Richard Calland: South Africa needs a Roosevelt style of leadership

Anyone willing to stay up late into the night on Tuesday to watch the presidential debate in the United States was rewarded with a train-smash of an event. The moderator failed to control Donald Trump’s repeated transgressions of the rules of the debate — mirroring his approach to the rule of law.

Trump is trying to bully his way towards four more years in office. Expect more of the same. Just as Jacob Zuma adopts increasingly outrageous stances in his attempts to avoid prison, so, too, the US president’s strategy is informed by a deep fear of prosecution.

Will these “big men” presidents be held to account for their egregious abuses of power? This is an important question for democrats around the world who continue to believe in government but who harbour deep misgivings about the ability of leaders to rise to the intense challenges of the age — in particular the effect of the coronavirus and it’s socioeconomic aftermath.

At least in Trump’s case, the American electorate will have the opportunity to remove him from office, exposing him to potential criminal prosecution for tax and other, related misdemeanours (and removing from the equation the uncertainty over whether a sitting president enjoys immunity from criminal prosecution).

South Africans will have to rely on the effectiveness of an increasingly frustrated and irritable Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo and his commission of inquiry into state capture, and a National Prosecuting Authority that is still rebuilding after years of premeditated vandalism at the hands of Zuma when he was in power.


As South Africa emerges out of the darkest and most delicate period so far and begins to contemplate life after Covid-19, the question arises: Does South Africa have the right leadership at this hour of greatest need, and moreover, a leader who can “win the peace”? It’s a question being asked of leaders all around the world.

Several scenarios present themselves, informed by the lessons of history. In one, a president emboldened by the relative success of his leadership during the crisis, grabs the moment by the scruff of the neck and leads a troubled and divided nation towards a far brighter future.

In this scenario, President Cyril Ramaphosa becomes to South Africa now what Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) was to the US in the early 1930s as it faced the economic wreckage left by the Great Depression of 1928.

As Doris Kearns Goodwin describes in her book Leadership in Turbulent Times: Lessons From the Presidents, when FDR was inaugurated in March 1933 “the economic system of the nation had entered a physical and spiritual state akin to death throes”.

According to Kearns Goodwin, “Old Doc Roosevelt” was “ready to minister with frankness, affability, near-mystical confidence, and an unshakeable resolve to take whatever actions were necessary to transfuse the nation”.

FDR is a model of what Kearns Goodwin calls “turnaround leadership” — in contrast to the “transformational leadership” of Abraham Lincoln, the “crisis management” of Theodore Roosevelt during the coal crisis at the beginning of the 20th century, and the “visionary leadership” of Lyndon Johnson in response to the civil rights movement.

This is an interesting framework for considering what constitutes good or even great leadership in a year in which leaders worldwide have faced the sternest of tests. 

Some, such as Jair Bolsonaro and Boris Johnson, like Trump, appear to have failed to rise to the historical moment, such has been the chaotic response to the pandemic in Brazil and Britain.

Regardless of the myriad missteps, at least two of these three are commonly regarded as “strong” leaders. At a time when citizens appear to hanker even more than usual for hope and guidance from “their” president, is “strong” really what they need?

As Oxford academic Archie Brown argues in The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age, “strong” is not the same thing as “great”, and that the concept of “strong” may be a misunderstood, misapplied and fundamentally misconceived notion in the context of presidential leadership. 

Brown agrees with Kearns Goodwin’s assessment that FDR was not a transformational leader because he neither attempted systemic change nor did he preside over a new order. Instead, he was concerned with reviving the existing economic and political system. But his imaginative response to the economic crisis and in particular his much-vaunted “New Deal” challenged previous assumptions about the relationship between state and market, and in policy terms stretched what was hitherto considered politically possible.

Brown and Kearns Goodwin concur that FDR’s ability to communicate so well with his people — to forge and then maintain their trust at a very fragile time — was central to his political success.

What became known as his “fireside chats” were a hallmark of his presidency and he delivered 337 press conferences during his first four years in office — shades of Trump, at least in that one respect, though Trump’s public appearances are primarily designed to shore up his base support and not to build national unity.

Ramaphosa could learn from this. Although South Africa lacks the regular, detailed polling needed to track public opinion, it is reasonable to conclude that trust in him and his government went up almost every time he addressed the nation during the past few months.

We need more of Cyril, not less. He needs to take the nation into his confidence far more often. A fortnightly “fireside chat” with him could work wonders. “Telling the story simply and directly to the people” is one of the headline findings that Kearns Goodwin makes from her study of FDR’s crisis leadership in the 1930s and during the years of World War II. (He died in office, in 1945.)

Roosevelt also redefined the presidency in other notable ways, including a greater centralisation of power in the White House — which attracted criticism as well as approval — but which enabled him to exercise greater control and coordination over his administration, which in turn yielded greater coherence and strategic direction to his reform programme.

This is an especially apposite insight at a time when the prevailing view among political commentators in South Africa appears to be that Ramaphosa is “not strong enough” in the face of his political opponents in the ANC and “too weak” to face them down and impose his power and authority so as to take “the tough decisions” for the country and its economy.

Again, Ramaphosa could learn from FDR. He needs more power and institutional muscle around him — as a number of the economic recovery position papers have pointed out, building back better will require exceptional levels of coordination from the centre of government, not least to overcome and manage the inevitable jostling for supremacy among the political heavyweights in his cabinet.

This institutional power needs to be contrasted with the kind of authoritarian power that Zuma accumulated for himself in office by, conversely, hollowing out the presidency’s institutional capacity. After all, if you plan to run government “off book”, you don’t need that kind of bureaucratic capability.

As Brown argues persuasively, “strong leadership will often slide into authoritarian or tyrannical leadership”. Because an indirectly elected president such as South Africa’s has less raw power than a directly elected one, he or she has to navigate the art of the possible, not employing criteria of strength “better suited to judging weightlifters or long-distance runners” but others such as “integrity, intelligence, articulateness, collegiality, shrewd judgment, a questioning mind, willingness to seek disparate views, ability to absorb information, flexibility, good memory, courage, vision, empathy and boundless energy”. 

I concur. Does Ramaphosa have these attributes? Many, if not most of them, yes. What sort of leader is Ramaphosa? Too soon to say. His greatest tests still await him, because the crisis will deepen and in ways that cannot be predicted. We don’t yet know whether he has that extra lung needed to reach the highest echelon of “transformational leadership”, which is probably what South Africa (and the world) needs.

But give me a “weak” Ramaphosa over a “strong” Zuma or Trump any day. The story of FDR and other “turnaround leaders” is that they have the capability to lead a redefining process and that to be effective in this role requires finesse and agility and other “soft power” skills — and not those of a “strong man”. We must be very careful what we wish for.

Richard Calland is associate professor of public law at the University of Cape Town. Jointly authored with Mabel Sithole, his book, Leadership and Crisis: Lessons from South Africa’s Post-apartheid Presidents, will be published in 2021 by Penguin Random House

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Richard Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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