The Warrior Leader who inspired Ownership-driven Leadership

Chief Maqoma is regarded by historians as the most renowned Xhosa chief in South Africa’s 19th-century Frontier Wars, assuming almost a legendary status as the protagonist in three of these wars.

As we mark 150 years of the passing of Chief Jongumsobomvu Maqoma and reflect on his life, there is a recurring them which our leaders of today may do us a service to take note of. This is the concept of Ownership.
Ownership is a broad concept introduced in the book ‘Rise of the Warrior Leader’ which captures both responsibility and accountability. Often responsibility is used to refer to the execution of a task, whereas accountability is used for when there is a lack of execution. This concept can be thought of as having three components.

1. Own who you are.

This component relates to having self-acceptance, owning both your successes and your dark side. This is enabled with continuous self-reflection and self-observation.

On the passing of Maqoma’s father, King Ngqika, even though Maqoma’s younger brother Sandile was still a minor at the time, by virtue of lineage Sandile was the heir to the Rharabe throne. This was a result of maternal bloodline as Maqoma’s mother Nomvakalisa Nothontho, was of the Nqgosini a Khoe-Sotho clan within the confederation of peoples that constitute the amaXhosa. Whereas Sandile’s mother was the Great Wife Suthu of Thembu lineage, making Sandile the rightful son to hold the position of Regent. The regency was split between Maqoma, his half-brother Tyali and Suthu, with this shared responsibility in place for the period from 1829 until Sandile was to come of age. Maqoma was the most influential among this triumvirate. When Sandile came of age and was duly crowned as King in 1840, the rivalry with Maqoma continued with the latter’s eventual expulsion on the grounds of witchcraft, in only Sandile’s third year as sovereign. However, during the War of the Axe, also known as the 7th Frontier War (1846-47), Maqoma was forgiven and called upon to lead men once again in battle as the Rharabe found themselves in a dire situation.

Even though Maqoma’s bloodline was not considered ‘blue’ enough to be king, he did not let this define him. He took ownership of his heritage and defined his own story.

2. Own the mission.

This component is about belief. Have belief in both the mission and your people, inspire this among your people for them to also own the mission and take Ownership.
Even though he was not the heir, he took selfless action for the good of his people. He took Ownership of the mission, which was to defend his fatherland from invading forces, in three Frontier Wars. These being: Hintsa’s War, also known as the 6th Frontier War (1834-1836), War of the Axe, also known as 7th Frontier War (1846-1847), the War of Mlanjeni, also known as the 8th Frontier War (1850-1853). The battle for Waterkloof in the Amatola Mountains in 1851 is considered Maqoma’s greatest victory. This battle formed part of the Eighth Frontier War (1850-1853). These battles, amongst which includes the battle to relieve Governor Sir Harry Smith, who was trapped in Fort Cox by the Xhosa are the biggest battles ever recorded in South Africa prior to the Battle of Isandlwana. These wars were often fought around the Amatola mountains, where some of the fiercest hand-to-hand combat took place. In honour of these battles, there is a South African naval warship named SAS AMATOLA. This selflessness evidenced qualities of Batho Pele and ubuntu.

The South African term ‘Batho Pele’ (Sotho-Tswana) translates as ‘People First’. This concept was first formally introduced by the Mandela Administration, to serve as a reminder that government leadership stands for being of service to the public. It is important to understand that Batho Pele is not a plan or a strategy, rather it is an attitude that shapes the character of the public service. It serves as a reminder that the citizens are the receivers of public service; accordingly, they should be seen as customers. The citizens are the reason why public service exists.

Despite being afforded the privilege of royalty, he could have submitted to a protected life yet chose to put the people first. This resulted in his imprisonment on Robben Island where he served 12 years during his first incarceration, before eventually dying on the island in his second incarceration.

Ubuntu is a well-known concept in South Africa, understood to be centred around a sense of ‘humanness’. This is often simplified as ‘I am, because you are’. A deeper understanding can be drawn from the Zulu phrase ‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’, meaning that a person is a person through other people.

It has its roots in the feeling of connectedness through community. Although the term Ubuntu Leadership appears to be increasingly used, it is to be considered an important leadership building block, rather than a stand-alone style. It resonates strongly with the community-orientated approach of collectivist cultures. These cultures emphasise the needs and goals of the Collective, over the needs and desires of each individual. This is referred to as ‘inkosi, inkosi ngabantu bayo’, meaning that a chief is because of his subjects. A corrupt chief would be regarded as a serious breach of mutual trust, breaking the covenantal relationship.

Even though Maqoma was highly revered, he saw himself as playing his part towards the betterment of the lives of his people. He was merely using his natural gift, that of a strategist and tactician who embodied selflessness and courage.

3. Own the result.

This component concerns taking accountability, regardless of the outcome. Accountability refers to owning your role and responsibilities, including all decision-making. Although the responsibility may be delegated, the ultimate accountability for completion of the task rests with the leader, i.e. the buck stops here.

This great leader came of age during his first major battle, which was also his worst defeat. This was when he led Ngqika’s army as a young 20-year-old in civil war against Chief Ndlambe. As Maqoma made his way to the battlefield, he spotted several hundred of Ndlambe’s warriors camped out on the plain. To seize the moment, he commanded his men to charge. Maqoma appeared to be succeeding in driving back the enemy back. However, Maqoma suddenly found himself being ambushed as the remainder of Ndlambe’s army unexpectedly emerged from the forested areas. This element of surprise caught Maqoma off guard resulting in a crushing defeat at the hands of his warrior rivals. This defeat would prove a blessing in years to come and did not stop his perseverance. Instead, he chose to learn from this defeat, seeing it as ‘experience’. This oral tradition recounts this final epic battle:

“They marched through the (Battle of) Amalinde where Maqoma distinguished himself, though they lost the battle, they were never disgraced…”

Even though the first battle he ever led resulted in defeat, that would serve to forge him as a force to be reckoned with going on to adopt the element of surprise in his mode of warfare. Years later, according to Xhosa oral tradition, he earned the praise name ‘the Leopard of Fordyce’. This was because the highest-ranking officer to die in these Frontier Wars was Lieutenant Colonel John Fordyce, who was killed in the Waterkloof battles which he led.

According to the historian Rob Speirs, who specialises in battle tours along the Eastern Cape, these battles were the most protracted in history. In fact, up until the 2nd Anglo-Boer War they accounted for the highest death toll in any battle.

A comment from a contemporary chief and descendent, Chief Island Siqithi Maqoma, adds perspective when he stated:
‘Small wonder that the Eastern Cape has more forts than any other place in Africa. This is because it was here that the British fought longest and hardest…’

Like in the days of the Frontier Wars when war was sparked with little or no warning, today our world is increasingly being described as VUCA (Volatile, Unstable, Chaotic and Ambiguous). Once again, an Ownership-driven leadership approach is called for the leader to take Ownership in times of a crisis or threat. In times of business as usual this concept is to be engendered in the Collective, with the leader being of service, providing a sense of safety and creating an environment for everyone to feel like stakeholders. Current leadership would be well-served to re-learn these principles to apply in the face of the challenges we are facing today.

Claudio Chiste
Author of the leadership book ‘Rise of the Warrior Leader’

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