointing a deputy chairperson to ‘nanny’ me, my sense of dignity would have been abrogated. These tactics by private enterprises continue to undermine the foundational values of our constitution: equality, freedom and human dignity.”

There are times in your career when you have to defend your self-worth, even if it means making things uncomfortable for those around you – or walking away from opportunities.

5. Take risks for the right reasons

Ntsebeza’s story illustrates that it’s important to take risks, as long as they are for the right reasons. Too many people take the road more travelled in life because of fear.

At so many points, he could have taken the safer, easier option: fear of poverty could have kept him in the bank teller job. Fear of being arrested could have kept him out of politics. Fear of rejection might have persuaded him to accept the support of a deputy chairperson.

Each decision to the contrary was a risk – with no guarantee he was making the right choice.

Following his passion and purpose and defending his values resulted in a life of impact, for himself and others. He has achieved wealth and created a lasting legacy – and that is the mark of a great leader.

  • Abu Addae is CEO of Lifecheq. Passing the Baton is a series of leadership talks inviting the previous generation of leaders to share wisdom with the next. Held in Johannesburg and Cape Town, they are hosted by Lifecheq, an independent financial consultancy that delivers personalised plans for achieving career, business and life goals.

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