EXTRACT | 'Blazing a Trail' by Lincoln Mali

Education, values, principles and ethics are the tenets on which Lincoln Mali has built his life and leadership journey

17 October 2022 - 09:37
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Lincoln Mali draws on reflections from family, friends and colleagues to highlight leadership characteristics and techniques.
Lincoln Mali draws on reflections from family, friends and colleagues to highlight leadership characteristics and techniques.
Image: Supplied

After being jailed as a student activist during the 1980s, Lincoln Mali heeded his father’s advice: the most powerful weapon against the apartheid government was “to get the best education, embrace the best values, principles and ethics and be exemplary in everything you do”.

These are the tenets on which Mali has built his life and leadership journey, which includes almost two decades at Standard Bank and now as CEO of Nasdaq-listed fintech company Lesaka Technologies.

In Blazing a Trail, he shares this journey, addressing issues such as integrity, women empowerment, staff engagement and imposter syndrome. Mali draws on reflections from family, friends and colleagues to highlight leadership characteristics and techniques that typify the new path of leadership he has consciously and deliberately forged, and which he uses to mentor and inspire young leaders.


Chapter 10


One of the most iconic moments during the early Mandela years in government was the opening of former white schools to black children. We worked around the clock to identify schools in white areas that were either underutilised or empty. One of those schools was in the Ruyterwacht community in Epping, Cape Town. It was decided that children would be bussed from the Khayelitsha community to the school.

In February 1995, the white community of Ruyterwacht stood outside the school with guns, whips, chains and sticks, pick handles, and dogs to prevent these children from getting in. They shouted racial insults at the students and were very aggressive. These scenes reminded me of what I had seen on TV about school integration in the Deep South in the US during the freedom movement. Now, only about 100 police protected these pupils. I had been at the centre of the plan from day one: articulating the position of the government to the media, while also engaging with the community of Ruyterwacht and the parents of the pupils who were to be bussed from Khayelitsha.

Local and international media ran with the story, and I was kept on my toes driving a consistent message about a new constitutional dispensation, the right of pupils to education, and the role of government to provide educational facilities. I spoke about how previously white-only schools that were about to be closed or that were underutilised should be opened for children from nearby townships; that bussing, while not ideal, was an effective way of getting them to the venue; and that we wanted this to be done in a peaceful and orderly manner. I told the media that we had consulted the Ruyterwacht community and this was not an attack on their rights or their community.

In all my communications and engagements, I empathised with that community. We understood their fears. The government had committed to work with them during this transition. Those ugly scenes of children being insulted by angry white right-wingers with their weapons have stayed with me all my life. But going through that was necessary. This was a classic case of the difficulties of reconciliation and reconstruction; how to manage real and genuine fears from the Ruyterwacht community alongside urgent and legitimate expectations from the Khayelitsha community, all while upholding the rule of law and our Constitution. As a spokesperson in such situations, you can’t be the story; you can’t get caught up in your own personal politics and ideology. You can only be the representative of a government for all the people.

This case also illustrated the nuances of those early years of Madiba’s government; the national minister’s role was to set up a national policy framework while the day-to-day running of schools was the preserve of the provincial departments of education, and we were part of the Government of National Unity (GNU). So my role, together with the other ministerial advisers, was to implement government policy as espoused by the majority party, the ANC, yet be mindful and sensitive that this matter needed the broad support of the National Party. (Renier Schoeman was the national deputy minister of education, and the Western Cape department was led by Martha Olckers of the National Party.) Behind the scenes we held various meetings with student bodies such as Cosas, teacher unions such as the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) and the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa), the ANC caucus in the National Assembly and Senate, and National Party leaders. The minister also briefed his cabinet colleagues, together with President Mandela and Deputy Presidents Thabo Mbeki and FW de Klerk. Leading during these times was a balance, a balance on a knife edge, between two seemingly contradictory priorities: fundamental transformation and change on the one hand, and reconciliation and nation building on the other.

It was also not the only situation I personally dealt with along these lines. In the city of Vanderbijlpark, the then Vaal Technikon was a predominantly white establishment with a majority white student and academic staff base. After 1994, huge numbers of black students entered this institution. The seeds for potential conflict were quickly sown. Black students became more militant and asserted their rights as part of the democratic dispensation, while white students saw their rights being infringed, their technikon’s identity being changed, and their future being threatened. This tension eventually spilled over into an open conflict between the two groups. The police were called in, there was violence on campus, and both sides were determined to win, at all costs.

I was sent into this volatile situation. As I entered the campus, I could see the two warring groups, police stationed between them, and weapons carried by both sides. We went through a long engagement with the support of other leaders and community groups from around the area. At one point, as I moved between the leaders of these groups, I was briefly held hostage by some of the students.

“We don’t want to talk to you anymore,” they said. “We’ll keep you here until a more senior person comes. In fact, the minister must come.”

But this was the world I was used to. I knew exactly how this worked.

“We can carry on like this for days. What use will it be?” I told them. “It’s not going to make a difference. They are not sending someone else.”

After hours of negotiations, we reached an agreement that was broadly welcomed by all the leaders. We then waited a few more hours for the leaders to give feedback to their members. We were relieved to get a positive response and, it seemed, a crisis had been averted.

Driving home that day, after hours of this conflict, I knew this scene would play itself out across many communities, institutions and organisations. This was a classic case of a clash between the legitimate aspirations of black people and understandable fears of white people. This gave me a lot of insight about the need to lead through these competing interests. I have tried to lead and write on transformation with a deep understanding of this reality. Since Madiba’s death, harsh critics on both sides of the ideological divide argue about whether he was too fast and radical or too slow and conservative. Learning at the feet of Madiba and other icons of those times, I learnt that progress always depended on the context; I also learnt the value and importance of understanding the balance of forces at a point and time.

The period from 1994 to 1996 saw a lot of student demonstrations on university and college campuses under the leadership of Sasco, the student organisation of which I’d been deputy president when it was formed in 1991. The strong view from the student movement was that the new democratic government was obliged to use that space to push for accelerated transformation and change in higher education institutions. Minister Bengu and his advisers were sympathetic to this view. We knew a lot needed to be done. But we wanted our comrades to understand the need to prioritise the areas of immediate focus, appreciate the constraints we faced in government, embrace the need to build consensus with other stakeholders and be on top of the resource constraints facing a new government. We would have regular sessions with student leaders on some campuses, or meet them regionally or nationally. There were, however, sporadic incidents that would engulf whole campuses and bring them to a standstill. Almost every week there would be some technikon, college of education or university that would be on strike or involved in a conflict. The rallying cry was always “the minister must intervene” or “the ministry must intervene” or the “government must intervene”. In most cases, the minister would dispatch me to attend to the crisis. Sometimes I would go alone, while other times I would be with Tamie. The irony was not lost on me that I was the guy who used to lead boycotts, who did not study because of boycotts (1980, 1985, 1986), who was expelled from high school and received a suspended expulsion from university because of his political action, and now I was being sent to quell unrest at schools and universities.

What was amusing was how different people would receive me when I arrived at an institution. Normally a senior member of the administration would meet me and the conversation would be something like this:

“Thank you for being here. Are you with Mr Mali from Minister Bengu’s office?”

“Yes, I am Mr Mali.”

“Oh. But you look... different.”

I knew what that meant. It was the disappointment. I was young, black, skinny, travelled alone without a huge entourage and normally drove myself in a nondescript car from the government garage. I was never discouraged because these “disadvantages” had always been with me, even during the fight for liberation. This time, I knew that I was the representative of a democratic government, I knew the law, knew the policy and the Constitution, and I always had to act within those parameters. Sometimes my intervention would please management and my former comrades would say I had sold out; sometimes my intervention would please the students and the members of the administration would accuse me of still acting like a student leader. The most important thing for me was to always act fairly, transparently, and with integrity. I knew the tremendous trust the minister had in me and I would never betray that for self-glory.

Extract provided by NB Publishers 

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