The Mentors Behind Great African Icons

| 5 min read

Mentors are important and I don’t think anybody makes it in the world without some form of mentorship.

– Oprah Winfrey

Every icon in history or in the making can attribute their success to a number of factors including; talent, a strong will, confidence in their dreams and the tenacity to weather tumultuous times. A rarely acknowledged factor is the people in the icon’s camp that nurture the talent, speak positivity into their dreams, grow their confidence and nurse their wounds to help them face another day in their cause.

Mentors, whether dead or alive, have given the icons we know and love the will to stand tall and have inspired the mantras they have lived by. Finding the right mentor is not always easy, but some mentorship relationships in history seem to have been guided by destiny. We have sampled are some of what we think are the most amazing mentor-mentee relationships history has revealed or is still making.

  1. Martin Luther King Jr. and Kwame Nkrumah

    Martin Luther King Jr. and Kwame Nkuruma

Kwame Nkrumah is the father of Pan-Africa and the first president of the independent nation of Ghana. His thirst for education saw him study locally and internationally, then returning home to be a teacher and political activist. During his study in the United States, Nkrumah supported various Pan-African movements and made valuable connections with great pro-African activists of the time including the global icon, Martin Luther King Jr. Nkrumah maintained meaningful dialogue with King that greatly contributed to his pivotal role in the creation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963. In 1957, King attended Ghana’s independence ceremony by invitation from Nkrumah and later said in an interview, “The minute I knew I was coming to Ghana, I had a very deep emotional feeling. A new nation was been born. It symbolized the fact that a new order was coming into being and an old order was passing away.”

2. Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela

Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela

Most of us stand in awe of Nelson Mandela; the freedom fighter, leader of the African National Congress, Nobel Peace Prize winner, subjugator of apartheid and the first President of the free South Africa. But he wasn’t born an icon. He was human and had to develop just like everyone else. He acknowledged his mentor Walter Sisulu as his inspiration. Sisulu was just 6 years old Mandela’s senior, but he already had a senior position in ANC when Mandela joined. With an eye out for members with outstanding leadership skills, Sisulu immediately picked out Mandela’s potential and decide to mentor him and politically educate him. Together, they formed an unstoppable team that radicalised the party and engaged more directly against the apartheid system.

3. Patrice Lumumba and Dr. Yvonne Seon (Dave Chappelle’s mom)

Patrice Lumumba and Dr. Yvonne Seon

This is one mentorship relationship we did not see coming. If you are a fan of comedy, you most likely know Dave Chappelle and laugh to tears at his jokes. Well, his mom, Dr. Yvonne, lived an extraordinary life. At only 21, with a vibrant flame and curiosity for African liberalisation, Seon was approached to be recruited as a student for Lumumba’s movement back in Congo. Though initially hesitant about accepting the invitation, she was excited by the opportunity to meet Lumumba. The meeting with Lumumba changed her mind and she went on to become the secretary of the High Commission on the Grand Inga Dam Project. Her memory of Lumumba is a “decisive leader” who “cared deeply about his people.”   

4. Marcus Garvey and Minister Louis Farrakhan

Marcus Garvey and Minister Lousi Farakhan

Minister Louis Farrakhan is a powerful force to reckon with in matters black liberalisation. Farrakhan is the leader of the world’s most powerful black religious movement – the  Nation of Islam; making him arguably one of the most powerful black men in the world. His belief in Africa’s potential is embodied in the epic 1996  interview with Mike Wallace, where he challenged the reporter’s view of Nigeria being the most corrupt regime in the world with the famous slogan “America should be quiet”.

The minister has been quoted many times saying how his life and actions have been inspired by the accomplishments and life of Marcus Garvey. The most powerful recount is his first impression of his mentor when he saw him for the first time, on a picture mounted above the fireplace in his uncle’s home. The following conversation ensued;

Young Louis:  “Who is that man?”

Uncle: (Putting him on his shoulders) “That’s Marcus Garvey”

Young Louis: “What did he do?”.

Uncle: “He came to unite our people”.

Young Louis: “Where is he? I want to meet him”.

Uncle:”You can’t. He’s dead”.

Farrakhan recounts that at this point he cried and felt a profound sense of loss that he couldn’t meet Marcus Garvey.

5. Winnie Mandela and Julius Malema

Winnie Mandela and Julius Malema

Julius Malema is currently the leader of Economic Freedom Fighters political party in South Africa. His political career started in South Africa’s revolutionary party the African National Congress headed by Nelson Mandela. Malema attributes his growth in politics to mentorship by Nelson Mandela’s former wife, Winnie Mandela and is very vocal on Winnie’s impact of on young black revolutionists in South Africa. In his opinion, Winnie stepped up and took over the struggle against apartheid when the Nelson Mandela got jailed. He professes that Winnie took him and a group of young revolutionists under her wings, guided them and urged them to “take the fight to them.”

Are there other mentor-mentee relationships you can think of? Tell us in the comments.



Doreen Mueke
Doreen is the Senior Content Marketer at Ringier One Africa Media.


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