Desmond Tutu: A Leadership Role Model For All Ages

By Sola Mahoney

It seems to have become fashionable among us Africans to blame the plight of the African continent on the absence of good leadership role models in Africa.

And yet looking back over the events of the last week of December, I wonder whether that’s really true. My view is that there are plenty of good leadership role models in Africa: it’s just that somehow we keep extolling and emulating the wrong ones.

On January 1st the world watched in awe and sadness as the mortal remains of one of the true giants of the African continent were laid to rest.

In a state funeral viewed by many the world over, we said farewell to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu, known to many simply as “the Arch”, who passed away on 26th December at the age of 90 after a long period of ill-health. 

During his latter years, Desmond Tutu was variously referred to as “the moral compass” and “the national conscience” of the South African nation. He was a Nobel laureate; he had written several books and had many of his speeches and sayings published. His life was peppered with episodes of truly exemplary leadership embodying his personal values.

And yet somehow inexplicably, we continue to moan about not having enough positive leadership role models?

As a young boy, Desmond Tutu who had spent a year in a hospital recovering from tuberculosis opted for a career in medicine and even qualified for entry into medical school. But as his hard-working mother could not afford the fees, and as scholarships were only available for teaching, he resolved to follow his father’s footsteps and turned to the teaching field. No sulking, no resentment, no sense of self-pity – he simply got on with it and never looked back. This was an early example of his resilience and determination.

Then when in 1953 the apartheid South African government passed the Bantu Education Act, which deepened the system of racial segregation and white domination, Tutu left the teaching profession in protest and went on to become an Anglican priest.

Taking a steadfast and uncompromising stand on matters of principle was to become a theme that would repeat itself throughout his life.  In the year 2013, he announced that he would no longer be voting for the ANC – having been an ardent supporter of the ANC party in its struggle against white minority rule — because he said he was badly disappointed in the way in which the ANC had run the country. And at times he even took positions that went directly against what his own Anglican Church was preaching.

Yet despite his principled positions on a range of issues, he was a surprisingly gentle and jovial man, gifted with an infectious and disarming laugh that often helped defuse otherwise tense situations. Another one of his many gifts was his ability to associate with men and women of all races and of all ages irrespective of their social standing.

During the run-up to our December 2021 presidential elections, the issue of the ideal age range for the President of the Gambia often came up on social media; and I myself was engaged in debating the issue. On one WhatsApp forum, the view from someone (who happened to be in their 60s) was that the country’s most important leadership positions should now be left to the younger generation and that the older generation should retire into the background and focus on “taking walks on the beach …and playing with their grandchildren”.

I can only imagine that the Arch would have responded to such a suggestion with one of his uncontrollable guffaws. After all, as full as his life was in his first 60 years, it can be argued that Desmond Tutu played an equally influential role in the destiny of his country in his last 30 years. 

In 1996 at the age of 65, he was appointed as Chair to lead South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Even when that work was done in 1998, he refused to sit still and just ‘play with his grandchildren. He continued with his activism at home and abroad involving himself in a number of socio-political issues.

During this period of activism, even at his advanced age, he was able to connect with the youth thanks to his open-mindedness and his sense of inclusiveness, buttressed by his natural affinity for those who didn’t have a voice. Time after time he took it upon himself to be the voice of the voiceless. It was not until he was close to 80 years old that Desmond Tutu finally announced his retirement from public life so that he could spend more time “at home with my family reading and writing and praying and thinking”.

For Africa and Africans — particularly older Africans — the life of Desmond Tutu is a truly inspiring one: one that reminds us what true leadership is all about. One that makes him more than a worthy role model. One that challenges us to take on the mantle of leadership irrespective of our age — wherever and whenever we feel we are needed, and wherever and whenever we feel we can make a genuine difference.

Desmond Mpilo Tutu

Born: 7 October 1931

Died: 26 December 2021 at the age of 90

A man for all seasons …an icon for all ages

“Rest in Peace, Arch”

Sola Mahoney

Sola Mahoney is a HelpAge International Trustee and member of Ageing with a Smile (Gambia). 

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