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  • Writer's pictureAndile Khumalo

Are Elders a Blessing in Africa, or a Burden?

Updated: Apr 29, 2019

This week, I sat down to a scrumptious dinner with the industrious Emmanuel Kwaku Akyeampong, a professor of history and African and African American studies, and the Oppenheimer faculty director of the Centre for African Studies at Harvard University.

Our conversation turned to what we think is the fundamental problem with leadership in Africa.

My submission was that we have way too many old people leading Africa.

In the words of 47-year-old Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, "the pace of change [in the world] has never been this fast, and yet it will never be this slow again".

We live in a dynamic world propelled by rapid technological advancement. In January 2018, management consultancy McKinsey spoke to more than 300 leaders in industrial corporations, think-tanks, governments and industry associations about the implications of technological disruption. The conclusion was that industrial sectors will see more disruption within the next five years than in the past 20 years combined.

According to McKinsey, 90% of the data the world had in 2017 did not exist in 2015 and the iPhone 6, which is now four versions old, has more than 10 times the computing power of IBM's Deep Blue, the supercomputer that beat the world chess champion in 1996.

We had 20-billion connected devices in 2017 and every week 50-million new devices are added to the internet.

How are our 60- and 70-year-old presidents and CEOs going to lead us through such change when they hardly understand it themselves?

I told Professor Akyeampong that the proliferation of old leaders in Africa is a bigger problem than even the lack of women leaders. What I didn't know is that Professor Akyeampong holds a master's degree in European history from Wake Forest University and a PhD in African history from the University of Virginia.

The professor patiently narrated the historic role of elders in African society. He painstakingly explained that in African tradition, elders have, for many generations, been afforded a senior position in society and in fact younger people in most communities grow up being sponsored by elders.

When a young man has found his bride, it is the elders who negotiate his lobolo. In fact, the number of "cows" agreed upon is customarily seen as being paid by the groom's elders to the bride's elders, even though the groom is likely to pay his own lobolo and at times even the bride contributes to her lobolo.

In traditional African societies, elders have always played an important role in fostering reconciliation among communities, and even use their reconciliatory and mediatory powers to unite people with their ancestors.

It is because of this deep and entrenched culture of the role of older men in African society that we are likely to see more women enter leadership positions than we are to see older men vacate them.

Interesting food for thought.

This article first appeared in The Business Times, Sunday Times on Sunday, 27 January 2019

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