We need an Obama

2008-09-09 00:00

To watch Barack Obama, the United States’s Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, is to marvel at the quality of leadership that he brings to a nation whose moorings have become undone, and to sink in morbid despair over the fact that given South Africa’s even deeper malaise the best we can muster is Jacob Zuma.

For one thing, very few African leaders would have, like Obama did, appointed a vice-president, Joe Biden, who had criticised him the previous year. Yet, accepting that criticism of one’s behaviour is legitimate is one of the most important aspects of good political leadership.

Like President Thabo Mbeki, Zuma is found wanting on this important characteristic of political leadership. South Africa is stuck in a number of interlocking crises — family and social breakdowns, disintegration of morals, values and ethics, increasing racial tensions, strained democratic institutions, rapidly declining confidence in the government to deliver on its mandates and a looming economic meltdown.

To lift the country out of this morass will not only demand honesty, which includes acknowledging that the current crisis is real, but it will also demand fresh ideas, inclusivity and a different cast of leaders at the top. Sadly, in most African countries when renewal is needed, ruling parties deliver either the same or worse, dressing it up as radical change. Renewal of sitting governments is very difficult in the context of most African countries where there is either one-party rule, or where one party dominates the government, while the opposition parties are irrelevant or suppressed.

Structurally imposed restrictions within African ruling parties often keep dynamic younger leaders, in the mould of Obama, out. In many African countries, somebody as dynamic, young and visionary as Obama would almost never be able to rise to the top of any ruling political movement, except perhaps in Mauritius. For one, most of these ruling movements are internally undemocratic, their leaderships ossified and controlled by small elites with power, patronage and government spoils divided among competing factions, either based on pork-barrelling interests, ethnicity, class or region.

Competition within these ruling parties is mostly about which faction can beat the other to be in control of dispensing largesse to members of their grouping, rather than to renew the government, society or the economy. Either the outgoing leader hand-picks the person to succeed him to consolidate the power of his faction or he is ousted by another leader, from another faction, but of the same ilk.

Most independence and liberation movements are run on patriarchal, sexist, conformist and sometimes even ethnic or regional lines. Anyone coming Obama-like from outside these powerful entrenched pork-barrelling factions is likely to be crushed. This means that for most of the post-independence period in Africa, the right leadership needed for the specific challenges of a specific moment has not been able to rise to the top in most African countries. Yet, one reason why most African countries have failed since independence is that they have time and again ended up with the wrong leader. Up to now, younger leaders who represented breaks from old party barons have almost only come to power as military coup leaders — a type of leader that Africa does not need.

The challenges for African leaders, including South Africa, remain enormous. Amid great expectations from long-suffering citizens, they have to unite ethnically diverse societies and where one group is often advantaged by the departing colonial powers, they must equitably transform poor economies, build democracies and steer their countries through hostile global political, trade and finance minefields.

Sadly, in South Africa, those in control of the ANC insist that Zuma, a man with credible experience of another epoch — the anti-apartheid struggle — must lead South Africa in a new era that demands a totally new set of values, skills and ideas. The problem with the ANC left — Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), Zuma’s more serious supporters — is that it has not been able to, in the post-1994 era, develop a leader who can navigate these modern obstacles and who also has a national appeal. So, the ANC took the second-best short-cut of rallying around a leader, Zuma, that they think will do their bidding. Those more serious among the Cosatu and SACP left know that the real reason they have embraced Zuma is their fear that any younger ANC leaders may marginalise, as Mbeki did, not only the left again, but also the pressing issues of the poor.

The marginalisation of the problems of the poor is the real issue that must be addressed. But Zuma is not an answer. His leadership weaknesses may mean that the issues of the poor will be marginalised even more. Meanwhile, the ANC’s own Obamas, who could rejuvenate democracy, society and economic management, are being bypassed and the country enters possibly another decade of mediocrity. This, when the global balance of forces may present South Africa with another opportunity — after letting the opportunity slip after 1994, because of a leadership failure, to catch up with the fast-growing super-emerging market economies that are now challenging the established industrial nations.

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