Annan spells it out

2010-05-31 00:00

NO person from Africa is as knowledgeable and experienced in the world of international politics and diplomacy as Kofi Annan. He has been the secretary-general of the United Nations, and in that capacity has been at the centre of momentous debates, struggles and decision-making. What he says is always worth taking very seriously.

Recently he spoke in Johan- nesburg­, at the release of the African Progress Report compiled by the African Progress Panel. He made two main points. The first was that “African leaders have a tendency to be too respectful of their neighbours.” He is right of course. International politics is a robust business, and generally any national leader who takes decisions that are politically or morally unwise and/or are likely to affect neighbouring countries can expect to be criticised, both publicly and in other ways. But among African leaders an old-fashioned deference or gentlemanliness seems to prevail; as Annan says, leaders tend “to sit back and do nothing”. One of the most striking examples of this was in the response to Robert Mugabe’s destructive actions, which were obviously undermining both the economy and the reputation of southern Africa as a whole. South Africa’s role in all that was by no means wholly honourable.

Annan’s second point, not unrelated to the first, was that Africa lacks and has often lacked effective leadership:

“Africa does have a chance to move on, but it is leadership and good governance that are decisive. Some countries have them, but not enough.”

What of South Africa? Do we have “leadership and good governance”?

In one sense, a formal sense, we must count as one of the best governed nations on the continent. Our elections are unchaotic and their results are generally undisputed. In spite of a very high crime rate and recent strikes and demonstrations­, there is a fairly high standard of public order. Tourists come to the country without too many qualms, and thousands are about to arrive for the World Cup.

But in other ways the country’s record is none too good. As we depend on the media, and the media are far more interested in some issues than others, it is difficult to know how much progress is being made in the various government ministries. But it is difficult to avoid the overall impression that firm confident leadership is lacking.

Let me offer two examples of this. When President Jacob Zuma took over the reins of governing we were assured that his new cabinet­, in reaction against the seemingly elitist policies of Thabo Mbeki, would introduce policies that would be more clearly “pro-poor”. But has that happened? We get the impression that there are tussles and tensions between cabinet­ ministers of somewhat different political persuasions, but after 13 months there has been no indication that the overall lot of the poor and of the unemployed is to be significantly altered. The cabinet seems to be in a deadlock. These are difficult times, we know, but good leadership manages to do well even in such times.

Then there is the great vexed question of “service delivery”. Zuma­ promised that he would find ways of dealing with the various issues that citizens have been demonstrating about. But has he? Recently he paid a visit to an informal settlement and said that he was “shocked” at the conditions in which people were living. His reaction is itself shocking, because it suggests not only that he is out of touch with what is going on in the country that he is governing, but also that he and his cabinet have not formulated any coherent response to the serious social problems that exist all over the country.

We say that politicians should “walk the talk”, carry out what they have promised, but that doesn’t mean taking an occasional walk through a poor area and expressing dismay. What is needed are a set of coherent, informed policies. The backlog in infrastructure and services from the apartheid era is enormous, and it will need to be addressed by a thorough investigation of the current­ situation and of the full range of needs. It is no good saying: “Complain to your ward councillor­”: we are dealing here with a vast task that is going to cost billions and will take a number of years.

Good leadership tackles these issues, and formulates firm policies.

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