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Learning to love in Limpopo

Staff Reporter

We can all agree that through our collective efforts, South Africa has been transforming for 13 years. A country seemingly bent on self-destruction changed course, achieved an extra­ordinary reconciliation and embarked on massive reconstruction and development to bring about a better life for its people.

We can all agree that through our collective efforts, South Africa has been transforming for 13 years. A country seemingly bent on self-destruction changed course, achieved an extra­ordinary reconciliation and embarked on massive reconstruction and development to bring about a better life for its people.

The process of liberation brought an unparalleled freedom. The African majority was freed to enjoy the rights of citizenship. The ruling white minority was freed of its burden of guilt for having presided over apartheid for more than four decades. Those involved in sport, the arts and culture were freed from international isolation that had bred a deadening parochialism. The crumbling economic sector was freed from international sanctions. All South Africans were freed from pariah status and this country occupied its rightful place among nations.

Nelson Mandela, the global icon of self-sacrifice, reconciliation and magnanimity, led our nation for five years through some turbulent moments. Thereafter, President Thabo Mbeki occupied the pinnacle of the highest office in the land to solidify the gains of freedom. Mbeki’s term as president of the republic ends in 2009 by virtue of the constitutional limit of two terms.

The period we are living through is undeniably complex, plagued by a host of ills inherited from apartheid and pockets of new “freedom challenges”. These challenges, if left unresolved, have the potential either to unleash an apocalypse that will consume our country or leave those of us in the ANC hating each other so much that we forget the many years of shared hardships in the trenches of struggle.

Undoubtedly, many attributes of political leadership have been demonstrated over the past 13 years, and some may require re-emphasis; or if they are absent, they deserve to be brought to the public gaze. This history is crucial. As Francis Meli, in South Africa Belongs to Us: A History of the ANC, puts it: “History can only be relevant when it helps us to understand the present so as to master the future. There is the connection between the past, present and future.”

As the ANC approaches the Polo­kwane conference, delegates need to reflect on the requisite political leadership qualities not only for the president, but for the entire national executive committee. And those who seek to be elected into the NEC should be acutely aware of the responsibilities this implies. Humility, honesty, building consensus, accountability, respect and being servants of the people are important credentials for a leader. And there are other attributes. For nearly a century, the ANC has demonstrated that it has an overarching vision for South Africa as embodied in the philosophy of a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic society.

Political leadership is an improvisational art, meaning that to address the nation’s expectations, the leadership must respond to what is happening in society. Unless the leadership repeatedly moves back and forth from the comfort of the corridors of power, steps back to assess the results of its decisions and continually refines its plans, crises will inevitably set in—as will the “crisis leadership” mode of functioning.

The new NEC must think politically by placing more emphasis not on puerile and parochial intentions but on developing and nurturing the ANC’s relationships with community organisations, opposition parties, the alliance partners, the media and other relevant groups. Such relationships are as vital to us as air is to breathing.

What remains crucial in this respect is access as a resource. Those who constitute what I call the “private truth” (tried and tested leaders engrossed only with the unity and the all-round prosperity of the ANC) will attest to the observation of Heifetz and Linsky (Leadership on the Line—Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading) that “dealing with people who are with you on the issue, managing those who are in opposition, working with those who are uncommitted ...” will drive away darkness.

When delegates choose leaders, I am always reminded of Shakespeare’s Henry V, in which the chorus asks for the “muse of fire” to ascend the “brightest heaven of invention”. It was a call to the imagination and a plea to the audience not to watch passively, but to engage their creative faculties to help the actors “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts”. The simple meaning of this story is that we need the leadership that will inspire courage at all levels of society to be creative, adaptable and imaginative, and not to sit around and wait to be told what to do.

A common thread that runs through ANC history is to be vigilant of leadership that does not possess the habits of the mind (moral and ethical conduct, attributes, skills and imagination equal to the requirements of a leadership position) and to live up to the integrity (not betray the mandate of the people) of our esteemed traditions.

In every facet of daily life opportunities to lead call out to us. The chance to make a difference in people’s lives beckons. Michael White (Machiavelli—A Man Misunderstood) says that “for those without power, there isn’t even a dog who will bark in your face”. But for all its passion, promises, excitement and rewards, leading can be extremely risky and potentially dangerous work.

Real leadership inevitably brings about conflict, challenges individuals’ aspirations and demands that diverse intentions are welded into a collective. This can result in leaders getting hurt both personally and professionally. History offers plenty of examples. In 1923, for example, Rudolf Hilferding, a socialist economist and left-wing Social Democrat who was then the finance minister of the German Weimar Republic, had a nervous breakdown because of overwhelming suspicion within the civil service as a consequence of envisaged policy changes.

It is an oft-repeated truism that leaders cannot exist without followers. In South Africa today the emphasis should be placed on a dynamic, active and ongoing interaction between leaders and followers. Each takes cues from the other; each is affected by the other. The new NEC should work closely with the ANC membership and vice versa to construct the kind of organisation that embodies our common values and vision as the ANC continues to evolve.

If delegates choose the correct type of a collective leadership, South Africans and the world community will live to tell the story of how our generation emulated those who came before us—leaders who embodied humility, discipline and selflessness. Delegates will tell the story of how they pulled the ANC back from something bad, ugly, horrible and deep—and back into the pride, dignity and unity that characterised the ANC’s leadership role in delivering unparalleled freedom in 1994.

Delegates should also signal the end of the propensity to vote for “my man”. Personal allegiance to an individual in the hope of some post-Limpopo reward is likely to prove a huge disappointment. Moreover, the vote for “my man” carries the seeds of national despair—it would pave the way for mediocrity to engulf us all, stifling our efforts to accelerate growth and development.

As the sun continues to rise to banish the unfortunate currents within the ruling party, the new light must show a flourishing country, with an entrenched culture of plurality of opinions that must forever remain the bedrock of our commonality.

Delegates will have to find each other—yes, even learn to love each other—despite differences of opinion over the ANC and their leadership preferences.

Past mistakes and hurtful decisions abound on all sides. Delegates will have to forgive and forget for the benefit of the prosperity of our potentially beautiful country, which yearns for an unfettered existence after Polokwane.

Baba Schalk is secretary of the North West provincial legislature

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