South Africa in crisis: what type of leadership is needed?

It is important to name our current political experience a crisis, for that is not always what it is called. We should also be considering the type of leadership needed to rebuild the country. Some say South Africa cannot be in crisis because its press is vibrant; there are opposition political parties operating with little restriction and independent institutions like the judiciary and the Public Protector; it has a healthy civil society, including citizen-based organisations, social movements, faith-based organisations and a range of individuals in communities who take brave stands in defence of their beliefs.

This may be exaggerated. Civil society has a range of Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) engaging in various social causes, but many social movements – that is, organisations with a membership base – are weak and lack support from organisations of the left and often have insufficient funds to do their work adequately.

The judiciary and the Public Protector have come under attack from the ANC, SACP and government, threatening their capacity to perform their independent, constitutionally defined roles.

The crisis in South Africa does not lie in the absence of constitutional institutions and openings for democratic activities. It lies in a range of obstacles to remedying problems and achieving democratic and transformatory goals.

The character of the obstacles lies precisely in the steps that have been taken or not taken by organs of government. These undermine paths that ought to provide remedies to social problems. This is not peculiar to ANC-run authorities but is also found in aspects of governance under DA rule.
In other words, if there were due performance of obligations many more people would be living in conditions fit for human existence.

No problem of government or social life can be put at the door of a single individual. They need to be located within the context of a range of institutional functions and relationships, including the role of opposition political parties in the political arena, to the extent to which they, too, contribute towards a democratic environment.

But the question of leadership – considered as a relationship between office bearers, institutions and the public – is crucial. Where there is a breakdown in leadership or a failure of leadership to serve the interests of democracy, clean government and transformation, then a crucial element of a crisis is there. The leadership crisis lies in an erosion of integrity, insofar as there is conscious evasion of duties to advance the goals and aspirations outlined in the constitution.

It is not intended to revisit the array of well-known attacks on constitutionalism currently experienced. Instead, this article unpacks the leadership qualities that will be required when we surface from this period of crime and decay – a leadership that can manage a process of transformatory democracy, and will embody qualities that evoke respect.

Good leaders listen. If one looks at the giants of South African liberation history they were all distinguished by their willingness to listen. It is said that Chief Albert Luthuli would listen for hours, whether at national meetings or as an elected chief in Groutville. He would only offer advice once he understood precisely what the problem was, not only from his own observations but also through hearing it from the mouth of the person experiencing the problem.

This is an important distinction for democratic leaders to understand: no matter how wise they may be, they cannot understand a problem in the terms of those who experience it. One may have a very clear idea of what the problem is and how it needs to be resolved. But one still needs to hear people out. In current politics one has the impression that not only the ANC but most political parties are reluctant to do this listening.

If those burdened by a problem are to be satisfied with the answer they request, it is important that their problem is addressed not only in the most professional and efficient way but also in the terms in which they experience and understand it. Or if it is not possible to accede to their request they must see that the process leading to that decision has nevertheless taken adequate account of their understanding of the problem.

Consistency is a conditional virtue. In a situation of leadership disarray many long for consistency. It is a virtue to be consistent, to treat like cases in the same way and not offer special treatment to family or friends or engage in other irregularities. But consistency is not a virtue if one sticks to a way of doing things even where conditions have changed. What stands out with Nelson Mandela is that he repeatedly changed his political understanding over time. This was notably in his attitude to the use of force, taking up arms when it was necessary and working to build peace when possible. A leader must have the capacity for introspection and consequently be able to re-evaluate modes of operation.

Leadership does not necessarily mean acting speedily. One may have to postpone the moment of action until the time is ripe in the sense that those who form one’s support or organisational base also see that it is necessary or that one has demonstrated that alternative ways of dealing with a problem have failed. This can be illustrated with regard to armed struggle. Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba and Flag Boshielo are among those who believed in the early 1950s that the apartheid regime would not relinquish power voluntarily, that the people would have to “fight back”, and that they would in the end have to take up arms.

But they did not act on this until 1961. Logically the reasons for taking up arms were there in 1951 but abstract logic alone does not determine how one relates to a situation.

One may “see” that factors make a certain action the only viable way to resolve a problematic situation but one needs, as a leader, to act with one’s followers or with comrades/colleagues in an organisation, and take them with one.

There are many who “always knew” that there had to be armed struggle or “always knew” that the struggle would result in negotiations and had “told people this for years” before either of these courses of actions was carried out. But it is no virtue to know something at a purely abstract level in politics. An idea can only be viable if one has a body of people willing to implement it.

Against this, one has to confront the part of Mandela’s life where he engaged “the enemy” and consciously chose not to consult because he saw the possibility through such actions of paving the way for a negotiated settlement. He was proved right in the sense that his actions were crucial in unlocking the deadlocked situation.

But does that justify his acting, consciously, without seeking approval of his organisation, even saying that he knew that had he asked he would have been stopped? Personally, it took me a long time to accept that Mandela was justified, for I do believe in acting collectively and that was what Mandela recommended to others. But one has to ask whether collectivity has to be absolutised, especially where it may, in a specific situation, be a barrier to resolving a problem. Can this episode not perhaps be best understood as Mandela risking his own reputation in order to put the needs of the country – for peace – before that of his collective responsibility to the ANC?

Leadership and service. The notion of public service being associated with leadership is widely discredited, not only in South Africa but also in other countries. But it is necessary that every effort be made to revive it. A culture of service is not simply a matter of the ethic that people should serve according to the duties of their office and not for personal benefit or to provide patronage. It is required in order to have effective government. Government cannot be effective where goals other than those prescribed for the office are served. Irregular tenders enrich some but also deny benefits owed to the poor, thus obviously rupturing a relationship of trust between leaders and “followers”.

Leadership and dialogue. Democratic leadership entails dialogue. This is not simply taking questions from an audience or informing them of this or that. It refers to politics as a continuous engagement between leaders and their constituency.

It also affects bureaucratic action, insofar as performing the tasks that are needed entail a dialogic element. Providing a particular service needs to have input from those who are the recipients of state action. They need to be consulted on where water taps will be located because they may have reason to suggest alternatives. They need to hear how problems are resolved because they may have reason to suggest alternative priorities.

Democratic leadership is relational. Democratic leadership has a relational basis; that is, it depends on mutuality, on an interaction between leaders and followers, embedding the aspirations of followers in the vision and actions of leaders. It is precisely that notion of relationality that has been ruptured and needs to be recaptured in any emancipatory path that may be developed in order to rekindle the democratic prospects that have been displaced.

Raymond Suttner is a professor attached to Rhodes University and UNISA. He is a former ANC, SACP and UDF leader and served over 11 years as a political prisoner and under house arrest. He writes contributions and is interviewed regularly on Creamer Media’s website polity.org.za. His most recent book is Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana Media and Lynne Rienner, 2015). His twitter handle is: @raymondsuttner and he blogs at raymondsuttner.com.

[This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website: polity.org.za]