South African leaders

South Africa has a long and very rich history. Many different cultures and communities live side by side and even together in South Africa, each with their own stories and background. All of these have produced amazing leaders who have been influenced and contributed to the people, history and country as it is today. Some of them were good leaders, others even great. But there have also been leaders who abused their power and did not serve in the public interest and who failed to follow the guidelines discussed in What makes a good leader? It is important to know who at least some of these leaders were and how they shaped our country and its people. They were not only the big leaders – the kings, presidents and army leaders. They might also have been the people who led a small group of people to make a difference.

Freedom Struggle leaders

The people listed below were not the only people who sacrificed their own freedom for others.

To read more about other remarkable South African leaders, visit SAHO's People page

Nelson Mandela
World leader and former South African president, Nelson Mandela. Source: One of the most important leaders in South Africa and even across the whole world is Nelson Mandela, or as people call him, Madiba. Mandela was a very important leader in the struggle against apartheid. He was one of the leaders of the ANC. Like many other struggle leaders, he was thrown in jail more than once. He spent 27 years of his life in jail, most of which were on Robben Island. Although he was not the only struggle leader in jail he became an important symbol for human rights and anti-apartheid campaigns all over the world. People held protest marches, made posters and badges for his release, and the 'Free Mandela' slogan could be found all over the world. In 1990 he was finally released, and he became an important leader in the talks with President FW de Klerk about a South Africa free from apartheid. Mandela and De Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1993. When the ANC won the elections in 1994, Mandela became South Africa's first democratically elected President. He was only president for 5 years, but guided the country's change to a non-racial and relatively peaceful country. He challenged people to forgive each other for wrongs during apartheid, to learn from this in order to work together for a common future. He has established a fund to help underprivileged children and has helped bring peace to other conflict ridden countries. As a world leader his pleas for support from around the world in the fight against AIDS has been very important for attracting attention to the disease.

Albertina Sisulu
© Gisele WulfsonAlbertina Sisulu was a political activist and nurse and one of the most important leaders of anti-Apartheid resistance in South Africa. She is often referred to as the `Mother of the Nation’. She acted on her ideal of human rights throughout her life, assisted by her husband and fellow activist, the late Walter Sisulu (1912-2003).
It was with Walter that she attended the first conference of the ANC Youth League where Albertina Sisulu was the only women present. In 1948 she joined the ANC Women’s League and in the 1950s she began to assume a leadership role – both in the ANC and in the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). She was one of the organizers of the historic anti-pass Women’s March in 1956 and opposed inferior `Bantu’ education. Her home in Orlando West in Soweto was used as a classroom for alternative education until a law was passed against it.
Both Albertina and her husband were jailed several times for their political activities and she was constantly harassed by the Security Police.
In the 1960s the ANC moved toward the armed struggle. Umkhonto we Sizwe (the ANC's armed wing) was formed Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela in 1961. Walter was responsible for framing the organizational units of the National High Command, Regional Commands, Local Commands and cells.
But in 1963 while he was awaiting the outcome of an appeal against a 6 year sentence, Walter decided to forfeit bail, and to go underground. Apartheid Security Police visited Walter Sisulu's house and found that he had fled. Soon afterwards they arrested Albertina and her young son Zwelakhe. She became the first women to be arrested under the General Laws Amendment Act. The Act gave the police the power to hold suspects in detention for 90 days without charging them and in Albertina’s case she was placed in solitary confinement incommunicado for almost two months while the Security Branch looked for her husband.
During this time the Security Police taunted her psychologically. She described one of the cruel forms of torture used by her captors - they would come and tell her lies. They told that one of her children was seriously ill, and that her husband was dying. Because Albertina was cut off from all interaction with the outside world she had no idea that the police had raided Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia and had arrested her husband and 16 others. She only found out three weeks after she was released from detention.
Just under a year later the Rivonia trial concluded. Six of the accused were sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. Walter was one of them.
Note: Denis Goldberg went to Pretoria Central Prison instead of Robben Island (at that time the only security wing for white political prisoners in South Africa) where he served 22 years.
As Walter and his co-accused left the courtroom, Albertina Sisulu, some ANC Women’s League members and other supporters rushed out to form a guard of honour to meet the men. The court officials turned them away, but they sang ‘Nkosi Sikele i’Afrika’ in Church Square in Pretoria in solidarity and mourning.
For her activism Sisulu was detained and put in solitary confinement again in 1981 and in 1985. She also suffered bannings and house arrest, but still managed to keep links between jailed members of the ANC and those in exile.
In 1983 Albertina was elected co-president of the United Democratic Front (UDF), and in June 1989, the government finally granted her a passport. The following month she led a delegation of UDF leaders to Europe and the United States. She met the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher and the American President, George Bush Snr. In October 1989, the last restrictions on the Sisulu family were lifted and Walter was released from Robben Island.
In 1994, Albertina Sisulu served in the first democratically elected Parliament. She and her husband and son Zwelakhe have won numerous humanitarian awards. On the 2 June 2011 she died at her Linden home in Johannesburg, aged 92.

The cartoon was drawn by cartoonist Zapiro just after Albertina Sisulu died. Source: Question: Look at the cartoon and write down all the things the cartoonist is expressing about Albertina Sisulu and what makes her a good leader?

Some other profiles that you may want to explore in class include;
1. Helen Joseph
2. Emily Hobhouse
3. Steve Biko
4. Albert Luthuli The people listed above were not the only people who sacrificed their own freedom for others.
To read more about other remarkable South African Activists, visit:

South African Sporting Leaders

François Pienaar in his Springbok rugby clothes. Source:

We also have many sporting leaders. These are team captains but also those players who represents the country and community. There are also those who have given their attention to developing young talent and the future stars. Sport has done a great deal to unite South Africans and given the nation a sense of country pride. South Africans have proven themselves in many international competitions. One sporting hero who had a great impact on South Africa was François Pienaar, the South African rugby captain in the 1995 World Cup. Under apartheid, South Africa was excluded from international sports events but following democracy in 1994, the country was welcomed. In 1995, the Rugby World Cup was held in South Africa and the home team won under captaincy of François Pienaar.

Because sport is so popular many people model themselves on sporting heroes. These people need to provide a good example to their team mates and supporters. This is not always easy as their entire lives are in the public spotlight. When leaders are put on a high pedestal, the fall from favour is harsh. Cricket captain Hansie Cronjé, brought much public disgrace to himself. He led the South African teams to many victories but in 2000 was accused and found guilty of match fixing. He accepted money and gifts to deliberately lose matches, and even tried to get some of his team mates involved. This shows that leaders are also human and face the same personal challenges in sticking to strong principles and good values when faced with temptation to do otherwise. However, by publically confessing to his mistakes and saying sorry, Cronjé has shown that even though a leader can fall hard, he should be able to admit his or her faults.

Leaders from the Arts

Miriam Makeba. Source:

Another group of people who attract a big popular following are artists and performers. These people inspire, enlighten and entertain others with their creative efforts. South Africa has many world famous artists. Local musicians have shared the traditional kinds of music styles and stirred the emotions of audiences across the world. Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim and many many others used their music to raise support against apartheid and provide hope and joy to audiences. They used their fame to speak out For example, Miriam Makeba urged the United Nations more than once to act against apartheid.

Film makers, writers and journalists used their talent to contribute to the struggle against apartheid. They helped to expose the horrors of apartheid through their films, books, newspapers and photos. Two writers from South Africa received the Nobel Prize for Literature, a very important and prestigious award that are given to people from all over the world. These two writers are Nadine Gordimer (who got the award in 1991) and J. M. Coetzee (2003).

Actors have also done their part. In the 1990s South Africa's own Oscar winning Hollywood actress, Charlize Theron, took part in an anti-rape campaign.

Religious leaders and Community leaders

Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Religious and spiritual leaders have also played an important role in the lives of South Africans. One example is the Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu. He led the South African Council of Churches opposition to apartheid and challenged the Christian community to get involved in the anti-apartheid movements. He supported liberation theology and its ideas that apartheid was a sin to be condemned and destroyed. In 1984, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. After the country became a democracy, Bishop Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission was set up to investigate the human rights abuse experienced under apartheid. Beyers Naudé, a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church who was active against apartheid, was put under house arrest to stop him speaking out.

Nkosi Johnston
Nkosi Johnston speaking against AIDS. Source: onenews.nzoom.comThe AIDS epidemic has brought one of the biggest challenges ever faced in Southern Africa and South Africa. It threatens to destroy the hard won gains of development. It is wiping out a whole generation and leaving thousands of children orphaned. Most of the people dying are the ones that drive the wheels of the economy: the teachers, lawyers, doctors and workers. The tragedy of AIDS has also inspired many into playing a role in society. Both HIV infected and those free of the disease have united in creative ways to deal with the problem. In every part of daily life, AIDS is becoming a priority as people try to cope and deal with it. From protest action demanding the Government provides treatment, to those people who quietly adopt orphans, across South Africa, AIDS is inspiring social responsibility and a new generation of leaders.
One of the most inspiring of these leaders was 12 year old Nkosi Johnston. He was born HIV positive after contracting the virus from his mother. She died before he was 10 years old. With the help of his foster mother, he drew world attention to the plight of AIDS orphans and their mothers when he addressed the International AIDS conference in Durban in 2000. Nkosi lost his battle to the virus in 2001. His death was mourned across South Africa. His bravery was recognised with the establishment of Nkosi's Haven, a home for HIV positive mothers and their children.

Leaders in Science and Maths

In science and medicine, South Africa has produced many leaders. Some of their discoveries and achievements have made world headlines, and are still considered to be some of the most important developments in these fields ever. For example, in 1967 Chris Barnard became the first person who successfully transplanted a heart from one human to another. He was not the first one to try, but he built on other people's developments to perform the first successful operation of its kind. Other South Africans who have been recognised internationally for their role in science and medicine are Max Theiler, who helped to develop a safe vaccine against yellow fever; Allan M. Cormack, who did important work on tomography (which is a technique in taking x-rays); and Sydney Brenner, who did very important research in medicine. All three of them received Nobel Prizes for Medicine: Theiler in 1951, Cormack in 1979 and Brenner in 2002. Although they lived and worked in other countries, all three of them had been born in South Africa.


These are only some of the spheres in life where leaders can make a difference. There are many more South African leaders who made a contribution to people in our country and the rest of the world. Everyone may not agree on whether or not they were good leaders, but most people will agree that they influenced our country in some way or another.

Activity: Examining South African Leaders
1. Choose one of the South African leaders that we discussed in this topic. OR you can also choose another South African leader that was not discussed who you think is or was important.
2. Make a checklist of the points that make a good leader.   2.1 *Write all the points below each other.   2.2 *Then draw 3 columns next to these points.   2.3 *At the top of the columns, write 'Yes', 'No' and 'Don't know/Not sure'.
3. Read the story of the leader you chose.
4. Go through the points on your checklist. Do you think your leader fits the description of a good leader? If yes, tick the column under 'Yes'. If no, tick the correct box. If you are not sure, tick the last box. For example, do you think your leader listens to his/her people? If so, tick 'Yes'. But if he/she discriminates, tick 'No' next to the second point. Ask your teacher to help you if you are stuck.
5. Are there more 'Yes' or more 'No' blocks on your checklist? So do you believe that your leader was a good leader?
6. Is there anybody in the class that does not agree with you? Do you think it is possible for two people to feel differently about the same leader?
Remember that there is a lot more to any person than you think. So if you really want to make a fair judgment about a leader's goodness, you'll have to know everything there is to know about that leader!

Leaders from all over the World

There have been many leaders from across the globe who have been important to many people. Some of them fought for their and others' rights, some helped those who needed love and care. Other leaders have helped to turn the world into the place it is today.

MK Gandhi
Gandhi is possibly the most internationally celebrated Indian. His message of passive resistance and a non-violent approach to the struggle for independence in India and South Africa has inspired people across the globe. This profile is a focus of the CAPS document; SAHO will continue to develop content on MK Gandhi.

Indira Gandhi
Indira Gandhi. Source: aphorismen-archiv.deIndira Gandhi fought against injustice in India. Since she was a child, she showed that she was able to be a leader. Both her parents were involved in politics in a movement that wanted to overthrow the British government in their country. Before 1947, India was still under Britain's control. The British would arrest people involved in this movement. Then the Monkey Brigade was formed, and Gandhi became its leader. She was only about 12 at the time. The Monkey Brigade was made up of children who also worked to overthrow British rule. One of the things they did was to spy on the police to find out who they were going to arrest next. They would then warn those people. The police never suspected children could do this.
In 1947, India became independent with her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, as the first Prime Minister. As her mother had died, she undertook many of the duties handled by the Prime Minister's wife. In 1959 she was chosen as the leader of the political party she belonged to, the Indian National Congress. In 1964 she became the minister of Information and Broadcasting. This was an important post, because so many Indians could not read or write that radio and television were the only ways to inform them. In the same year her father died. His successor only lasted 16 months. Gandhi became Prime Minister in 1966.
In 1971 she won the elections again but was accused of cheating. She was found guilty in the court, but later the Supreme Court withdrew its judgment. As public opposition to her grew she responded with harsh measures to crush it. She lost the elections, but a few years later she became Prime Minister again. She was finally killed by her own bodyguards in 1984.
Her son Rajiv continued her legacy to become Prime Minister. Following his assassination his wife Sonia led the Congress Party to its recent victory so continuing the Gandhi influence and leadership of India.

African Leaders

Patrice Lumumba. Source:

In Africa, many independence movement leaders helped their countries to gain freedom from colonial rulers. For many years, most African countries were ruled by European countries. South Africa was a British colony until 1961 and Mozambique was a Portuguese colony until 1975. In many countries, the local people had to fight to gain their independence. Many of the leaders of the groups who fought were thrown in jail. But in the end, they won their independence. Some of these leaders then became the leaders of the new independent states. Examples of such leaders are Kwame Nkrumah from Ghana; Jomo Kenyatta from Kenya; Julius Nyerere from Tanzania and Patrice Lumumba from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Another important leader from Africa was Haile Selassi. He was born as Ras Tafari, but became known as Haile Selassi when he was crowned the emperor of Ethiopia in 1930. Ethiopia is an important country in Africa because it was one of only two that were not colonised by the Europeans when they took all the other countries in Africa. For a little while, around the time of the Second World War, Ethiopia was occupied by Italy. But during the War the Italians were defeated by their enemies, and Ethiopia was once again under the control of Haile Selassi and the Ethiopians. The emperor also became an important religious figure. In the 1930s, a group of Jamaicans came to think of him as the Messiah (God's Chosen One) who would lead all Africans to freedom. They formed a new religion around this belief, called Rastafarianism. The name comes from his birth name, Ras Tafari. Although Haile Selassi himself did not agree with the religion, it became very popular all over the world. Today, there are also many Rastafarians in South Africa.

Graça Machel. Source:

Another important African leader who is also important for South Africa is Graça Machel. Not only is she a very important leader in Mozambique, our neighboring country, but she is also South Africa's former first lady. In 1998 she married former president, Nelson Mandela, with whom her family had forged a strong bond as allies in the liberation struggle. When Mozambique became independent in 1975, she became the Minister of Education and Culture. At the time, she was married to new Mozambiquan President, Samora Machel. She was widowed when he was killed in a plane crash in 1986. Graça Machel has done a lot for the women and children in her country. She worked hard to improve education and literacy. She also did a lot to help orphans and women after the civil war in Mozambique, and has spoken all over the world about the importance of children, families and the community. Today, she is works for the UN as an expert to study the effect of war on children.

Rosa Parks after getting arrested for disorderly conduct. Source:

Graça Machel is not the only women leader who has played an important role in her country or the world. Many others have also fought for what they believe in, at great sacrifice to themselves. They have helped to change the way their people have been treated. There are many examples of such women in South Africa, as we have seen in the previous unit. But there are also examples from other parts of the world. One of these is Rosa Parks, an important civil rights leader from America. Civil rights are the rights that every citizen of a country has or should have. In the 1950s and 1960s, Black people in America had to fight for their civil rights. This was not because the law did not give them these rights, like in South Africa, but because some White people made it difficult for them to enjoy their rights. For example, in those days there was a policy in Alabama, a state in America, that a Black and a White person could not share the same row of seats in a bus. A White person should also not be left standing while a Black sits down in the bus. But one day, in 1955, a lady named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a White man. She was arrested for disorderly conduct or behaving badly in public. Then other leaders used her story to begin a huge bus boycott. One of these were Martin Luther King Jr. He and the other leaders asked Black people in their town, Montgomery, not to use the busses until the town recognized their rights. They wanted an end to segregation, which is a policy that keeps Blacks and Whites apart. Between 1910 and 1948, South Africa also had a policy of segregation. The boycott was the official start of the United States Civil Rights Movement. She kept on fighting against racism. In 1999 she received the Congressional Gold Medal for her major contribution to the movement. This medal is awarded by the American Congress, which is the same as a parliament.

Celebrities and Arts Leaders

Oprah Winfrey and Nelson Mandela. Source:

American celebrity Oprah Winfrey is not only one of the most popular, successful and wealthiest talk show hosts and people in the world, but she has done a lot for charity as well. Her show has highlighted many problems in the world. She has also set up an organisation called the Angel Network that collects a lot of money for charities. She has been to South Africa several times, and also collects money to help poor people in our country.

There have also been examples of actors who have become politicians. For example, the former US president Ronald Reagan, and Californian governor and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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