/ 11 August 2023

Calling for true leaders to raise their hands to lead South Africa

Stepping Up Leadership
Graphic: John McCann/M&G

“True leadership demands complete subjugation of self, absolute honesty, integrity and uprightness of character, courage and fearlessness and above all a consuming love for one’s people.” 

Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe 

South Africa is in a crisis of dearth of honest and inspiring leadership. This is evidenced by the seeming inability of the state’s leadership to deal with perennial problems such as unacceptably high levels of crime and lawlessness, corruption amongst public officials, the high unemployment rate, and the collapsing infrastructure. 

Poor leadership is shirking the responsibility to lead and to act when the situation calls for it.

In isiXhosa, a cabinet minister is “uMphathiswa” meaning “one who is entrusted with something” — a guardian. The position therefore is temporary, not a gift; and whatever is done in this position is on behalf of another or others, not self. Being a guardian requires great care, and responsibility. That is in line with someone holding an office to serve people. This of course is lost on the cabinet ministers we observe. It is each one for him or herself. 

When  one visits any of the government offices, one is greeted by a very bold message of Batho Pele (people first), but the attitude of the officers behind the counter, and their supervisors, be it at the police station or hospital or at any public office, is a far cry from the message displayed on the wall.  

The dearth of leadership is not limited to political or government offices, but also at community level. Communities and community leaders could and should play a significant role and make a difference. For starters, communities should hold the political leaders accountable, and demand better service. 

Communities could also identify and call out the charlatans in their midst, posing as people’s leaders. What South Africa needs is moral, ethical and selfless leadership, the one referred to, and exemplified by Sobukwe. There may be individuals in our society who possess these necessary leadership qualities, but if they do not raise their hands, then South Africa stays leaderless.

South Africa is preparing for the 2024 national elections. Polls predict that no political party, including the ruling party, will secure 50% of votes, and political parties will therefore go into coalitions. From the country’s experience of coalitions in local government since 2016, the expectation from the public is that the coalitions will result in chaos and destabilisation in the national government. 

We also know that between now and the elections, dozens of political parties will mushroom, resulting in 50 or even 100 political leaders on the election ballot. Unfortunately, 50 or more political leaders, in coalitions or not, are not going to make any positive difference to the South Africans’ living conditions. 

Service delivery and the improvement of people’s lives does not need 50 political parties. 

One ruling party and one strong opposition grouping is enough to hold those in office in check. Dozens of opposition parties end up doing just that, opposition — opposing everybody — the ruling party and all other opposition parties, detracting from the job at hand, of serving the people. 

The eating table gets bigger for the political elites, while shrinking the plates of the majority.

Parliament has drafted a framework for the formation of coalition governments. The proposed principles are based on the aims of the RSA Constitution which include government based on the will of the people. 

The lofty principles of the framework include: 

  • putting the people first; 
  • the measurement of the performance of coalitions to be about what they have done to improve the lives of the people; 
  • to be committed to combating poverty and deprivation; 
  • building a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic, united, and prosperous society; 
  • being bound together by a commitment to good governance, and so forth.

These are lofty ideals, which any party followers would find easy to agree to. These principles are also where the coalition parties have failed. 

Political leaders, who have been elected by members based on certain ideologies and interests, negotiate participation in the coalitions for what they would gain as individuals – executive positions usually, with no input from, and no benefit for their members. 

Interestingly, the newly elected ANC Youth League president, Collen Malatji, is quoted as speaking against the coalitions his party has entered into, questioning how an ANC mayor would be able to delegate powers to an MMC from Party X who doesn’t agree with ANC on issues and principles. 

In his view where ANC has not won the majority, then ANC must go to the opposition benches and win back the confidence of South Africans to govern. This is a position which acknowledges and respects the will of the people, and along the lines of subjugation to the people. If only his Party would remember and respect the people’s will! 

Heidi Brooks wrote in 2022: “A stable national coalition government in South Africa? Possible, but only if elites put the country’s interests first.” 

Seems straightforward, but this is the crux of the matter — self versus country. 

According to Brooks’ piece, stable coalitions are a result of  “willingness of political elites to prioritise collective interest over political opportunism, … the strength of democratic institutions … the values of political elites … [and the] political culture and the values of party leaders.” 

Clearly then, the moral, ethical and selfless character of the leaders determine the success of the coalitions. If there is no democratic culture and no clear values underpinning the leader’s original party, or the individual leader, then the choice to enter a coalition, and what decisions to support in the coalition are opportunely made — no need or time to confer with one’s party. 

Communities, through voting, should check the calibre of people they are giving the responsibility of leading. Ethical, moral, and selfless leadership requires an embodiment of the three “Ss” coined by AP Mda — serve, sacrifice and suffer.  

It is only through serving selflessly, sacrificing, with the people or with those whom you lead, suffering with them, and subjugating the self to the needs of the people that true ethical, moral, and selfless leadership can emerge. 

In conclusion, we should go back to basics, our founding values in the Constitution of the Republic: “[To govern]  based on the will of the people [and] improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person.” 

The Constitution binds us all. We should claim these rights and demand them from the public officials where applicable. As political leaders continue to fail us, communities, non-governmental organisations and civil society need to take charge. 

The people must take back their power by all means necessary to them so that South Africa gets true leaders, and the leaders it needs.

Thobeka Mda and Gordon Zide represent the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Trust.