Leaders who actually lead

2009-06-08 00:00

OF course it is true that United States President Barak Obama gives speeches which are a patchwork of sound bites. The difference between him and his recent predecessors, as far as I can see, is that his sound bites are usually really interesting and sometimes even verging on the profound. Which makes a change indeed.

Take the following (which I quote from memory) from his recent speech in Cairo: “Islam is part of America”… “Any world order that elevates one nation will inevitably fail”. Quoting Thomas Jefferson: “The less we use our power, the greater our power will be” … “A woman who is denied education is denied equality” … “Our daughters can contribute just as much to society as can our sons” … “We should choose the right path, rather than the easy path”.

I had a conversation yesterday with a cousin of mine. She is 86. She was arguing very strongly indeed, that President Jacob Zuma is our president now, and we all need to expect the very best from him. Furthermore, she said, we need to accord him the respect which his office deserves. She went on to talk about former president Nelson Mandela. “I really love that man,” she said. “When he was the president, black people and white people started to find each other and started to love each other.”

Then, surprisingly, she went on to say that having listened to Zuma’s State of the Nation address in Parliament, she could see much of the same thing in him. He was opening his arms to the opposition. He was extending the olive branch to those who opposed him. It would be churlish, she argued, to cast that aside.

I must admit, I was surprised by what she had to say. She does not have a history of radicalism of any kind. She is a very ordinary, very typical white South African — and I don’t think she would object to me painting her in those colours at all. But what she has indicated is that she is not afraid to change her mind and nor is she afraid to be led, where leadership is on offer. In fact, that is what she was impressing upon me. She longs for leadership. Because that is the way we can move forward as a nation.

Which takes me back to the U.S. That extraordinary clot George W. Bush also spoke in sound bites. But his sound bites were uniformly self-congratulatory, arrogant, ignorant, prejudiced and unbearably galling. It seemed as if he was incapable of seeing the point of anything at all. When he invaded Iraq, Mandela virtually called him a clot. He certainly called him stupid. He undoubtedly thought him an idiot. Because he never listened to anyone other than his own shadow.

Obama is a welcome change. He can admit that the U.S. has done cruel, shameful and heartless things. He can say that Israel must stop building settlements on territories which it has no right to build on. He can say that Islam is as much Washington’s glory as it is Cairo’s. He can look for, proclaim and treasure the good in what, up to this point, has been painted uniformly as evil. He can say that while the U.S. will always promote democracy, it should not be in the business of telling others how to govern themselves. He can say that the U.S. has a historic and unbreakable bond with Israel, but that the plight of the Palestinian nation is unbearable and irreconcilable with peace.

Even without the slick delivery, the good looks and the ready smile, this is the kind of message we have been waiting for, for far too long. And even the sceptics (like me) need to allow the man to lead and be willing to be led. Because what he is saying, and what he is offering, is good.

And if I may draw a local parallel, the same is true for Zuma. He may not have the same delivery or eloquence as Obama, but what he is saying is good. Who can deny that the people of this country need housing as a priority? Who can deny that education is our lifeblood? Who would sneer at bettering our health service and dealing with HIV and Aids and creating jobs?

The question which faces all of us is, can we afford not to take the path which the president has mapped out? Is this not the path Mandela would want us to follow, on our own long walk to freedom? We now, once again, have a popular leader. We need to allow him to lead.

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