The #FeesMustFall movement is a dress rehearsal for the revolution South Africa will face unless we fix our socio-economic conundrum of inequality, poverty and unemployment. This will require leadership! It will require “bridge builders” who are not beholden to vested interests and can lead for the common good. It will require technical skill to empower our human capital, expand the economy in an inclusive way and enhance our political institutions. It will require non-technical, soft-skills such as storytelling, motivation and inspiration to shape the discourse and win the hearts and minds of citizens. The kind of leadership that can get white shoulders pushing for black advancement and black shoulders to lay down their personal and painful burden of white privilege. If we don’t, we can scorch the earth that some want to fight over. We can destroy our national assets and kill each other. Or we can celebrate our rich tapestry and diversity as we complement each other powers and build a proud, thriving nation.

The current scenario is bleak, a spiral of decline. Let’s arrest the rot and fix South Africa. Leaders, here are the three challenges before us: ethics, mindset, priorities:

Challenge 1: The challenge for a leadership ethic

The leadership challenge facing us is one of hard, prolonged and practical work. It will take uncommon patience and a resilient disposition of hope to affect the deep levels of systemic and developmental change needed to create a preferred future. Leaders will need to inspire the “haves” to give, the “have-nots” to persevere and tap into the motivations of South Africans across sectors, moving them to join hands in constructive participation.

We require a future orientation that seeks opportunity and builds intentionally. Leaders will need to have an all-hands-on-deck approach which does not exclude anyone from responsibility and values the contribution made by all, no matter how small. Underlying such initiatives must be an attitude of forgiveness and reconciliation that recognises the wounds of the past, while mustering the resources to overcome their alienating effects.

Only the highest ethical standards will suffice as leaders with the means to self-enrich are called upon to uplift others. The foundation stone of such leadership must be integrity of the highest order; which cannot be betrayed no matter the cost. This integrity has to be rooted in conviction and clarity of purpose. Thank you Thuli Madonsela, our former public protector, for your example. Through such leadership, a national movement toward moral regeneration must be inspired. Leaders must seek to model and instil the values common to the faiths and beliefs of all South Africans. This will involve the mobilisation of traditional beliefs and customs in order to wisely navigate the contemporary questions of the modern age.

South Africa will require leaders that are unifiers in everything they do. This means accepting diversity, being rooted in constitutionalism and placing human rights and common humanity, as well as non-tribalism above all else. Central to such leadership must be dignity, first of leaders themselves, then the capacity to recognise the dignity of others even in the most contrary circumstances. This implies a commitment to non-violence whether criminal, protest-related or by security forces. This must be balanced with the need for a strong and enduring clampdown on lawlessness which will be challenging, but critical.

In terms of core competencies, the ability to dialogue across divides of any kind, while valuing alternate perspectives and remaining committed to views that are well informed, will be crucial.

There will be a need for a culture of generosity both within communities and across historic divides. Leaders will need to act as coaches, provide supportive relationships and environments for the vulnerable and ill-equipped to experiment and succeed, while being guided to higher degrees of achievement.

Leaders in civil society must engage and be articulate while using their freedom of speech responsibly in seeking the common good and holding those in positions of power accountable.

Many of the pragmatic challenges cannot be overcome unless leaders reinforce a sense of belonging for all South Africans. To achieve this, leaders may be required to educate white youngsters about the plight of many of their black counterparts and encourage tolerance among blacks who may not fully appreciate the shallow but real frustration of whites who experience their own forms of exclusion. Sensitive as this may be, cross-cultural exchange and, increasingly, cross-class exchange will need to be facilitated.

Challenge 2: The challenge for a leadership mindset

The greatest leadership challenge will likely be educating and re-training the populace. This will require leaders who, themselves, value education and are committed to the cost and lengthy time frame inherent in all forms of education. This further implies incentivising education where needed, both among teachers and students, to ensure ever-improving outcomes.
We will require a global perspective that shows understanding of economic and business decisions in their globalised and interconnected context. This involves accepting the complexities and ambiguities of trans-national cultures and movements and being able to leverage strategic advantages like our services sector for the furthering of national interests.

Leaders will need to be orientated towards practical inclusion at all levels and constantly seek ways of enabling participation by those who cannot access opportunities of their own accord even when initiatives such as these are not yet able to add value to a meaningful degree. In this way, outsiders must be upskilled by integrating a developmental agenda in all productive work.

Pragmatism will require a reformation and at times a rejection of ideology, especially in economic terms, seeking the best alternatives amidst trade-offs that are simply unavoidable. This is called “learning”, and labour has a role to play here.

Leaders must be at the forefront of healthy national discourse.

Health education will be required on a national scale to ensure that the endemics of the present are not replaced by lifestyle diseases in the future.

Challenge 3: The challenge of leadership priorities

Leaders will need to be bold and willing to take risks, while ensuring that a stabilising long-term view is kept at all times. Nowhere will this be more crucial than in terms of policy stability.

The South African situation will require a unique level of planning, whereby the divergent interests of opposed or vastly dispersed parties can be considered and accommodated within a harmonious, though pragmatic, whole. This will require a capacity for strategy and extreme levels of coordination. The National Development Plan was a good start, now we need the “NDP of the heart”. This is particularly important where regional planning is concerned, which must come to terms with resource and infrastructural inequalities across provincial boundaries. This includes planning for and securing water and other life-sustaining resources, as well as assuring food security while taking an urgent but reconciliatory approach to land reform.

Leaders will need to exhibit environmental sensibility, balancing economic and developmental interests against questions of sustainability in ecological terms.

Business leaders and decision makers in general will need to be entrepreneurial, seek to capitalise on opportunities, be willing to take the losses and gains inherent in pioneering endeavours. This will include the need for micro-enterprises that meet needs at grassroots levels and foster employment opportunities and economic growth from the ground up. All forms of rent-seeking must be halted and strongly avoided and the growth potential of South Africa will be realised for the many, not the few. Let’s push out the criminals and celebrate the heroes.

The state and the various union groupings will need to agree to a reasonable amount of deregulation of labour in order to incentivise business domestically and abroad, to make South Africa an investment destination of choice.

Leaders in the public sector must be aggressive in improving public sector efficiency. The bureaucratic nature of government, tending to inefficiency, will require a prolonged and professional commitment to the ideal of an effective public service. Along with efficiency is the need for accountability and responsibility that ensure mismanagement and corruption is stamped out and kept out, while cronyism is prevented through systems and independent processes.

Simultaneously, public sector leaders will need to create and sustain pacts and partnerships with business and civil society in order to negotiate the terms of shared growth. A developmental state needs a business partner.
While historically sensitive, reasonable immigration reform will be crucial if South Africa is to balance the impacts of regional instabilities with domestic priorities.

Across society, the business sector and government, a developmental agenda must inform all projects and practices. The developmental shortcomings of South Africa, particularly in terms of skills in the labour sector, will necessitate two decades of restorative investment to achieve the massive capacity development required to empower the population. Yes, I said “restorative investment”. It’s a South African idea for a South African problem.

Economically, leadership is needed to incentivise diversification and take South Africa beyond resource dependence. In this regard, special attention must be paid to the use of information technology and other digital solutions to overcome spatial and infrastructural constraints typical of our African context.

Conditions must be created to attract investment and foreign direct investment in particular, without which South Africa does simply not have the means to self-transform fast enough. This implies retaining our fiscal discipline and crucial trade-offs politically.

Leaders must be committed to recognising and strengthening democratic institutions, upholding non-interference in the judiciary and, crucially, maintaining non-interference across the administrative structures of government. What must be encouraged is a firm meritocracy, whereby able and deserving public servants are employed and promoted. We need a culture of excellence.

Leaders must undermine welfare dependance by attaching social support to criteria and incentive schemes that are economically progressive and constructive.

On a social and community level, family reconstruction will be required to rebuild the primary unit of social stability and inculturation. This will ensure the robustness of the social fabric for future generations.

The scenario we will create if we get this right is one of a spiral of hope to a thriving South Africa:

In conclusion, South Africa’s leadership challenge this decade will be one of bridge building, seeking constructive partnerships and cooperation between parties, while achieving mobility through the adoption of schools, businesses and children and sustaining their development. Yes, I said adoption. It’s something you do with your heart and then your wallet. Such leaders will need to develop creative integrated projects that meet the complex needs of South Africans in innovative and efficient ways, leveraging local talent, resources and ingenuity. This will involve incentivising innovation through centres of excellence where needed and, as stated above, facilitated participation of the formerly excluded.

It is the work of leadership to provide the psychological, social and practical tools to unify and move South Africans as one. To unite citizens from diverse backgrounds and contexts, towards worthwhile and beneficial goals. To foster and agitate for the achievement of a shared vision of productivity, inclusiveness and well being for all. Take responsibility, it is the cornerstone of leadership. I see this kind of leadership all the time. I see it in the Gogo who raises three generations of children on limited resources without a care for herself. If only we can live op to the high standard of leadership set by the mothers that have held our communities together through the valleys of death gone by, we could fix South Africa.


Marius Oosthuizen

Marius Oosthuizen

Marius Oosthuizen is a faculty member and researcher at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. He teaches leadership, strategy and ethics, and heads up the Future of Business in SA Project. He is passionate...