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Mandela delivered the transition we desperately needed

It’s not surprising that the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s death generated reflection on the course we’re following as a nation. Some veered on the negative. But rather than denigrate those who express them, we should instead pay attention, listen and engage rationally with them. Doing so will anchor further freedom of speech, which is the oxygen of our democracy.

Mandela placed reconciliation and nation building at the centre of his leadership and everything that must be done to underpin the transition to democracy. This strategic choice illustrates, in a profound way, the critical alignment between vision, strategy and leadership in a crucible. In any strategy formulation, a comprehensive understanding of the prevailing context plays a fundamental role and wisdom is always a critical factor and distinguishing feature in making strategic choices.

What were the prevailing contextual features and challenges of the time?

The fact of the matter is that the apartheid government was rendered almost ungovernable by actions of the internal pro-democracy movements that were driven by a radical liberation vision. The interventions of the west through the imposition of tougher economic sanctions, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, constituted the tipping point at the time when the Nationalist government was hopelessly in debt.

There were no more options for the beleaguered government. The leadership role of the ANC at this moment was critical in pushing the Nationalist party government towards negotiations and the ultimate settlement. Both sides compromised extensively for peace and stability. The government of national unity was the agreed outcome.

When Mandela became president of South Africa in 1994, the government faced formidable challenges on all fronts. Key among these was how to deal with the glaring structural poverty and unemployment that affected the majority. He was well aware that economic emancipation was fundamental to delivering on these challenges.

The expectations of the poor were also very high on the back of political emancipation and the fantastic promises for social upliftment made by the ANC in the hope of achieving an overwhelming majority victory at the first elections. This hope was handsomely fulfilled.

But, the reality was that these promises were not going to materialise unless there were sufficient resources to fund them. The economy was, and still is, in white hands and the suffocating debt inherited from the apartheid government required urgent attention. As a result, fiscal consolidation and debt reduction became a principal policy focus. The dominant neoliberal paradigm of the 1990s restricted policy flexibility and the desire to spend liberally. This is the context within which our negotiated democracy was delivered and what also shaped the policy choices that were made subsequently.

For Mandela, it had become very clear that peace and social stability were necessary and critical in attracting funding from sceptical investors and the bond market at the early stage of the new democracy. Reconciliation and nation building became the most pragmatic choice in the given context. It was an excellent strategic choice. He may have sacrificed other strategic hot points at the time but he delivered the transition we desperately needed. Good leaders know when to abandon parochial interests in favour of the bigger picture. In my view we need to hold him in high esteem for this act of visionary and strategic leadership.

The question we need to ask is whether we made correct policy choices following his time as president.

On this question the picture is decidedly a mixed one. We have made sterling progress and achieved on a number of policy fronts. But we have also failed spectacularly on others. For example the role of education is correctly recognised in the Constitution as a right that has the potential to provide a pathway out of poverty and a means to self-realisation. Yet, our failure to deliver in this area is nothing less than criminal. What needs to be done has been properly researched and documented. What is lacking is the political will to act.

It is globally accepted that focusing on and requiring structured performance accountability from leaders is the right approach. But the department of basic education is held to ransom by the South African Democratic Teachers Union, which is a leading member of the ruling alliance. It has since 2008 resisted the implementation of performance management for school principals.

The report of the auditor general provides illuminating information but makes for depressing reading. At the core of the failures is the poor performance of leaders deployed in state-owned enterprises under the “cadre-deployment” strategy.

We are effectively facing is a low-growth scenario for the next three to five years and the spectre of junk status for our credit rating is now upon us. What is required of the governing party is a radical change of direction otherwise the local elections next year will be the tipping point.