Interview with Thabang Moleko, Mandela Washington Fellow

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Please introduce yourself and tell us more about the Mandela Washington Fellowship program.

I am a young South African who works as strategist and policy analyst for the Regional Public Works Department. I am responsible for property strategy and policy implementation. I have a background in financial management, project management and strategic management, and have been a management consultant and a public servant for about 10 years now.

The Mandela Washington Fellowship was a concept of President Obama, who decided to help Africa’s next generation of leaders to achieve their potential. The idea was to help African youth develop skills and leadership abilities by coming to train in top American universities on public management, civic leadership; and business and entrepreneurship. Since 2014, about 500 young African leaders between the ages of 25 and 35 are selected from Sub-Saharan countries. The applicants where then placed in 20 universities to train in public management, civic leadership and business and entrepreneurship. There was also an opportunity to meet and engage with senior business and government leaders in the United States. The fellowship then seeks to develop a leadership plan that can help you become a leader who can take Africa to the next level.

How and why did you choose to join the AfDB after the program?

As a part of the fellowship, I was asked to develop a Leadership Development Plan to see what concrete steps I can implement to achieve my full leadership and working potential in the next two to five years.  I want to work on meaningful development projects across the continent. I really wanted multilateral experience on development projects in Africa.  I asked the Mandela Washington Fellowship to place me in African internship, as compared to an American experience, as it would be crucial in my growth and development as a genuine African leader. The AfDB was an institution that would be give me that prime African development experience.    

As the first Mandela Washington Fellow to join the AfDB, what is your feeling?  

It’s a fantastic feeling. I think the Mandela Washington Fellowship and the AfDB can really genuinely work together in empowering African youth. The Bank is a tried and tested development partner in Africa. By starting this initiative with the Mandela Washington Fellowship and providing a chance for youth to get valuable practical experience on development and banking on the continent. The experience is priceless, mixed with chance to mingle with Africans from all cultures and countries. Well, to be first is a tough one; I have a responsibility to set a good impression to the AfDB about the Fellowship. I also have to sell the AfDB to the Fellowship. I have to work very hard and set an example for the next six months to ensure that the relationship continues for a long time.    

What initiatives have you been part of since you joined the institution?

I am working for the Human Capital Development Department. The Director has asked me to work closely on AfDB Jobs for Youth in Africa Initiative. I have had a chance to work with the Bank team and consultants in organizing some of the consultative sessions on the strategy with some Ivorian youth.  I have also been asked to help with some of the operational plans for the Post Ebola Recovery Social Investment Fund for Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. I am also helping do the research on what is happening in youth migration in the continent for supporting and input on possible Bank projects.    

How do you hope to contribute to the High 5s? And how do you see your current role at the Bank in the next years to come?

I am fortunate to have been able to be part of the success story of Africa’s youth.  My most immediate priority is ensure the Mandela Washington Fellowship and AfDB to work together on youth programs that reflect the Bank’s development priorities, the High 5s. I am excited by the focus on youth jobs and entrepreneurship. I have been advocating for that since I was fortunate to be a manager at young age.  As an ongoing project, I will seek to make sure that the Mandela Washington Fellowship works together with the Bank to deliver on the other strategic priorities.  

I think I will be able to advocate and assist on the integrating Africa priority, I have been fortunate to have worked on migration issues at home as a management consultant and the Bank is asking me to provide some ideas how to work on youth migration. I also have been privy to see how the Bank works on some key initiatives. I am assisting my Manager to develop an understanding of some of the South African challenges and how the AfDB can assist from a youth perspective.

I have taken a look at the other High 5s. I really support infrastructure development; I currently work as a strategist in that sector. I think that Africa cannot compete if we do not invest in building new infrastructure and more importantly maintaining the existing infrastructure. I have seen how planning a proper infrastructure project in line with the respective strategy of the public sector institution can lead to exponential successes in terms of economic growth and job creation. I also see processes around the support of infrastructure as a key long-term job creator. 

What do you see as the biggest challenge the Bank need to meet in the area of human development for effective transformation in Africa?

I cannot see how any of our superb initiatives are going to work if we don’t sort out our youth employment and entrepreneurship challenge.  If we have close to 60% of our population seeing themselves as bystanders to initiatives on infrastructure, agriculture, energy and information and communications technology (ICT), we will not have stability.  I think the Bank will play a different role on skills development as compared to national governments. I fully agree that the Bank must implement projects that focus on skills developments and entrepreneurship. I see so much value in technical skills in vocational colleges and investments on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) training.  I hope all the initiatives create a situation whereby youth see themselves as agents for prosperity, who can participate in all our initiatives.

To what extent can leadership contribute to the achievement of the High 5s?  

They say that it’s not what you say as leader, it is all about what you do. If the Bank as an institution can implement the values of the High 5s, it will go a long way to convincing stakeholders that they are extremely important. The pace is always going to be set and determined by the leadership of the institution. I understand there is a serious sense of urgency to get things done coming from the top. I can feel it from conversations with the human capital team and other colleagues that they are fully aware of the urgency of getting projects done on time and as promised. I can feel the pressure to get things done on some of the initiatives I have been assisting with. The pressure is very real from management to get it done especially if the project is part of the High 5s. I also must commend how it was one of the first things the unit asked me to familiarize myself with before I did anything else. That showed that the division leadership is always keeping in mind the overall strategy.