/ 30 December 2014

Wanted: Leaders to heal SA

Authoritative: ANC leaders Winnie Madikizela-Mandela
Authoritative: ANC leaders Winnie Madikizela-Mandela


As the tide of consternation and anger has risen around ­President Jacob Zuma – and many in his Cabinet – I have tried to sharpen the point of a question whose latest iteration is: “Who, between the ages of 45 and 55, can lead South Africa?”

This age bracketing matters for many reasons but, immediately, two stand out.

First, and importantly, we need to talk about the successor-generation of leaders more than we are encouraged to do because, if this democracy is to flourish, some heavy lifting will have to be done by leaders who are now in their 20s.

And second, and without (I hope) becoming too romantic about the past, two decades ago there was a raft of potential leaders in this particular age bracket who were looked upon as possible leaders: Thabo Mbeki, Chris Hani, Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale – and, at a push, Jay Naidoo, or, admittedly, at a stretch, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert.

As is clear, these names are suggestive of a long, long list. But today, alas, the pickings are thin with few names coming to the fore.

Several people I tormented with the question over the Christmas holidays were at pains to point out that, across the world, few inspirational leaders are to be found these days. Undeniably, this is true.

Yet when I pushed those questioned to choose a standout ­current leader, most on the right opted for Angela Merkel, Germany’s Iron Lady – a well-trained physicist and daughter of an East German Lutheran pastor, who has stuck to her free-market guns at home and in Europe.

Those on the left mostly settled on José Mujica, the president of Uruguay since 2010, who was once an urban guerrilla. He gives 90% of his presidential salary to the poor and drives himself around in a battered blue Volkswagen Beetle.

Several people I asked simply refused to play this parlour game, saying that the next generation of South Africa’s leaders were keeping their heads below the parapet for fear of losing them.

This is a curious approach to an important issue: after all, to be a leader is to have the courage of one’s convictions, whatever one’s age; more ominously, it suggests that only the old can lead, which is just nonsense.

Across the world, wonderful leadership is being shown by men and women in their 20s, which is why this particular cohort in South Africa needs to be drawn to the fore.

Take as an example Chilean student leader Camila Vallejo: just 26 years old, she was at the head of the uprising of students in 2011 and 2012, which changed the funding of education in that country. Given this success, it is hardly surprisingly that she has been called the most important communist figure of the 21st century in Chile – a badge of great significance in that country – notwithstanding that she failed to be re-elected president of the Chilean Students Federation. Recently, she was elected as a deputy to the country’s Congress.

But what matters far more than individual cases, however, is how the young understand leadership and what values they have imbibed, because it is in how they view the world that democracy will be secured and social justice fostered.

What matters in leadership, surely, is nurturing what might be called followership – this is a lesson quite readily acquired from off-the-shelf airport books, which purport to impart what are far too casually dubbed “leadership skills”.

But unlike these often factitious accounts, securing followers means more than following the crowd in preserving the status quo. It often means saying it like it is, rather than following, as far too many leaders do, the ubiquitous opinion poll.

But speaking up for change ­invariably poses a quandary for political leadership because, especially nowadays, the accepted discourse of politics – indeed society – displays no real tolerance for the plight of the poor. 

This is because the grammar of politics blames the individual for his or her own poverty while celebrating the acquisition of wealth as evidence of the supremacy of market-based social relations. In this divide, there is no space for the role of the state except as the proverbial night watchperson – so, the allotted role of the politician is to defend the status quo.

To change things will require admitting that global markets are important, but also saying that what matters more are the interests of those whose lives have been rendered ­penniless by the excesses of contemporary capitalism. It will also require pointing out that the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy ­threatens the achievements of market-driven capitalism far more than the demands of striking workers.

One global leader who has had the courage to challenge the way in which our world is structured is Pope Francis. In a very bleak age, the pontiff – who was not mentioned by anyone I questioned over Christmas – is turning out to be an inspirational leader.

Last year, in both word and action, he showed that to lead requires what the Quakers call speaking truth to power.

But he has done more than this: significantly, Francis has deliberately shunned the ostentatious trappings of his high office. This is not new: as we have seen, Mujica has been doing this in Uruguay since 2010.

Interestingly, this almost unnatural conduct from these two leaders reinforces a lesson that has been practised in (of all places) the military where, for centuries, the very first lesson of leadership training is this: “The men always eat before the officers.”

Today, not only at the tables of the mega-rich, but also seemingly throughout society, those who have power are indulged long before thoughts turn to feeding those who are excluded. Weaning political leaders away from the everyday acceptance of entitlement will not be easy. This is because the trappings of power seem so ­readily equated with individual accumulation that is, almost always, at the expense of the public purse.

To secure democracy in this country it is vital to demonstrate that politics should benefit the public, not the political class. The paralysis that the Nkandla mess has laid on South Africa these past years speaks to this in volumes. But the trappings of entitlement are to be found elsewhere, too – often, of course, in the unspoken tips that are enjoyed by decision-makers.

But the pope is doing more than simply putting society before self: he has peered deeply into the muddle and morass of an ancient political institution, the Catholic Church. In so doing, he seems determined not so much to modernise it, as many claim, but to return it to its fundamental calling: service.

To lead South Africa successfully will demand the same: it requires looking into the pit of politics – its parties, its institutions, its practices, its perks. As every healer knows, it is never easy to clean out what is found in the dark and damp places.

In politics, complex relations are not readily untangled, which is why memory, loyalty and precedent almost invariably trump the imperative of reform.

The message for the young is this: successful leadership of South Africa will meet great resistance. But, as Pope Francis has recently done, to recognise the politics of change – especially if it aims at social justice – is always a long game in which ­courage matters more than money.

Peter Vale is a politics professor at the University of Johannesburg and chairperson of the academic advisory board of the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study