Remembering Ali Mufuruki

On 14th November 2020, the Mandela Institute of Development Studies (MINDS) held a celebration of the life of Ali Mufuruki, founder of ALI East Africa, a day before what would have been his 62nd birthday. The convening brought together family, friends, and associates from across the world whose lives were significantly […]

On 14th November 2020, the Mandela Institute of Development Studies (MINDS) held a celebration of the life of Ali Mufuruki, founder of ALI East Africa, a day before what would have been his 62nd birthday. The convening brought together family, friends, and associates from across the world whose lives were significantly impacted by the life and leadership of Ali Mufuruki. 

Among the tributes was a panel discussion amongst fellows of the Africa Leadership Initiative from each of the three continental hubs. The panel included Laila Macharia – board chairperson of ALI East Africa, Ralph Fresse – Executive Director of ALI South Africa and Kwaku Sakyi-Addo – a fellow of ALI West Africa, and was moderated by ALI East Africa fellow and board member, Catherinerose Baretto. The fellows reflected on the various challenges of 2020 that have forced leaders to reimagine solutions to the fast-changing crises. As Catherinerose put it, “while 2020 has highlighted our shortcomings, it has also shown us our strength as people.”

Laila shared a quote from Ethics of Our Fathers by Pirkei Avot, “you are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from beginning”. This piece of wisdom holds an acceptance that leadership, especially as we’ve seen this year, is under-guarded by virtue and that virtue is its own reward. It shows us the idea of collective work – that someone can plant the tree, somebody else waters it, somebody else prunes it and someone else will be the one who sits under its shade. She urged participants to start within themselves as leaders and build that virtue from within. With Ali Mufuruki, we saw the virtue of collective work and someone planting the tree for others to sit under its shade. This year, looking at the challenges to leadership – the virtue that individuals hold has proven to be the difference between life and death for people. It can be the difference between us tackling climate change, it can be the difference between equity in our societies being delivered or it being something we just talk about.

She added that there will be moments when leaders are overwhelmed and will want to abandon the task but leaning on like-minded people in networks such as Africa Leadership Initiative is what helps one continue, step by step, towards the goal. The Africa Leadership Initiative seeks to move leaders from commentary to action. We know that leaders need space for reflection, refreshment, but also that they need to be reminded because when leaders get fatigued, it’s easy to become passive. Our entire purpose is pushing leaders back in the arena and trying to equip them so that they are able to continue on this path.


Ralph Fresse highlighted 4 major leadership lessons from 2020 under the broad idea that working together is what brings power and community to what we do as leaders. The world does not change one person at a time, it changes when networks of relationships discover or create a common cause and a vision for what is possible for us all. He discovered that in every intervention that ALI South Africa has started to combat the global crises, applying the connections within ALI and between ALI and other networks, delivered more than any single big personality could. As such, he believes we should move from the idea that we need to be saved by one individual and harness the power within our communities.  He also urged participants to get real, and have an honest and difficult conversation on the root cause of the challenges we’re facing in order to subscribe to accurate solutions. 

When dealing with major global crises, scale matters. Feeding 1000 hungry people is wonderful but when millions are starving, that’s not enough. Changing systems becomes essential and possible because we have so many energetic bright people on the continent who need to be linked to each other to multiply their influence. Ali Mufuruki functioned in a sea of networks and we must emulate his work and build on that example. We have to remember Franz Fanon who argued correctly that change of consciousness is a prerequisite for social change. To shift consciousness, we have to know our history. We must hold onto hope.

He closed with a quote from Miliukov’s Speech to the Duma on November 14, 1916, “Is it stupidity or is it treason that stops you from doing the right thing?’ and encouraged participants to ask this of our political leaders and more importantly, themselves.

Kwaku referred to Luke 10:2 when he stated that the harvest (challenges) is plentiful but the labourers are few. He suggested that to combat the challenges facing leadership today, it is essential to multiply and replicate leaders in the mould of Ali Mufuruki but also lead by example. Across Africa, several countries have conducted elections or are approaching their major election. While the quality and substance of them is evolving, now is the time to transition from commentary to participation and action. Many young people wash up on the shores of Europe dead or alive in the hopes of a better life. We have a responsibility to invest in education for young people so they can live in dignity and participate in growing their countries.

Zuhura, ALI East Africa fellow, closed the memorial with a testament of Ali Mufuruki’s life. In Islam, it is believed that every soul is created to fulfil a particular purpose and it was for this reason that Ali led a purposeful life that transcended him as a person. Ali invested himself passionately in empowering other people without any discrimination or hope of gaining anything. Humanity was the primary call for his life. When some of his colleagues we’re giving up on Africa, he always came up with an optimistic view of where Africa is going. It’s not that we have a short time on earth, it’s that we waste much of it. Life is long enough and it has been given sufficiently for the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. That’s what Ali stood for, he loved humanity and wanted to invest himself in bettering it. 

In the words of the ever-inspiring Late Ali Mufuruki, “Africa wants a lot of things but needs only one thing, enlightened, values-driven, extraordinary effective leaders.”

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