Acceptance Speech by Lincoln Mali on receiving the Distinguished Old Rhodian Award at Rhodes University, Grahamstown

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Members of the Old Rhodian Award Committee, members of the Rhodes university community, fellow award recipients, ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you feeling less worthy of the honor bestowed on me. I have asked myself many times, how this great institution would celebrate one so undeserving.  I am nervous that some one may even stand up and object that I may not be suitably qualified to receive this award, either because of my disciplinary record as a student, lack of any meaningful achievement, and my relative youth. In order to gain strength, to stand more upright and to answer these questions, I drew inspiration from the immortal words of Nelson Mandela:

” In real life we deal, not with gods, but with ordinary humans like ourselves: men and women who are full of contradictions, who are stable and fickle, strong and weak, famous and infamous, people in whose bloodstream the muckworm battles daily with potent pesticides. On which aspect one concentrates in judging others will depend on the character of the particular judge. As we judge others so we are judged by others. The suspicious will always be tormented by suspicion; the credulous will ever be ready to lap up everything from oo thobela sikutyele, while the vindictive will use the sharp axe instead of the soft feather duster. But the realist, however shocked and disappointed by the frailties of those he adores, will look at human behavior from all sides and objectively and will concentrate on those qualities in a person which are edifying, which lift your spirit (and) kindle one’s enthusiasm to live”.

I assume that Linda Booi, who nominated me, and my colleagues from all over the continent, who supported my nomination, are true realists. They decided that in spite of my limitations, flaws and weaknesses they are prepared to stake their reputations with this nomination. They must have been so persuasive that the Nominations Committee approved of my name to be forever associated with this historic institution. I hope that over time I can make sure that their realism will not be misplaced.

Words cannot do justice to my gratitude and appreciation to Rhodes University for recognition of this magnitude with an amazing company of fellow award recipients. I dedicate this award to the thousands of colleagues whom I have had the privilege and honor to lead. It is their guidance, constructive feedback, and inspiration that have given me the courage to grow both as a person and as a leader. My nomination for this award was made possible by how high they lifted me on their broad shoulders – they are the true heroes in my life story.  I have a lot of people to thank in a limited amount of time:

  • I would like to thank my soul mate, the love of my life, Sva Mali, for her love and support. When I met you on the grounds of this great institution, 25 years ago, I was a wild boy with no hope, plans or future, because of your love and support, today I am a proud father of three beautiful children and a happily married husband with a bright future ahead;
  • To my children, Lihle, Amara and Liam, you are my inspiration; you are my greatest achievement;
  • To my dear mother, Gladys Nombeko (Lovey) Mali, from you I inherited a piece of your big and generous heart and a fraction of your deep faith and morality; I honor you;
  • To my late father and role model, from you I inherited a passion for fairness, justice, education, love for country and family; you remain my conscience and compass;
  • To my siblings, thank you for accepting me with all my flaws and loving me unconditionally;
  • To my family, represented today by its finest and most senior leaders, I’m proud to part of AmaSukwini and humbly accept the responsibility to follow in the path of such family luminaries as Mali, Thusheni, Khobo, Aaron, Thyida, Daweti, Zwele, Toto, Kaizer, Dlabongwana, Ndzoyi, Malawu and others; MaSukwini, Malawu, Chwama, Dibashe, Njabomvu, Mavatha, Sandlangca;
  • To my teachers, sports coaches, bosses, relatives, community leaders, and others who influenced my life from being regarded as part of the “Lost Generation”, to a recipient of this award today, you are indeed the village that raised me;
  • To my comrades and friends; thank you for your fellowship under the most trying times, ours was a struggle about ideas so noble, motives so pure, it was never about amassing wealth, building power bases or self enrichment; and
  • To those who are no longer with us, with whom we walked a path towards a better future for all – Mike Koyana, KK Chule Papiyana, Sheya Kulati, Kgomotso Masebelanga, Vusumzi Nonyalela, Thami Rubusana and many others; may we not veer from that path, no matter how difficult it gets, how few we became and how enticing the alternative path maybe.

Ladies and gentlemen, for me to repay the trust given me today, to be deserving of this honor, I pledge to strive to meet the two key challenges associated with this award, namely, meeting the challenge of leadership and meeting the challenge of being a role model.

1. Meeting the challenge of leadership:

Mr. Chairman, the nomination for this award has made me to reflect on the huge honor, tremendous privilege and high calling of leading people towards a noble goal. Our continent is yearning for men and women of the highest integrity to lead it towards the promise of a new Dawn.

We have been all been exposed to various theories, standards and definitions of leadership. The one that resonates with me more, the one that daily inspires me and the one I ultimately hope to achieve and sustain is aptly captured by Kouzen&Posner. It is very simple in its definition, yet deeply profound in its implications:

Each leader or potential leader has to place the people at the centre, be responsive to their needs, respectful of their wishes and accountable to them. This requires us as leaders to be selfless in our contribution, inclusive in our decisions, humble in our behavior and inspiring in our actions. If we do this, our joy will not be in how exalted we may be; how elevated our positions are, how much wealth we can amass, and how much power we can have…. it must come from a deeper and special place, where others benefit, grow, or prosper because of our actions…that’s true leadership.”

This definition not only captures the exemplary behaviors expected of us as leaders but also the pure motives we have to have. It sets a standard by which we can benchmark ourselves, but most importantly, by which our followers can judge us as leaders. This dynamic standard can objectively be used on a daily basis to evaluate our suitability to lead –every speech, gesture, comment, visit, and interaction with our constituency is a test of our suitability to lead.

To be worthy of this award, I must lead in a manner that places people at the centre, be responsive to their needs, respectful of their wishes and accountable to them. To be mentioned in the same breath as worthy previous recipients, I need to be selfless in my contribution, inclusive in my decisions, humble in my behavior and inspiring in my actions.

My colleagues in Angola, DRC, Ghana, Namibia and Nigeria will be my conscience, critics and counselors to ensure that, “ through my individual actions and achievements I enhance the reputation of the university.” The leadership challenge requires that I and all other leaders accept, with all humility, that leadership goes beyond our fancy titles – that trust must be earned, respect must be earned and loyalty must be earned over time.  May we never forget or take for granted the incredible privilege and blessing we have to lead.

I hope over time, God willing, I will be up to the leadership challenge. It is those whom I have been blessed to lead who will make the final judgment.

1.2 Meeting the Role Model Challenge:

Members of the Rhodes University community, the current societal climate lends itself to an environment of hubris, greed, corruption, fraud, and conspicious consumption among leaders. There is a dire shortage of genuine role models that our young leaders can look up to. Jonathan Sacks sums it so well, “ when everything that matters can be bought and sold, when commitments can be broken because they are no longer to your advantage, when shopping becomes salvation and advertising slogans become our litany; when our worth is measured by how much we earn and spend, then the market is destroying the very virtue on which in the long run it depends”

Our potential and aspirant leaders have to navigate through a moral, ethical and legal minefield about their behaviours and decisions as they assume leadership roles. They need guidance, advice, and pointers towards a righteous path –but more importantly, they need role modelling. I have always shied away from assuming a role modelling role because I firmly believed that my own journey of learning is yet to be complete.

In accepting this award, which “ is specifically intended to acknowlege Old Rhodians as role models”, I pledge to continue my work of grooming and developing young leaders throughout our beloved continent. To give true meaning to this award, to be deserving of being counted among its recipients, and to continue this important work, I need to assume the difficult task of role modeling. In accepting this difficult task, I have to embraced the harsh reality that leadership is not only what I do, but also fundamentally who I am as a person. To be an effective and influential role model, I have to always ensure that there is alignment between who I am and what I do as a leader. This can only be possible if I…

  • Ensure alignment of my words with my actions;
  • Sacrifice my personal ambitions for the benefits of the greater good;
  • Have the humility and good sense to accept that I have weaknesses and frailties;
  • Ensure that my social behavior and conduct does not place the good name of the university, my family and my country into disrepute;
  • Resist the temptation to use any resources entrusted to me for personal gain or self enrichment;
  • Promote diversity and tolerance;
  • Develop, support and groom future leaders, particularly women,
  • Treat everybody with respect and dignity regardless of their status;
  • Resist the seductions of conspicuous consumption, flaunting of material wealth, corruption and greed;
  • Grow and develop in my personal and professional capacity through continuous learning;
  • Aim for the highest level of professional excellence, hold myself to a higher standard of probity, integrity, values, ethics and morality; and
  • Use my skills, talents and resources to contribute to the development of my community, country and continent.

It will not be easy, as I’m not a god or saint, but a mere mortal with flaws and contradictions. Sometimes I will fail, disappoint, and not be up to the required standard, but I will not give up, I will strive to always be, The Man in the Arena identified by Theodore Roosevelt in his seminal speech in Sorbonne in 1910.

Maybe that one day, in my old age, bruised by life’s journey, I would be sitting on my stoep on a farm, watching my grandchildren play, reflect on this momentous day at Rhodes University. Maybe only then, would I be comfortable to be called, a worthy “Distinguished Old Rhodian”. Until then, I owe this University a huge debt, a debt that cannot only be repaid through living up to the honor, prestige and tradition of this wonderful award. My leadership journey continues…

I thank you