Marius Oosthuizen
Marius Oosthuizen

Zille and Zuma: A fading star, a black hole and the end of an era

Helen Zille faces a disciplinary hearing from her party as an apparent “litmus test” of its credibility as a champion for the people. President Jacob Zuma, similarly, is facing off with NEC members for his shenanigans, having already navigated the party’s ethics committee, the stalwarts and having subjugated its youth and woman’s leagues. The president, it is said, is hurting the ANC, while Helen Zille is said to be hurting the DA.

The contrast between these two leaders could not be more stark. On the one hand you have a struggle hero, a voice for justice and good governance, who has spent a lifetime paying a personal price for public service. On the other hand you have a form of fool’s gold leadership, the kind that glints momentarily, but proves to be of little value and ends in disappointment and betrayal. Some would never have contemplated these two leaders in the same sentence, but history would have us juxtapose them side-by-side at a moment of political intrigue in the adolescence of our nation.

Apparently a black hole is a place in space where gravity is so intense that even light can’t escape. The force of a black hole is understood to be so strong that any object that comes into its orbit is sucked in and crushed. Scientists speculate that this happens when a star is dying. Monday May 29 2017 will go down in history as a day which marked the end of an era in South African politics, a day when a star died. But which will it be? The ANC, the party of Walter Sisulu, Oliver Thabo and Nelson Mandela? Or the rising start of the Democratic Alliance? Whose gravitas will prove stronger and what and who will be destroyed in the process?

The NEC of the ANC has been deliberating about the future of the party and their president. South Africans have watched and waited, gasping at the Gupta-saga entrails revealed in email after email of collusion and insider trading in state resources. But does the party have the stomach to face the cost of an admission of guilt? Can it learn? After all, they have left it quite late and there is the small matter of other smallanyana skeletons that could at any moment come tumbling out of the closet. One appreciates their reluctance to take action. Sadly, as the president goes, so goes the party, and in 2019 it may pay an even higher price for its compromise.

On the other end of the political life of our nation, sit the DA party faithful wondering what to do about Helen Zille’s Twitter addiction. Just when US President Donald J. Trump seems to be taking legal council about his use of social media, Helen Zille seems to be defying conventional wisdom, and perhaps logic, in her use of the medium. This legend of opposition politics has dug herself into a 140-character foxhole and is fighting for her political life. Mmusi Maimane, not unlike Gwede Mantashe, is left having to scramble for a reasonable explanation for the party’s patience.

It saddens me to refer to two such polar opposite leaders in the same breath, but such is reality in a country such as ours – rainbows usually emerge after storms, and we seem to have a propensity for those.

As a younger South African who cannot begin to calculate the cost of leadership borne by a younger Jacob Zuma, spending a year after year imprisoned on Robben Island, it might be easy to judge. Not having walked in the shoes of the anti-apartheid journalist and Black Sash member that Mrs Zille was, going into hiding in the mid-1980s with a child, a toddler at the time, it might be easy to throw stones. But we must make sense of the seemingly senseless things our leaders do, and we have to learn from them.

Perhaps the lesson from Jacob Zuma’s example is that sacrifice does not guarantee character and that all people have their price. Just think of the people such as Dr Ben Ngubane and other veteran and capable leaders who have been sucked into the downward spiral of Zuma’s fading career. As his light goes out and the dark reality dawns about how much was stolen by how many for how long, more and more people’s lives will be crushed.

Perhaps the lesson from Zille’s current approach is that reason does not trump emotion and that in the end prudence is an important leadership quality. Imagine if her response to her initial colonial tweets had been that; “Yes, no aspect of a system of subjugation and oppression can be deemed good in the context of such an origin. All social benefits that may have accrued to Africa and Africans as a result of European culture must be seen as purely incidental and providential. Colonialism must be condemned outright. Development, at whoever’s hand, cannot be equated with colonialism’s inhumane intent, for to do so it to neglect the deficit in human dignity that remains colonialism’s true legacy.”

Currently, as we hold our breath and wait for closure, South Africans will be witnessing the end of an era – the end of a time when South Africans navigated by starlight. The next chapter in our national evolution must surely be one where we look more honestly and soberly at our leaders, understanding that their feat or made of clay. For if South Africa is going to live up to the shining expectations of the world, it will require that we break loose from the gravity of some of our icons and look for a new path of our own choosing. How the DA and the ANC will decide to deal with their respective legacies I can’t say for sure, but what I do know is that the future of South Africa does not have to be defined by either.

Marius Oosthuizen is a member of faculty at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, South Africa. He teaches leadership, strategy and ethics and oversees the Future of Business in SA project that uses strategic foresight and scenario planning to explore the future of South Africa, Africa and Brics

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