FOR LINDIWE MAZIBUKO MC/MPA 2015, democracy in Africa is a live experiment. Elected to South Africa’s parliament before she was 30, and a mentor to numerous aspiring leaders, she knows the continent’s promise and yearning. But she is all too aware of a history and present marked by a sclerotic and unyielding leadership.

And so, having put her political career on hold, she immersed herself in graduate education as a Kennedy School student and fellow to ponder the problem. Now Mazibuko has launched what she sees as part of the solution: the Apolitical Academy, a nonprofit training program to increase the effectiveness of prospective political candidates and government appointees.

“We live on a continent that has a huge demand for democratic leaders, and almost no supply,” Mazibuko says. “We have a terrible shortage of organizations on the ground to develop leaders. The question is, How are we going to do it at scale?”

Born in the final full decade of apartheid, Mazibuko gravitated toward politics during university. She rose rapidly through the ranks of the Democratic Alliance and was elected to South Africa’s National Assembly in 2009, becoming the first black woman to lead the parliamentary opposition to the ruling African National Congress.

Her position gave her experience in the political trenches, but also a perfect vantage point from which to see a problem endemic to much of Africa: an older leadership fighting old battles and unwilling to make space for a younger continent.

“This is a generation that is so far removed from the generation that is leading it that it is almost unthinkable that the entire political elite is made up of leaders from the Cold War, from the 1970s, from revolutionary times,” Mazibuko says.

Not many are like Nelson Mandela, who decided to step down after a single five-year term, despite public clamor for him to serve again. To Mazibuko, that was the right choice for South Africa. The disastrous alternative is the “big man” syndrome, in which a Robert Mugabe rules Zimbabwe for 37 years, well into his 90s—only to be replaced in a coup by his 75-year-old deputy president.

Mazibuko says these liberation-era leaders often committed twin sins: They enabled corruption even as they stuck with outdated economic policies that failed to accept that globalization is a reality.

“The people of Africa do not like big men in office,” she says. “They prefer term limits, and they have enormous demands for democracy.”

She is especially worried that the failures of the “big men” have fueled a narrative that judges the democratic experiment in Africa a failure and argues instead for autocratic leaders who push development over democracy. She describes Rwandan President Paul Kagame as “a stone in the shoe of the democratic movement in Africa.”

In fact, Mazibuko argues, “the data and the surveys and the studies are clear: democracy produces better outcomes.”

Mazibuko upset some members of her own party during her leadership as she shook up committee assignments to bring up younger, more diverse voices. After the party increased its share of the seats in parliament in the 2014 elections, she stepped down for what she called a sabbatical to come to the Kennedy School.

A portrait of Lindiwe Mazibuko MC/MPA 2015.

As a Mid-Career MPA student who had already served in parliament, Mazibuko knew she didn’t need courses on how to run for office. Instead she studied statistics, game theory, economics, and electricity markets; she learned about negotiation in a course with Nicholas Burns, the Roy and Barbara Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations, and Professor James Sebenius of Harvard Business School. “I came here with a dry sponge of a head, just wanting to absorb,” she says.

After a fellowship with Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics (IOP) following graduation, Mazibuko started writing a book but felt it wouldn’t be game-changing if not accompanied by action.

She recalls that while she was an IOP fellow, she encountered African diaspora students at Harvard and neighboring universities who were wrestling with their own future: Should they return home and enter public service and try to strengthen legitimate democratic institutions? Yes, was her unequivocal counsel.

The problem, she realized, was that although the continent offered many general leadership programs, almost none were designed to empower emerging leaders to run for office and then  to govern skillfully.

So Mazibuko connected with the Daniel Sachs Foundation in Stockholm and the Apolitical Group in London, a technology platform that brings together public servants and policy ideas. They thrashed out a plan for a nonpartisan program to support aspirant candidates and higher-level political appointees. Daniel Sachs, a philanthropist and democracy activist, provided seed money.

“The data and the surveys and the studies are clear: democracy produces better outcomes.”

Lindiwe Mazibuko MC/MPA 2015

The academy’s first class for the year-long program includes 15 women and 10 men, mostly from South Africa but some from nearby countries. Some belong to political parties, while others are independent or not aligned.

Mazibuko wants to build a critical mass of effective, principled politicians—including candidates and senior appointed officials, whom she regards as political players. She is not training civil servants, who already have ample training opportunities.

“My focus is on the people who gain power for five years at a time, who have manifestos to implement,” she says. Leaders, young or old, who “are able to understand that power is a temporary thing.”

Meanwhile, Mazibuko’s relationship with the Kennedy School continues to deepen. She returned in the spring of 2019 at the invitation of Burns, who directs the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. As the Fisher Family Fellow, she led seminars and study groups for students on Africa’s political, economic, and diplomatic challenges. (Previous fellows have included the former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkol Karman.)

“Lindiwe Mazibuko embodies the mission of the Kennedy School—from her political career and degree work through her fellowships and then with the academy she built to develop the next generation of political leaders in Africa,” says Burns.

Mazibuko has weighed a return to elected office, but for the time being she is devoting herself to this project. “I’m waiting for the right time, but I’m not biding that time,” she says. “I believe in fixing systems that are broken from the inside. Experience has taught me that you need critical mass.”

Photos by Getty/Gallo Images and Natalie Montaner