A challenge to the media

2010-07-07 00:00

IN her fine article (The Witness, July 5) Nalini Naidoo made the following statement: “Are we destined to be a nation constantly embroiled in leadership battles? For the time being, yes; our democracy is young and we have a bumpy road ahead.”

I think she is right. And it is all in many ways understandable. But one of the problems with leadership battles is that they tend to be carried out largely at party or organisation conferences, with the result that ordinary citizens, whether they support the party or organisation in question or not, are left out of the equation. And this is not only a South African problem: for example when Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as prime minister of Britain, many citizens complained that they hadn’t been consulted in any way.

There is another problem with leadership battles in South Africa, and that is that they often appear to have no more specific intellectual content than a football match or even a boxing match. We hardly ever hear what specific policies A favours, or what forms of corruption or slackness B is determined to get rid of. It is difficult for anyone to hold candidates to their promises when they haven’t made any. One often gets the impression that candidates wish one to favour them simply because they are themselves. And one sometimes suspects that the only solid promises they make are promises of reward to those close to them who are prepared to support them. (It has to be said, too, that there were moments during President Jacob Zuma’s election campaign when his main electioneering statement appeared to be a song and a dance.)

How can ordinary citizens be empowered in these matters? And how can one persuade people seeking leadership positions in politics to take the whole issue seriously and formulate policies and objectives for all to see? How can it all be made more properly democratic?

The ball is surely in the court of the media, the fourth estate. It is their duty, I believe, to articulate the thoughts, the questions, the anxieties forming in the minds of ordinary citizens. It is for them to challenge those who seek leadership positions to say why they are doing so and what they hope to achieve.

Here are some of the questions that a reporter might put to a candidate. I write them down bluntly. Of course in a real-life situation the interviewer would have to be as tactful and respectful as the situation seemed to demand.

• Obviously you are putting yourself forward as a candidate because you feel that you would be a successful leader. But what in your view are the qualities that a successful leader requires? And what do you see as your own strongest qualities?

• What is your assessment of the party/organisation that you are hoping to lead? Do you intend to continue its current policies, or do you feel that a big change of direction is called for?

• What would be the main policy thrusts under your leadership?

• Do you have strong feelings about corruption? If you do, have you plans for dealing with corruption in your party/organisation and in the country as a whole?

• Have you any business interests of your own? Are any of them relevant in any way to your candidature?

• Are some of those who have supported you expecting to gain from your appointment? If so, what kinds of gain would they be hoping for?

Some of these questions, or the very fact of putting these questions, might strike some of the candidates as inappropriate or obtrusive or even offensive, but, if the media could establish the firm convention that people standing for leadership positions in politics must expect questions of this sort, the questioning might come to be accepted as a norm. And then answers like “No comment” or “That’s confidential” or “I’d prefer to say nothing about that one” would come to be recognised as inadequate responses.

Maybe I am being utopian to imagine that such a norm could ever be set up in our fractious young democracy. But I hope not.

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