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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.