TSiBA’s Leadership Development Perspectives: Febe Potgieter-Gqubule, Member of the ANC National Executive Committee

By Karen Leroux, based on an interview by Leigh Meinert.

Leadership development, underpinned by the values, history and tradition of Africa’s oldest liberation movement, the African National Congress, has to evolve, adapt and experience intergenerational renewal to be relevant to today’s youth, claims Febe Potgieter-Gqubule, social and political activist, former ambassador to Poland and member of the ANC’s National Executive Committee.

Potgieter-Gqubule, a passionate campaigner for youth empowerment, who has personally shattered the glass ceiling of feminine leadership within the ANC by becoming the first female secretary-general of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), is constantly amazed at the incredible innovation and talent inherent in today’s youth. “I think there are a whole range of young men and women, who went to school and university in the early 90’s, who have the confidence and enthusiasm and who exist in all streams of South African society – in business, in the unions and public sector, in NGOs, in all sorts of places – who are going to make a major contribution.” Young, emerging personalities in government who have grabbed Potgieter- Gqubule’s attention include the Minister of Public Enterprises, Malusi Gigaba, provincial Minister for Economic Development in Gauteng, Qedani Dorothy Mahlangu and the Minister of Sport, Fikile Mbalula. “I think the ANC is quite good at giving younger people responsibility, responsibility that will provide them with invaluable experience for future leadership roles.”

For the South African dream to succeed, however, Potgieter-Gqubule believes in inclusive leadership development, where every single man, woman and child in South Africa is committed to creating a fair, equitable and sustainable society. “You don’t have to have a position to provide leadership,” argues Potgieter- Gqubule. “Given the extent of the challenges we face, all our talents can and should be used, as there is a place for everyone. Different people bring different ideas to the table, ideas one would never necessarily think about. “I think it is an amazing South African strength that one has a diversity of voices, a diversity of views,” asserts Potgieter- Gqubule. The challenge is to find a way to coalesce all the divergent views for the common good. “It does not mean the voices are the same. One should always have divergent voices from both inside and outside organisational structures.”

This doyenne of political education and leadership development within the ANC took on the mantle of change and responsibility with studied reluctance. A strong sense of civic duty was instilled by her parents who motivated the young, rural villager to make a positive contribution from a very early age. “I have always seen myself as a political and social activist, a view that emerged in high school when I became aware of the differences in society: the issues of race, the fact there was no electricity in the area I grew up in, and the terrible injustices of an unequal society. “This was in the beginning of the 1980s, so you have the 1980s school boycott, getting involved in the campaigns of the time and forming an SRC,” recalls Potgieter- Gqubule. “At all these different phases I felt as though I was being pushed into a leadership position. I did not really choose to do it. I took the view there was a job to be done and simply took responsibility for it.”

Following her tenure as head girl of her high school, Potgieter-Gqubule went to the University of the Western Cape where she was exposed to the punch, power and sabre rattling of the anti-apartheid national liberation movement. “It was an incredibly exciting time to be young and a student at university. Throughout my university life I was involved in student organisations.” Although still hesitant to take on the leadership roles offered to her, Potgieter- Gqubule quickly learnt one of the most valuable lessons of leadership development, that of mentorship responsibility. “A positive outcome of being forced into taking responsibility is the fact you actually learn a lot from people around you. I have always been surrounded by incredible mentors, people who took responsibility for developing me, who engaged with me, and who I could bounce ideas off.”

It was during her stint with the South African Youth Congress that Potgieter-Gqubule first encountered political education, a facet of leadership development that would become an enduring passion. “One of the techniques of bringing about positive social change is by expanding the pool of people who want to bring about change and want to make a difference by providing them with the requisite skills, exposure and responsibility to be able to make that difference and make those changes,” maintains Potgieter-Gqubule. Yet another string to Potgieter-Gqubule’s professional bow was her ambassadorship to Poland, a lofty position that she held at a relatively youthful age. “It was really interesting in the sense that leadership development is also about getting people outside of their comfort zones and I think that was one of the take aways the four years in international relations provided for me. “It means you are out of the country. You are in an area where people do not know you, so it provides a sense of freedom where there are no expectations, but at the same time, you have to prove yourself all over again.” One of her legacies was pushing for more gender equity in the Foreign Service. “For example, out of about eighty-five resident ambassadors in Warsaw, there were only twelve women ambassadors at any given point in time. So there was always an issue about the questions facing women and how you make your space within that. One of the things we started was an association for women in diplomacy – not just woman ambassadors but also woman diplomats,” recalls Potgieter-Gqubule.

Apart from grappling with her full-time doctoral thesis (entitled Continuity and Change: the organisational development and institutionalisation of the ANC after 1990) at Wits University, Potgieter-Gqubule is chairperson of the board of Lejweleputswa Development Agency in Welkom in the Free State. “This local economic development agency has to look at ways to stimulate small, medium and micro enterprises and the different economic sectors in the area. In a sense it is also leadership development because part of what you need to do is to find a way to build the capacity of small, micro or medium enterprises, bring cooperatives in, strengthen existing businesses and make people think about the long-term economic viability of the area.”

Potgieter-Gqubule credits her leadership style to a select group of guides, mentors and role models, the first of whom is Billy Ramakgopa, a former president of AZASO (a national student organisation in the 1980s). “When I think about leadership style, his is the leadership style I have internalised – an incredibly bright person, but very humble and with lots of integrity who is always willing to listen and be able to bring people together, but at the same time, can be very tough about the fact that things need to get done.” Another is politician, businesswoman and struggle icon, Cheryl Carolus. “One of the things I admire about her is her energy,” exclaims Potgieter-Gqubule. “Her sense of optimism, her ability to relate to people across a broad spectrum and her dogged persistence to stay the course, to never lose hope.” Minister of Home Affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s drive is a leadership attribute admired by the ANC stalwart too. “If this is the road you take, then this is the right thing to do. Simply go ahead and be consistent about it, persevere and be tough about it.”

Characteristics she values in herself as a leader include self-reflection, knowing her inherent strengths and weaknesses, and her ability to motivate people “to focus on the task at hand at a strategic level but also in terms of the details.” Tools she has successfully employed in her leadership role include reading widely, listening to others, and providing people with the autonomy to do things. “To come up with ideas and to be there for them when they want to bounce off the ideas,” clarifies Potgieter-Gqubule. In all avenues of her professional life, Potgieter-Gqubule has focussed on leadership development. During her decade with the ANCYL the spotlight was firmly on “how to build a youth movement that is more active in the community, that understands the issues of youth development and how the economy impacts on issues of young people’s employment possibilities and skills development.”

Part of her personal mantra is to build continuity in leadership and leadership development. “Organisations need to reproduce leadership and, with an organisation with as long a history as the ANC, you have to make sure you transmit the values, history and traditions but also ensure you renew and remain relevant. The assumptions my generation made are not the same as today’s generation. You need to make sure you adapt and encourage intergenerational dialogue, the transmission of ideas and really listen to each other.” “In the ANC, leadership takes place within a collective. Part of the underlying philosophy is to bring people together with different experiences and different points of view. It encourages a melting pot of solutions that is much better than if a single leader decides on the way to go. “I think it is a very strong element of the leadership model within the ANC. The relationship between action and reflection is also crucial in that leadership is not simply about talk, but about leading by example. So when we look at the ANC leadership collectives, we need to look at what it says about the ANC – its non-racial character, the mixture between different generations, the gender and the geographic spread. You need to reflect the diversity of your membership as well as the South African population and the kind of society that we all envisage – a united, non-racial, democratic, non-sexist South Africa. If you can’t live up to it as a movement, then how do you expect society to do that?” enquires Potgieter-Gqubule.

“One of the major issues facing the ANC today is how being the governing party has impacted on its organisational culture, its values, and its organisational processes. It is now eighteen years since freedom and I think the National Planning Commission has come at the right time because it is the moment where we need to reflect.” According to Potgieter-Gqubule, the ANC has to be clear as to the development trajectory, “Where do we want to be in twenty years time? “We should be able to answer tough questions about where we come from and where we want to go to and not shy away from the difficult questions. The only way we can address complex issues is by confronting them. “Take the land issue. The Youth League president (then Julius Malema*) made the point that over the last fifteen years we have redistributed five percent of agricultural land. Now, he says to a young constituency, if we continue to redistribute only five percent every twenty years, the youth will be too old to benefit,” maintains Potgieter-Gqubule. “So what do we do? Are we saying to him he cannot say that? Or do we need to discuss it as South Africans, black and white, the landless as well as those who own land? What do we do? How do we all address the issue? “You have a whole new generation of people and the challenge is: how to link up with the younger generations and have an ongoing conversation that is respectful and that draws on the respective experiences, knowledge and points of view that have shaped our different experiences.”

Potgieter-Gqubule believes leadership success is measured by, firstly, “the ability to provide a vision that unites people and addresses the challenges of the day. It is about having a plan and a programme that address the challenges that face us in a way that will take us to where we want to be. Secondly, it is the ability to unite people behind that vision. “It is in all our interests to address unemployment, poverty and inequality. We need more and more people to participate in the economy, so it is about uniting people around those issues,” explains Potgieter- Gqubule. “There is often a sense that young people are empty vessels that you pour knowledge into, but I think we can learn so much from engagement with young people. They can provide information we do not even have the capacity to think about, or simply force us to confront issues in a new way by pushing the boundaries,” claims Potgieter- Gqubule with optimism.

* Note that this interview took place in 2011.  For a full transcript of this interview please visit www.tsiba.org.za/news/resources 

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