Book review – The moral authority abyss

2012-02-04 12:08

Colonialism – and apartheid – is universally blamed for the lack of development in countries in Africa. Yet this is only half-right.

The dynamic economic miracle states of east Asia, such as South Korea and Singapore, were also colonised, but since independence many of them are doing better economically than some of their former colonisers.

Furthermore, these countries do not have fabulous oil or mineral wealth like Nigeria or South Africa. Leadership has been the difference between the success of the booming east Asian Tigers and the mediocre African lions.

Reuel Khoza, in this insightful book on political and corporate leadership, rightly argues that Africa – and sadly South Africa – suffers deeply from a lack of leadership. A person who occupies a position of authority holds and exercises power, but is not necessarily a leader.

Leadership is the quality of the action of those in positions of authority, of “doing the right things” and exercising their power legitimately, whereas management is “doing things right”.

Khoza outlines key pillars of “strong” leadership, which he calls “attuned” leadership, that Africa so desperately needs.

These include leaders having emotional intelligence, being attuned to the needs and aspirations of followers, being attuned to best practice, being moral and ethnically centred, and being attuned to history, the present and destiny.

At the heart of leadership is moral purpose: guiding one’s action by reason and compassion, not populism, which is mindless passion.

Importantly, Khoza argues that leadership requires the active participation of followers as a “mutual engagement” between leaders and followers.

Followers are active participants in the act of leadership, rather than in “the omniscient leader and obedient, passive follower” relationship. This means that in such a “mutual engagement relationship between leaders and followers, followers must ask questions and demand answers” from their leaders and share in decision-making.

Khoza writes that “inertia, fear, lack of caring and moral abdication among the followership can be as damaging as the deafness of leadership”.

Khoza argues that true leaders are “leaders not just because they appeal to a known following, but because they can extend their appeal to others who are clearly not yet their followers”.

Khoza points to former South African president Nelson Mandela, who extended an “encompassing” leadership to supporters of
opponents, even though they were not his followers.

Furthermore, Mandela had the ability to balance the interests of his direct followers against the often conflicting claims of other groups.

Khoza proposes “ethical deliberation” for leaders to consult all stakeholders – not only their faction, cronies or supporters, but their opponents – on the best actions on a particular issue.

Institutional checks and balances, whether through watchdogs or the media, together with active followership, are crucial to holding leaders accountable.

Three central tenets are often missing in African and South African leadership: morals, values and ethics.

Because of this, leaders view supporters and followers often merely as faceless numbers – euphemistically the “masses”, or “our people” – to be used to secure power.

That is why so-called leaders can play ethnic groups against each other, or make promises to whatever faction, even if contradictory (and even if they know these promises can never be fulfilled), to secure power; opportunistically exploit the legitimate grievances of voters to secure power; or dishonestly use the rhetoric of the liberation struggle and use sophistry, blaming legacies of colonialism or apartheid, for very often their own failures in government.

Many African leaders suffer from a “credibility gap”: elected or appointed based on the very narrow criteria of leadership. Once in power, they cannot imaginatively provide answers to their countries’ deep, complicated and pressing problems.

Khoza, in this passionately argued book, makes a case for African humanism or ubuntu to provide the moral and ethical basis so lacking in African leadership – whether in politics, business or government.

Khoza says African humanism, or ubuntu, can serve as an antidote to the leadership collapse globally, as can be seen in the global financial crisis and the leadership crises in failing countries across the world.

» Gumede is honorary associate professor at the Graduate School of Public and Development Management, University of the Witwatersrand. He is co-editor of The Poverty of Ideas, Jacana 

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