Mandela and charismatic leadership: Why democracies don’t need them and lessons for Malawi

As tributes continue to pour in, media and commentators are running out of superlatives for the late Nelson Mandela’s extraordinary life, the anti-apartheid icon is the sought of a leader that will probably not appear again, certainly not in a near future.

Some analysts, notable Policy Affairs magazine have rightly argued that the first South African black president is the last of the great leaders of the world.

The world has and continues mourning Nelson Mandela and his remarkable political and personal life. Yet the Mandelas will not appear anymore and this is not a catastrophe because the world has moved on and charismatic would struggle to find spaces that truly belong to them.

The world no longer needs charismatic leaders that were necessary during Mandela’s era when our people were struggling to liberate themselves from shackles of brutal oppression and repressions.


One credit that Mandela should take but has not been highlighted, is his role in helping put in place proper governance systems in today’s South Africa during his five years presidency. Mandela helped entrench the rule of law, which enabled his successors like Jacob Zuma, who is not even a dent on Mandela’s towering legacy, to lead South Africa fairly OK.

The difference between charismatic leadership and rule of law is what distinguishes Mandela’s era and today’s ‘democratic’ African states. Social changes are seamless; societies changed and such changed often demands different kinds of leadership, too. Societies of yesterday depended on charisma and character of their leaders to see them through while in today, what matters are strong institutions of governance that are there to upholding rule of law and enforce checks and balances.

Sociologist, Max Weber noticed that throughout the human history there have been three types of ‘legitimate authorities’ that have defined leadership. The first is traditional; this kind leadership is based on customs traditional values. The second is charismatic; this one depends on extraordinary people/ leaders, Nelson Mandela for instance to move the society forward and maintain stability.

The third is legal-rational. This is governed by code of rules, in the mould of modern democracies, where the rule of law is above individual powers and charisma. Charismatic authority is unpredictable, tends to become bureaucratised and is in many ways difficult to succeed, because as John Hughes puts it “… the traditional powers are personal, they can be transferred to someone else.” This is one of the reasons that ‘big men’ politics has failed in Africa. Of course Mandela is an exception in that he is the only African president to stand down voluntarily.

There is a lesson for Malawi here. Throughout the 20 years of democracy, Malawians have put a lot of emphasis on having a ‘good leader’ in place. Of course good leadership matters but is it is not charismatic leaders that Malawi needs; Malawi needs functioning and strong institutions of democracy; decentralisation, which remains a far fetched dream yet essential in this process.

The central government has too much power and this is a big problem when you have incompetent and greedy people at the helm. We are in search of charismatic leaders that Malawi does not have are capable of running a centralised system of government. It is no wonder that the failure of Malawi leaders since 1994 has on so many occasions forced Malawians to look at 30 years of Kamuzu Banda’s dictatorship with nostalgia.

Systems of governance ensure continuity, it fosters transformative leadership and governance systems and it brings stability. Malawi has some of these institutions and they have risen to the occasion in times of need.

For instance, Bakili Muluzi was stopped in his tracks trying to amend the constitution in order to pave way for his third term bid. The “mid night six” were pushed aside when they tried to derail Joyce Banda’s constitutional right to succeed Bingu wa Mutharika.

Yet, these are isolated cases and do compensate for clear lack of strong institutions of governance that could have stopped scandals like cashgate, for example. As we mourn and admire Mandela’s charisma, let us not appreciate that it is not leaders that Malawi needs; Malawi needs institutions that will enable a leader of any ilk to run Malawi effectively and according to legal stipulations.

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