Mabel Sithole is a Zimbabwean singer, researcher and development practitioner. She is Program Officer for the Building Bridges program at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance in South Africa, a program which cultivates African leadership and networks for collaboration. She performs under the name Mae Sithole. Describing her musical sound as ‘Afro-fusion,’ she released her first album First Glance in 2015 after working on musical projects with African performers from across the continent.
Mae’s parents are diplomats who have worked for over 40 years with governments in Africa, the African Union and the United Nations. Through this, she previously lived in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Zambia. This experience shaped her, as she explains.
"The opportunity to travel from a young age and grow up in multiple cultural contexts gave me a strong sense and belief in humanity. Naturally, I learnt to see people's strengths and to learn from all that was different to who I was.” It also shaped her as a musician. “It taught me to value the musical treasures we have and to share those treasures with the world. I love fusion music because I can blend the different instruments, rhythms, sounds and melodies inspired by more than one country or context.”
Seeing her parents’ international development work also inspired her professionally – she has her Masters in Development Studies.
“Their political and social consciousness instilled a strong sense of responsibility within me, towards public good.” Mae defines development as “the state where people have access to basic services and are able to pursue their own self-development and growth. It is the state where people have "choice" to decide their own futures and to compete fairly for opportunities that improve their livelihoods.”
She is a part of this work in her current job.
“I work closely with the Programme Manager and our colleagues at The Mandela School to managing our leadership development programmes, which include the Emerging African Leaders Programme. I see my work at the School as a calling and part of fulfilling my life's mission to promote ethical and accountable leadership in Africa. I also see my role as tying knots in the network of leaders across the continent to galvanize their strengths and successes for the greater good.”
This is also a part of her work as a Pan-Africanist.
“My journey as a Pan-Africanist began as a child and many steps, including my parent's influence, contributed to this. A big turning point, however, was the opportunity to pursue my undergraduate BSocScience Honours Degree in Public Administration at the University of Zimbabwe. Our professors, including Prof Eldred Masunungure, Dr Choice Ndoro, Prof Kurebwa, amongst others were key in passing on knowledge and literature that stirred African consciousness and a critical way of analysing our politics and cultural evolution on the continent. I feel at home when I am in Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal, Zambia and any other African countries. Africa is my home."
As well as these professors, Mae identifies her parents as her role models because of the specifics of their work.
“When I was a young child, my daddy took me to his office at the UN Headquarters in New York. Something inside of me jumped and I dreamed of also doing work that would help people all over the world."
"My dad devoted his life to building a new Zimbabwe, both during the struggle against the Ian Smith regime, and as a civil servant post-independence. His sharp wit, intellect and passion for political, social and economic emancipation continues to challenge me. My mother is an international trade specialist, who has worked tirelessly over the years to improve ICT Trade systems and policies across Africa. The impact of more efficient trade systems on traders, youth and travellers, makes a world of a difference to their ability to travel, do business and interact with other people.”
She also lauds the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who was recently laid to rest in his home of Ghana, who “sought peace for Africa and demonstrated what it means to lead from behind.”
In light of her father’s devotion to Zimbabwe Mae says “I think Zimbabwe has an important opportunity now to rebuild and with visionary leaders, plot a path for generations to come. I think leadership is not limited to elected officials, but it's time for all of us to pick up our mantles and get our hands dirty. It's so encouraging to see how people are coming together to build the country.”
Currently living in South Africa, she describes it as a mixed bag of experience.
“Overall I have been overwhelmed with the love and generosity of people here. I have been able to pursue my studies, live and work here over the years and I do not take that for granted. I'm grateful for the opportunities I have had through UCT and other platforms. On the flip side, the xenophobia that has flared up in communities across the country from time to time, makes me sad. That's why one of the strongest messages in my music, include love, tolerance and acceptance."
"I'm praying for the day Africans do not have to classify themselves according to a passport. One of the recent victories is the signing of the Free Movement Protocol and plans for the African passport.” This ties neatly in with how she describes her childhood – because of all the traveling it was her family that became her safe space. Family time remains extremely important to her wellbeing, as does quality time with friends. “I also like to hike and have a daily prayer ritual in the mornings and evenings to still myself and connect with my inner woman. It's a special time for me. It keeps me grounded and allows me to reflect on a day to day basis.”
Listen to Mae’s music here.
Watch Mabel in conversation with fellow alumni of the Emerging African Leaders Programme in the margins of the 6th High Level Dialogue on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance in Africa, Carolyn Kandusi (Tanzania), Makda Tessema (Ethiopia), Matodzi Amisi (South Africa), Nancy Muigei (Kenya), hosted by Rama Dieng (Senegal). Follow Rama Dieng’s YouTube Channel to see her 30 Minutes With series, in which she engages with academics, artists, writers, policy-makers and leaders on current African affairs.
Read AMI’s profiles on some other alumni of the Emerging Leaders program.