Truth never damages a cause that is just — Mohandas Gandhi

And so Barack Obama takes the presidency. A congratulatory note to the American people for choosing leadership continuity. We must take this moment to recognise the smooth and painless electoral process that sees Obama with another opportunity to effect change domestically and internationally. Presumably he finds himself in his last term with the expectation he has now less of a need to please everybody and more scope for boldness in policy direction. As Mitt Romney remarked in his concession of defeat, let us pray that it will be so in a progressive direction, especially with regards to meeting his still somewhat unfulfilled promises of hope and change.

Obama is one of only two Democrats to gain a second term since World War II. We must nevertheless draw important lessons about the importance of leadership continuity. You see, in any organisation, there is some profit in allowing leaders and administrations to see out more than one term. How else would we get to measure their performance fairly and adequately? Not only that, it is common cause that visions and programmes at senior levels require time for their initiators to see them through.

In my view, perhaps a naive one, to replace an administration that still has another term requires that administration to satisfy at least two conditions:

1. It must have adequately demonstrated to have presided over royal mess-ups
2. Furthermore it must be easily demonstrable that whoever gains political power, if it is so determined by voters, can be shown to be an agent of tangible change.

Let us then turn our attention to our situation. In South Africa these two conditions ought also to be applied in settling our leadership struggles. As things stand, swapping President Jacob Zuma for Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe will be exactly that, a mere swap! It will be an exercise in farce.

First off, Motlanthe is second in charge and therefore in our posturing and politicking towards the leadership elections in Mangaung, let us not forget this fact: the deputy president is party to the existing policies, he is just as accountable for the efficacy or lack thereof in implementing policies.

Secondly we must demystify the matter further by asking how much better, from a policy direction and policy implementation perspective, a Motlanthe-led administration is expected to fare in contrast to a Zuma-led one. We should strongly doubt that after this sort of reflection we will continue to make emotional calls for a painful leadership change that leaves the unity of the people and the movement wounded. Let us be reminded that unnecessary leadership change, especially for dubious and frivolous short-term motivations, has the effect of setting such precedents and embedding in the movement a pernicious culture of political expediency.

In the context of our country and its realpolitik it would be healthier and make better sense to chop and change leadership so quickly if only we expected the new nominees to usher in sweeping reforms to current policies. Or better yet if we expected their capacity to implement those policies to surpass those of the incumbents’. But alas this appears not to be the case! As a matter of fact, and herein is the farce, the large proportion of the nominees can more or less be said to be the very incumbents. This is the very reason why we should expose our vehement calls for leadership change in the ruling party as political red herrings!

The point made here must not be taken to mean the Zuma administration is not without its challenges. We all know the pitfalls this administration has suffered. We all appreciate there are plenty areas of improvement but we must recognise, with no trace of humour, that these pitfalls have been suffered and the potential improvements thereof, by default, apply equally to the so-called “new” leadership being punted.

In saying and asking these things, we must of course concede that any administration has its challenges. On this, then, political maturity and political honesty will come into its own when we concede that this will be the case with Motlanthe at the helm or Fikile Mbalula as the ruling party’s secretary — for they are already members of Cabinet.

Let us take lessons from history. Let us take lessons from what we see to be working around us. A case in example is the Chinese. Of late their system is seen to be beginning to reap some success. The Chinese embrace leadership continuity so much so that their system has fixed leadership transitions that occur every decade. And on another note also deploy very capable technocrats where necessary.

It’s important to note the American democratic system does not provide a perfect example for comparison purposes with our democracy but this should not make it impossible for us to draw lessons. It should suffice to say there is obviously a lot to be said on the subject of democratic transitions, good leadership, the strength of opposition parties and frank politics. Though such a debate must be had, and this is not my undertaking here, we must keep vigilant in questioning our decisions and actions rather than accepting to be swept by rhetorical flights of political fancy. There are lessons everywhere. Let us be decisive in our quest to take emotion and expediency out of our politics.

“Forward” indeed.


  • Gareth Setati holds a masters degree in electrical engineering and qualifications in business management and economics. He is a graduate of the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute and is currently pursuing further studies there. He works in the Communications Service Provider industry involved with systems and software engineering.


Gareth Setati

Gareth Setati holds a masters degree in electrical engineering and qualifications in business management and economics. He is a graduate of the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute and is currently...

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