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Barbara Masekela

in conversation with Prof. Daniel Plaatjies

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Barbara woman

1941 Born in Johannesburg

1952 Anglican Primary School in Witbank and St Michaels Anglican School in Alexandra 1956 Enrolled at the Inanda Girls Seminary Boarding School in Durban

1960 Completed her matriculation

1962 Attended Roma University in Lesotho

1963 Moved to Ghana where she contracted tuberculosis 1965 Enrolled at Fordham University, New York but she got ill again, and left the US

1967 Resumed her studies at the University of Zambia

1970-1971 Enrolled at the Ohio State University and completed her BA degree

1972 Taught at Statten Island Community College

1973-1982 Taught in the English Department of Livingstone College, Rutgers University

1976 Leave of absence to finish her MA degree

1982 Returned to Zambia where she worked as administrative secretary for the ANC on a full time basis

1983 Headed the ANC's Department of Arts and Culture

1990 Returned to South Africa when F W de Klerk unbanned liberation movements

1991 Seconded to the ANC National Executive Committee. 1995 Became South Africa’s official ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)

1995-1998 Ambassador to France

1999-2003 Executive director for public and corporate affairs for De Beers Consolidated Mines

On the 8th of September 2003, Barbara Masekela became South Africa's ambassador to the United States of America. But long before then, she was the country's unofficial ambassador of culture to the world during her 22 years in exile. Barbara's upbringing made her see the world around her and the possibilities that abounded through the spectrum of culture and diversity.


Barbara was born in July 1941 in a Johannesburg Township called Alexandra. Her older brother was the acclaimed trumpeter and the father of South African jazz, the late Hugh Masekela. Her father was primarily a sculptor from Limpopo, while her mother was a social worker from Mpumalanga province. She and her siblings grew up speaking Afrikaans, Ndebele, Sotho, Tlokwa, and Sitlokwa.


The diversity of their parent's backgrounds exposed them to the whole diversity gamut of South Africa, which came with various challenges. Barabra remembers the isolation and name-calling she and her family faced because of being different and not fitting into any particular group.


As she went through high school and university, her political sensibilities took a foothold. By the 1960s, she had started interacting with ANC political leaders, going into exile in 1963. During her time in exile, she promoted South Africa's artistic and cultural brand. She mastered the art of using culture as a tool for the struggle against the apartheid state.


Her work and career are dedicated to the principles of unity through cultural appreciation. She returned home in February following the unbanning of liberation movements. She was called upon by Nelson Mandela shortly afterward to serve as his Chief of Staff.


Barbara has continued to serve her fatherland in various capacities. In all the positions she has held, a common thread runs through, fostering unity and growth through culture. She puts it like this; culture, for me, is still a very, very important instrument, a vehicle for bringing people together, for bringing about understanding, for sharing common values.

Barbara leader

Accelerate the evolution of our culture and talent

Key Quality of a Servant Leader

Barbara Masekela

South African

Public Servant


Mandela’s Chief of Staff



South Africa's ambassador to the United States

Awards for her roles as Public Servant

2008 Awarded the Order of Luthuli in Silver (OLS)

Barbara interview

Things You May Not Know About Barbara

These are drawn from the full interview, which for Daniel was from "OneComradeToAnother'. Watch the full interview, here.

BARBARA copy.jp2



The era before apartheid

“... I was attracted by the notion of equality - that nobody was less, lesser, or better… I felt pain hearing my mother being referred to, in a certain way or hearing my mother’s relatives referring to my father in a certain way, but my parents were wonderful, talented people… I think we were very fortunate. It was quite different for a child during apartheid, growing up in Coronationville, being surrounded by Africans but being insulated because of my mother (a colored), who would’ve been 100 years old next year. My mother grew up before apartheid - she was born in 1917. She went to African schools because at the time you didn’t have Bantu education. She went to Kilnerton, that’s where my parents met. She spoke Ndebele, Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, everything, Sepedi, Afrikaans, and English. So it was not difficult in that sense because we were raised to believe that we were equal to everybody and that our lives were important…”



Colonial leftovers

“... There are certain epithets that are used which were painful as a child words like “kaffir”, words like “boesman”, “Ilawu”, which people used. Not because people were evil, but because the racism, which is part of our society, had influenced them and many of those people had not been exposed to these other cultures. It could not have been easy for my mother to marry into my father’s family and I think she was a very brave woman to do that. In time, because of her humanity, her kindness, and her talents, she was accepted. It’s like if your daughter brought a white man to say they are marrying. You can’t just pretend that no it’s a normal situation. It does cause some anxiety, it does cause some doubts… But once you get exposed, once you get to know your son-in-law as a human being, and in South Africa we simply did not have the opportunity to get to know each other as human beings, and the evil and crime of apartheid were that not only was this promoted between black and white but it was promoted even within the black community. Where you looked askance at certain people, and your reason for your prejudice was that you didn’t know them… In Alexandra township for instance we had people from the Cape who worked in Alexandra township. They worked in the sanitation department and people looked down on them because they were called ‘night soil men’. People from the North were looked down upon and my father used to tell stories about them coming from the North and coming to Joburg and working in the mines. So prejudice was just part and parcel of colonialism…”



Elections enabled by the “disabled”

“... Just before we went to elections. It was very important that we got everyone in South Africa to vote, to be part of the campaign, and to play a role. One businessman, I wouldn’t say he was a businessman, I would say he was associated with a business, came to me to say to me: “They want to see Mr. Mandela because they think it’s very, very important that the physically challenged, the disabled South Africans, play a role in voting.” This was not a person who was an activist in the ANC and I told Mr. Mandela and he said: “Of course I’ll see them.” … What I’m getting at is that actually at the time some 15% or over 10% of the voters were disabled people. Now it’s very easy to say that’s very fashionable… It’s politically correct to incorporate everyone, but in those days you never thought about the power of the disabled people of South Africa. And one of the reasons why I respected Mr. Mandela, and I still do so much, was that he was an inclusive person. The most important thing for him, because he loved South Africa so much, was that everybody who can make a contribution to the betterment of our country must be utilised for that purpose, which is not always true. This is where you get this factionalism and this and that. Mr. Mandela was very very clear about the right of every South African to contribute to the betterment of the country…”


I am that too

“... I would describe myself as a South African who has, because of the history of our country, had to take several roles in my life. So I’ve been a teacher, I’ve been a diplomat, I’ve been a political activist. I am a mother, I’ve got two sons… Some people describe me as Hugh Masekela's sister and I am that too. He is my brother and we are good friends, we’ve always been… We share the same interest in books, music and so on. We usually have mutual friends too. We’ve shared friends and we’ve been supportive of each other. I lead quite a separate life from his. So it hasn’t been a burden to be his sister at all. In fact sometimes, most of the time, it’s an advantage because people usually stop me and say: “Are you related to… you know you look like… So no, it hasn’t been a burden. Here and abroad it’s always been a pleasure because I’m very proud of him and his achievements. I’m happy to be associated with him and I think he is to be with me…”



Mandela asked me to be his Chief of Staff

“... When uTata Mandela came out of prison one of the first trips he took was to the United States… Because I’ve always been in the ANC since I was about 16, I was asked to be in the advanced team preparing for the trip of Tata Mandela to go to America. Because I had lived and worked in the United States and I had been an activist in the United States in the anti-apartheid movement, and in the ANC, it was felt that I would be able to make a valuable contribution to the success of the trip. And during that trip, we went to all the major cities. I mean it was just a historical thing, just a mind-blowing experience. At the end of that trip, Mr. Mandela asked me if I could join his office, I guess he was impressed with my work… I don’t know but in retrospect, I would say because I think my whole career shows that. I think that he realised that I was a person who works in the background. I’m not one for the stage and to be seen etc. My nature is to do work in the background and I think you’d be hard put, very hard put, to find a photograph of me with Mr. Mandela, but I was Chief of Staff in his office… I’m just not a camera, lights person. He was a very discerning wise man he must have noticed that and thought: “This is the person that I will need”. But also, as you can see, even from my interview with you, I remain away from the camera because I’m actually a very passionate person and I think you need calm collected people in front of the camera…”



The fragility of a leader

“... Mr. Mandela was one of the most disciplined people I have known in my life. He was also disciplined in his personal life. In terms of his physical life, he always exercised, he didn’t overeat, he took care of himself because he was a vessel in the service of the people. If that vessel breaks down then you can’t serve the people anymore. In public, he was the epitome of diplomacy and wit… Mr. Mandela would get very upset about the people of South Africa, and how they were being treated. Like for instance when there were all these massacres taking place. Working with him you would see him grieving, his heart was bleeding, but that was in private, in the office… Something had pricked him deeply… I think one has to say that this is a man who never showed the wounds, the psychic wounds, that he had suffered from being incarcerated for such a long time. But I think that was probably one moment when he was angry because otherwise, he was the most controlled and affable person…”



Celebrate our national diversity

"... You can enter the culture of other people through their arts and their crafts and their literature and their theatre and their music... I still believe that culture is a very, very important thing and I think that we are very privileged in South Africa. Of course diversity comes with a lot of issues and problems but basically it’s an advantage... A child growing up, for instance in Johannesburg knows at least three or four languages, unlike a child growing up in Sweden or in Germany or in Finland. So I think that it’s a great privilege to be born into a society like this. It also exposes you to all kinds of prejudices which you have to overcome and you overcome them of course by identifying, by learning languages, being able to communicate with different people. Diversity is a great thing, it has its problems, but certainly, South Africans are not one-dimensional nationalists who just know their own culture. I think it had even helped us in Africa because we are curious about the cultures of Africa..."


Please note this is a word-for-word transcript from Daniel and Barbara's conversation. 



Art and culture ran through the veins

“... My brother and I are the oldest in the family, my father was a health inspector, and he was above all a sculptor. My mother was a social worker. We were very lucky because my father is from the north, he is from the Limpopo province and my mother was from the Mpumalanga province. We grew up with my grandmother in Witbank, and then later on, when we were teenagers, we lived with my parents. I went to school in Natal. So we’ve been very fortunate because we have been exposed to the whole gamut of South African diversity. We grew up speaking Afrikaans at my grandmother’s house and also Ndebele because she was Ndebele and in that area, people spoke Afrikaans. Then in my father’s family, they are northern Sotho so we are Tlokwas and later on we were able to learn Tlokwa and speak Sitlokwa and so we consider ourselves very fortunate because we think that we exemplify the diversity of South Africa... My father was an artist, my brother became an artist, and my mother was a social worker. So we were always involved in the cultural life of Johannesburg… We grew up in Alexandra township, among other places, and in our home we had books, we had music, lots of music. My father was a designer, he loved architecture, he loved landscaping, he loved building. So we grew up in an environment which encouraged us to know about these things. So it was natural for me to go into culture. I write poetry and I’m writing a memoir right now. I’ve always been good at school in English. I studied literature and taught literature at a university level in the United States. So the arts have always been very attractive to us and part of our upbringing…”


Redefining the work concept

“... It’s very important to realise in the first place that you are not Nelson Mandela. If you work with the President or you work with a minister, you are not the minister. I don’t like the expression, ‘working for’ because I don’t think I was working for him. I was working for the ANC and when you are working for your country, or for your company, or for your school. You are working ‘for’. The person who has been chosen to lead, you are not that person, you together with that person and others are working to advance the cause of that institution, of the organisation, etc. And I think, for me, that is the most important thing. In our country we’ve had this expression of “Batho Pele”, people first. I think much of the complaints that our people have is that the people are not always first. Because I’m holding a position… I am first now. I’m working in Mr. Mandela’s office so you have to go through Barbara… When you work in a situation like that, first of all, you have to realise you can’t do it alone, you need other people to work with. We live in a society that is very complex, and which therefore has many disciplines and many experts. You need those people, you need their wisdom, you need their advice, their input and if you work in the backroom you have to be aware of the fact that there are other people out there who can make what you do look even better and be even better because they know about different subjects…”



A woman president

“... It’s always time for a South African woman president. Growing up in the movement and even being an ambassador of South Africa, going to the UN, going to international conferences, it still makes me ill when I see all those men in dark suits. Of course, it’s time for a South African female president… It’s not a question of gender only… We believe that a woman can make as much contribution to the improvement of South Africa as any man and we are equal to that. It would be great if we had a woman president not for the sake only of having a woman president. We have to have the best person and a woman should have a chance to compete with the best, that’s how I’ll put it…”



The changing times, and cultures

“... I’m actually very optimistic about South Africa… I think we’ve come a long, long way. We have filmmakers, we’ve got fashion designers, we’ve got writers, we’ve got economists. All this is South African culture and it’s evolving and our task is to make sure that we accelerate that evolution and there are some people who are always trying to slow it down, to retag that evolution… You find that people are appropriating... They are claiming things that are made… They say it came out of our country so it is ours, it can’t belong to you because you are white or because you of Asian extraction, or because you come from the Eastern Cape. Umbhaco (traditionally Xhosa clothing) is mine too and I can wear it. If you look at crafts in South Africa today, you see that our compatriots, our white compatriots, our Asian compatriots, we are all taking from the different streams of South African culture and we are busy creating a new South Africa. I think what you have here is that people expect that something will emerge tomorrow and you will be able to say: “It weighs so much, it measures…” It’s not. It’s an evolving thing that manifests itself in different ways and I think we’re getting there…”


Full Interview 

Barbara Full Interview
Barbara lesson

Servant Leaders must accelerate the evolution of our culture and talent

BARBARA copy.jp2

"...I’m actually very optimistic about South Africa… I think we’ve come a long, long way. We have filmmakers, we’ve got fashion designers, we’ve got writers, we’ve got economists. All this is South African culture and it’s evolving and our task is to make sure that we accelerate that evolution and there are some people who are always trying to slow it down, to retag that evolution...:

Daniel in conversation with

Barbara Masekela




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