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Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela: Empathic Leadership


Full Video of Dr. Gobodo-Madikizel's Talk

The Institute for African Development (IAD) Distinguished Africanist Scholar for Fall 2016 was Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, Professor and Research Chair, Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. In her public lecture delivered at the A.D. White House and titled "What Does It Mean to be Human in the Aftermath of Historical Trauma: A Quest for the Empathic Witness," Prof. Gobodo-Madikizela explained that in troubled times, it is important to have leaders who welcome and embrace empathy. She began with the example of Nelson Mandela’s leadership, which she said was inspired by a “moral vision.” The legacy of Mandela’s wisdom, she said, “appeals to the better angels of our nature as we continue to wrestle with the question of how to face the traumatic pasts of our histories without being caught up in cycles of repetition that will make us hostage to the violence and hatred inspired by this past.” In a country with a history of violent anti-apartheid protests, systematic abuses of power by the apartheid government, and state-sanctioned violence against those perceived to be enemies of the state, Mandela recognized his role in building a culture of tolerance.

She pointed out that in contrast to the empathic leadership of Nelson Mandela, the divisive tone of the speeches of the current president of South Africa has permeated many sectors of civil society, “rupturing the sense of responsible citizenship among some South Africans … and breeding a political culture in which the thresholds of intolerance begin to sink lower and lower.” Countries with a history of racial divisions and racial hatred need leaders who have empathy and who can heal their wounded societies and be role models for the next generation of leaders, Gobodo-Madikizela said.

What is empathy and why is it important? First, empathy is the ability to see oneself in the other.  Empathy goes beyond sympathy and touches an individual’s inner core. It is the capacity to feel with and to participate in shared reflective engagement with the other‘s inner life. It is perspective taking – to actually put oneself in another’s shoes. The process is sometimes referred to as “mentalization,” which happens when people engaging in dialogue, through imaginative mental activity, become fully aware of one another’s unique internal reality. This mutual recognition emerges when there is openness and receptivity to another person and is a central aspect of difficult dialogue about painful historical pasts.

Professor Gobodo-Madikizela explained that dialogue provides entry points into the lives of others who have in the past regarded themselves as enemies. Referencing Martin Luther King, she said that empathic dialogue can help create “the beloved community.” Through dialogue people can come together and be fellow human beings sharing in the vision of a more humane society. As examples she offered the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, the processes of community healing such as the gacaca  adopted in Rwanda, and similar restorative justice processes adopted in countries around the globe. All are strategies established to create a space for testimony, a space for confrontation and listening, for moral reflection, and for initiating the difficult process of what she termed “empathic repair.”

She concluded her lecture by comparing her concept of “empathic repair” to the notion of Ubuntu, an African concept that conveys “an ethic based on the understanding that one’s [inner reality] is inextricably intertwined with that of others in one’s community.” These concepts, she noted, remind us that we need to build a world where “the other” matters, so that patterns of hatred and rage can finally be broken. 


South Africa