Sifiso Skenjana | After Mandela and Mlangeni: How SA can build a new generation of leaders

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Sifiso Skenjana (supplied)
Sifiso Skenjana (supplied)
  • Youth unemployment numbers sit at 59% by the official definition and in excess of 70% by the extended definition.
  • For women, the official unemployment numbers were reported at 32.4% in the first quarter of this year and 48.2% for black women by the extended definition.
  • Sifiso Skenjana reflects on the legacy of Nelson Mandela and Andrew Mlangeni, and how a new generation of leadership could create a more sustainable economy.


As we close of what has become known to us as "Mandela Month", there are some valuable reflections from the leader he was that we ought to critically take into account as we plan for a new era of social development and economic growth.

In addition to that, the passing of Tata Andrew Mlangeni, the last surviving Rivonia Trialist, not only officially marks the end of an era, but must set in motion new thinking about succession planning at provincial, national and executive levels of government.

The blessing and burden of institutional memory

Two quotes that often ring in my ears as I ponder the South African challenges are:

"We didn't do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost."
- Nokia ex CEO Stephen Elop
"The most dangerous phrase in the language is: 'We've always done it this way'."
– Grace Hopper

The former broadly speaks to the cost of inaction, and how the marketplace can and often does evolve faster than the incumbent leaders' strategic thinking. Nokia failed to adjust to a changing market and they were rendered uncompetitive. The latter speaks to the risks associated with a long-standing culture and how it can be regressive more emergent and more productive thought and ways of work.

Both can be said about the South African economy; South Africa has tanked to its lowest ranking to date on the latest World Competitiveness Yearbook (WCY), dropping three places to be ranked 59 out of 63 countries.

The report states:

"The WCY rates the ability of 63 industrialised and emerging economies to create and maintain an environment that empowers enterprises to generate sustainable value thereby ensuring long term profitability, ability to generate employment and to ultimately enhance the welfare of their citizens".

The report lists the following as factors underpinning the further decline:

  • Deteriorating headline and youth unemployment;
  • Rising public debt levels amid a shrinking fiscal space;
  • Lack of decisive plans to revive the struggling economy;
  • Ongoing electricity supply problems and rolling blackouts; and
  • Sluggish legal process to address corruption in state owned enterprises.

These findings anchor the argument that the economy has become disillusioned to the very people it ought to serve and our current leadership has shown little capacity to usher the economy into a new wave of long-term sustainable and inclusive economic growth.

The market seems to be moving faster than their ability to respond and their insistence to do things the old way adds salt to the country's socioeconomic and development wounds.

An age dimension to employment equity

The question of "carrot vs stick" regarding the way the public sector engages with private sector with respect to employment equity also needs to be settled – more stick. The 19th Edition of the CEE report from the Commission for Employment Equity still paints a grim picture of the slow pace of transformation in the workplace, and shows little towards more equitable representation from a gender, race, and now from an age point of view.

The report finds that Agriculture, Retail and Motor Trade and Manufacturing had the lowest levels of gender and race representation at top management level. In addition, it found that white labour participants continued to have the most recruitment, promotional and skills development opportunities at top management level. Despite the use of incentives like skills development levies.

With youth unemployment numbers sitting at 59% by the official definition and in excess of 70% by the extended definition - while for women the official unemployment numbers were reported at 32.4% in the first quarter of this year and 48.2% for black women by the extended definition - it is evident that the economy in its current format is neither suitable nor sustainable for its people.

The ones who are not represented at the right leadership levels (women and youth) are the ones who hold the promise and value for long-term sustainable and inclusive growth for the country – transformation can no longer be seen as a nice to have or as optional; it is a matter of growth or demise!

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