TO Molefe
TO Molefe

We are the leaders we’re waiting for

It’s poor form for a so-called writer not to be able to express this without beckoning the aftertaste of half-digested Gouda but so be it: we are the leaders we’re waiting for.

This is true and has been said many times, often with a Coelho-esque earnestness that’s left those with the misfortune of hearing it with as much energy and nourishment as candy-floss would provide. No wonder then that prominent thinkers who consider themselves practical have dismissed this notion and instead expend copious amounts of time and effort lambasting this country’s elected leaders for the conditions we find ourselves in today. Strong leadership is what this country needs most at the moment, these thinkers say.

Who can blame them? Recent years, especially the previous two or so, have provided ample material to fashion a bulletproof argument that we are in the throes of multiple crises of leadership.

A strong leader would not have let public-order policing deteriorate to the point where seven police officers killed Andries Tatane. A man who had every reason to expect that those very officers would uphold his right to protest. And even if that leader had slipped up there, they certainly afterwards would have made sure that when they said “never again”, as Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa did, they meant it. With a strong leader in place, the deaths of 34 Marikana miners at the hands of police would have never happened.

The Dalai Lama visa debacle too could have been less of an issue as a strong leader would have anticipated that a diplomatic kerfuffle was to ensue the moment Desmond Tutu invited him to the country. That kind of a leader would have, long before it made global news headlines, reaffirmed to China that South Africa’s default stance is a bias for human rights, as required by our Constitution. This means that we support and affirm Tibetans’ right to religious and cultural freedom. That leader would have stood firm that the visa application would be subject to the normal processing procedures, like any other application (and ensured that it was) yet reaffirmed that whatever the decision, the country’s position, in line with every other UN-member state, remains that Tibet is a territory of China. That leader would have assured China that South Africa enjoys the growing and mutually beneficial economic ties between the two countries, yet reminded China of its own commitments toward fundamental human rights.

It would not have been popular but it would have been decisive and clear and in line with the country’s policy positions. And Tutu would not have publicly likened the current government to the Afrikaner nationalist government, which had no regard whatsoever for human rights.

A strong leader would have responded decisively on the side of the right to education when confronted by early warnings that the Limpopo provincial treasury was in trouble and would not be able to order textbooks for the province’s pupils.

A strong leader would have long ago cut through the policy paralysis that’s dogged the state and drawn a clear line between government policy, the policies of political parties and the frequent (and necessary) policy debates political parties have.

A strong leader with a commitment to the values of the Constitution would not celebrate the frankly misleading percentages of how many South Africans have access to water and sanitation: “97% having access to sanitation is not good enough,” that leader would say. That leader would also query what is considered access. Is a poorly maintained, dangerous loo shared with more than 25 other people considered access? And commit to doing better more rapidly.

A strong leader with respect for the rule of law would not need a special act to shield him from criticism, no matter how acerbic, nor would that leader glibly precipitate multiple crises in the judicial system just to save his own skin.

But there is a fundamental flaw with this appeal for strong leadership, which is embedded deeply in theories of corporate leadership. Unlike corporations, where the power relationship is top down, with the board and the executive at the top and employees at the bottom, a democracy is the other way around. The people have the power, which they vest in the executive. This is what our Constitution means when it says government is by the will of the people.

This isn’t hollow, toothless bumf, either. Specific mechanisms exist by which the will of the people is to be brought to bear elected leaders, no matter the electoral system. Voting is one such mechanism but more important than that is taking an active role in supervising how government sets and performs against its objectives — and what objectives it sets. In addition, Parliament puts out calls for comment on bills, rules and nominations regularly, as do the other legislative authorities, yet most of us leave it to the tiny handful of civil-society organisations monitoring this to alert us when our freedoms are threatened.

What we have in South Africa is not a crisis of leadership but an absence of citizenship, which no leader, no matter how strong and just, can save us from. So we need to stop looking for stronger leaders and instead, as cheesy it may sound, become the leaders we want.

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    • Democrat

      Very wise words. By ‘delegating upwards’ and then parking off, the people of SA do not always participate actively in the democratic space that is open – and thus allow leaders to think they are completely unaccountable and to treat their intelligence with contempt. A great commentary.

    • Paul Whelan

      While the sentiments here are admirable – we need to become active citizens – we need to ask ourselves what else is required to make that possible.

    • manquat

      The national development plan of Trevor Manuel has active citizenry as a key component. We need to hold our leaders accountable.
      The problem we face is that our leaders can get away with murder. Without accountablility and a strong rule of law, we are bound to fail. No-one should be above the law. A lot of our problems could be solved if we just treated everyone as equal before the law. Connections, nepotism, cronyism all of these things hurt any ground-level movement or initiative. When might makes right. The weak, less priviledged will continue to suffer.

    • The Creator

      Er, manquat, some like me would say that the National Development Plan involves Trevor Manuel shovelling dump-trucks full of money into the pockets of the rich, and Manuel’s idea of “participation” is that we should stay out of the way of the dump-trucks.

      The article has a point, but in reality, how are the people going to change anything? The lack of access to information, the lack of public debate, means that the general public tends to be suckered into trivial issues by well-funded NGOs, or fooled into going on rampages and pogroms incited by people all too often covertly backed by big business or the ruling party. And meanwhile, we’ve all seen what happens to people who try to change the ANC itself.

      We’ve got ourselves into this position because we didn’t fight hard enough against the rich and the powerful in the past, but I don’t clearly see how we are going to fight effectively now. And I wish I did.

    • CMD

      Not such a strong comment, TO. Started off interesting, but your argument deteriorated into “expending copious amounts of time and effort lambasting this country’s elected leaders for the conditions we find ourselves in today.” No new thinking to offer, eh? Pity.

      And who will be the new leaders, if not us?

    • Ace

      Well written piece…active citizens is what this country needs

    • Tofolux

      @TO, did you hav a moment to sit down and ask yourself what you really wanted out of this SA? Thabo Mbeki was correct, ”we have two South Africa’s in SA”. When one notes the tone its as if there is this blanket denialism of a SA pre 1994. Let me correct, its not denialism but BLANKET AMNESIA. It seems as if we are being sold a SA pre1994 that was Utopia. In fact, this Utopia existed beyond its neighbours and other continents. Its also as if this Utopia was so good that the ones who now rules have dared to rule. Its quite sickening because we would expect some people who have access to information to be more sobre minded and balanced in their analysis. I wonder if these ”experts” have benched marked this country’s progress against every other country. The problem with this analysis is the point of departure but lets accept that is has to be the apartheid gov. You cannot pit what you have against America, Britain etc becos the truth is what we inherited is a apartheid FAILED state. In creating this progress report, tell me from a failed state where we are today. It is a disgrace that some of the citizenry of this country have disregard for this state and its principles and demand what they are not prepared to do. When we talk abt leaders, whom are we specifically referring to? We cannot debate ”leaders” in a vacuum and conclude there is no leadership. It is a fallacious argument because the premise is so unfounded that the slippery slope tries to validate…

    • SL

      I understand your sentiment and certainly agree with aspects of it, but the reality in SA right now is that we don’t require “foot soldiers” but leaders to direct the anger, frustration and sense of betrayal amongst many many young(ish) South Africans (of all race groupings, and I would hazard particularly young, black people).
      Aside from tweeting, complaining, signing petitions, marching etc etc, even participating in calls for comments — how do you we move SA past the corruption and political incumbency? A revolution is not a realistic/necessary option in a democracy (at least that’s what Steven Friedman says) — so how do we channel these feelings?
      We do need a leader that can guide us, to start a new party, stand up, so we may actually follow her/him.
      The absence of leadership = the mess that is Egypt right now.
      So, no, I think all this talk of “be your own leader” is naive, and disinegenous from political figures (especially ex cabinet ministers and current politicians inside the ANC — take some responsibility for the mess you made? No?) and deeply Coelo’esque.

    • Shamy

      Alexis de Toqueville stated “In a democracy, people get the government they deserve” or as Joseph de Maistre put it (earlier) “Every country has the government it deserves.”

    • Gareth Setati

      “What we have in South Africa is not a crisis of leadership but an absence of citizenship”

      Not to be too pedantic but I think we have a crisis perhaps in both areas, leadership and stewardship. I however concede that the latter’s keen participation improves the former.

      The article addresses a fundamental challenge and it is apt in that regard. However, I would have relished more your opinion on the causes and the alleviation of this lack of citizenship/stewardship. One should suspect that fundamentally the trouble has to do with the Human Development Index of the majority vote in this country and how that affects the quality of the stewardship you are calling for.

      While everyone should agree that there is still more than enough scope to expose the challenges of a poor democracy like ours (i.e. Paul Whelan’s link to his article above discusses this issue), I should think we must move forward with robust debate about what must be done. I say this precisely in your case T.O because given your analytical perspectives, it remains a mouthwatering prospect what your portfolio of remedies would include. That is, it will steps in the forward direction if we graduated the debate from what the problems are to what the possible solutions are.

      The debate needn’t necessarily be technical, but it can be ideological or what have you. Nevertheless, the debate you raise here is also important and reminds us what we must contend with.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Molefe, the people in SA can’t elect their leaders and hold them accountable for their behavior. You should be calling for the reform of the political system to give the people a voice in the government by allowing direct elections in SA. You are writing about what is wrong but, you don’t say nothing about correcting the leadership problem in SA.

      For an example, the problem with the textbooks in Limpopo wouldn’t have happened if there were elected officials running the school system. The people were afraid to speak out because they knew the party bosses could have them removed. However, if these same people had been elected by the people, most of them would be breaking their necks pointing out the textbooks problem.

    • Paul Whelan

      @Gareth Setati – As you were kind enough to refer to an article of mine that explores our problems, I am encouraged to include a link to another that perhaps moves us closer to the solution(s) you rightly look for.

      I say no more than ‘moves is closer’ because no one has ‘the solution’ to our problems at this time, above all our much-maligned President Zuma and the entire ANC in all its extraordinary disarray.

      In a nutshell, change is called for. But whereas people – including self-serving politicians – keep calling for a change in our leadership, they are slower to see that a ‘change’ is equally required in us. To that extent, TO is, in my view, fundamentally right in all he says here.

      It’s just that there is a great deal more to it than that.

    • Paul Whelan

      @Sterling Ferguson – As an aside, I hadn’t read your comment when I posted my second one here and want to acknowledge that you are making the same sort of point as Gareth and I.

    • jandr0

      @Tofolux: The post-1994 Utopia was mostly sold by the ANC!

      Practical reason (from understanding economics, governance, the realistic delays before good(!) educational reforms take effect, etc.) made it clear to me that the Utopia sold by the ANC was not possible (maybe in 50 years, but certainly not even remotely at the rate the ANC was propounding).

      Logically, I can only think of two reasons for that false promise by the ANC:

      1. The ANC was too inept to realise that the time-scale for the Utopia was impossible, and therefore were stupid enough to believe it themselves (for the politically sensitive amongst us, I tried but just could not think of a more ‘politically correct’ word than ‘stupid’ to describe this premise as I see it).

      In this case, the ANC is still moral, but certainly stupid.

      2. On the other hand, maybe the ANC realised it – which implies that they then actively and knowingly deceived their voters.

      In this case, the ANC is definitely not stupid, but clearly immoral.

      Happy if you can find valid logical fault (not emotional, loyalty-blinded* fault!) with above reasoning. But you decide which one of the two bad options you think it is.

      Now, as TO states: “The people have the power, which they vest in the executive.” So if the people vote for an inept or deceitful government (as reasoned above), then surely the PEOPLE are their own problem!

      * There is a well-known saying: “If you want loyalty, get a dog.”

    • Tofolux

      @jandro, allow me to correct your obvious mistake. My point about Utopia is made PRE 1994 and most definitely not post. Suggest you conceptualise that thought and come back to me.

    • jandr0

      @Tofolux: Accepted.

      Then allow me to still say that the ANC were the #1 purveyors of a post-1994 Utopia.

      And then all of what I said above still holds: Either the ANC is still moral, but certainly stupid, or the ANC is not stupid, but clearly immoral.

    • Tofolux

      @Jandoe, there you go again. Be responsible and do the right thing and correct your obvious mistake. Your reply simply cannot hold because the premise on which you based it, is wrong. It cannot be that you received the best schooling and continue to fly at such a low level. You have a duty to yourself and others to at least be honest. WOW..

    • Brian B

      The whole world is suffering from a drought in quality leadership. In good times politicians are left much to their own devices. Only when things get tough do people sit up and take notice. Much of the world has experienced unrivalled prosperity. The GFC proved to be the mammoth hangover after the prosperity binge.
      In South Africa the euphoria of the masses of the coming of majority rule after the indignity of apartheid has been replaced by the realization that for the leaders of the day, their own comfort and opulence is paramount.
      South Africa has never experienced genuine democracy. In apartheid days the National party ruled the roost for 48 years, The opposition fragmented and various bogus structures such as the homelands and the tricameral parliament were established to supposedly placate the aspirations of those who did not have the vote.
      This circus was replaced with a system which does not have constituency representation impacting on accountability. The ANC have been consecutively returned with massive majorities and there is scant chance of any other parties coming to power. So like the Nats the ANC do more or less what they please..
      Pre 1994 the police were used to enforce apartheid and were hated by the masses. The new regime has never restored their dignity and the publics respect respect for them which is so vital to maintain law and order.
      Yes leadership rests with the people.
      How they wrest it from the elite peacefully is the question.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Brian B, you are saying the same thing that I have been saying for a long time. The post apartheid SA is not a democracy like the ANC would like people to believe. The masses couldn’t elect their president under apartheid and they can’t elect the president under this system.

    • Paul Whelan

      A very fine article that asks what we all have to become ‘active citizens’ for.