Myths and dangers of the ‘great man theory’ for the ANC

In the mid-1840s, a Scottish historian and philosopher, Thomas Carlyle, wrote essays and gave a series of lectures on heroism. The six lectures would later be compiled into a book titled On Heroes, Hero-Worship & the Heroic in History. 

Each essay is a reflection on the influence of a prominent historical figure. Some of these include the Prophet of Islam Muhammad ibn Abdullah, German theologian Martin Luther, Italian poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri and Napoleon Bonaparte, the French military and political leader. 

Carlyle’s works on these people would develop into what is today known as “the great man theory”. The theory is an approach to the study of history according to which history can be largely explained by the influence of men who, because of their natural attributes such as superior intellect, heroic courage, extraordinary leadership abilities or divine inspiration have a decisive effect.  

Although the theory was rejected by such scholars as Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, it was relatively popular with a number of scholars for the most of the 19th century. But it was the criticism of English philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer, who formulated the hypothesis on social Darwinism, that laid bare the limitations of Carlyle’s theory. 

Spencer argued, correctly, that attributing historical events to the decisions of individuals was ahistoric, apolitical and unscientific. He contended that great men, as Carlyle referred to prominent figures, were nothing more than individuals who had been shaped by the material conditions in which they existed. They were, therefore, a product not of nature but of nurture. This argument is rooted in the Marxist conceptualisation of the sociospatial dialectic, which argues that consciousness is the product of environment. By the 20th century, the great man theory had been largely discredited.  

Despite the overwhelming criticism of the theory, it has consistently reared its head in  South African politics, particularly in the governing ANC. There is a growing tendency of attributing the successes and failures of the party to individuals — a tendency that has set parameters for its members to use it as a tool for mobilisation. 

This can be seen in the lead-up to the ANC Gauteng provincial congress, with some party members arguing that a particular candidate should be elected on the basis of their individual popularity, as opposed to a candidate who is deemed less popular and for that reason alone, unsuitable to lead the province. The sole intention of this narrative is to cement the myth that the ANC will lose the province if a specific individual is not elected, and thus, to manipulate both delegates and voters into questioning the wisdom of their different preferences. 

The myth of this narrative is dispelled by two facts. The first is that the ANC has been haemorrhaging electoral support for many years. During this time, it has put forward some of the most popular and well-liked leaders. Their personal likeability has not arrested the decline of support for the party. 

A vivid illustration of this was the party’s electoral performance in the previous general election, where it put forward some very popular candidates, whose track record in the government has been commendable, to the provinces. Despite their popularity and being well-received by society, the party still bled votes and, in most cases, won by a very small margin — sometimes less than half a percentage point. 

The first lesson that we should have learned is that popularity does not always translate into the capturing of the hearts and minds of voters. Voters are captured by the pursuit of a common vision, one that responds to their material needs and aspirations. 

The electorate has made it clear that what it wants more than anything is a leadership that has a coherent strategy for dealing with the myriad problems that confront the country. These include a stagnant economy, unemployment, poverty, structural inequalities, gender-based violence and crime. These issues are known to the ANC and have been highlighted at its many national conferences. 

The 54th national conference that took place in Nasrec, Soweto, in 2017 adopted radical resolutions aimed at dealing with these problems. The theoretical underpinning of these resolutions is that of radical economic transformation, which recognises that the  failures of the democratic dispensation lie in the glacial pace of transformation. The unfortunate reality is that many of these resolutions have not been implemented, thus taking the ANC 10 steps backwards in its pursuit to fashion a developmental state.  

The only way that the ANC can reclaim its hegemony in society is by becoming an organisation that best reflects the people’s aspirations. This can only be achieved when the party implements its own resolutions. This requires not the popularity of leaders but their commitment to the realisation of the vision for a national democratic society. It requires not the popularity of leaders but the political will to implement Nasrec resolutions that provide the best chance at rewriting the narrative of the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequalities that presently plague our country. 

This requires the emergence of a leadership that is intellectually astute, morally above reproach and professionally grounded, with a thorough grasp of governance. And just as significantly, it requires a vibrant  leadership of a generation that is committed to change.

The great man theory is not a political strategy for changing societies, it is a myth created to elevate individuals above a collective — the hallmarks of liberalism and regression. It is a theory that the ANC must continue to reject, because it undermines the significant contributions of each of its members and of society at large. 

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

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Mzwandile Masina
Mzwandile Masina is the ANC Ekurhuleni regional chairperson. He writes in his personal capacity.

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