The F-word: The real leadership question is ‘why’

2012-10-27 14:26

Listening to some ANC members discussing who should lead their organisation, you would think that leadership is a tick-a-box affair, where one merely lists bricks-and-mortar projects, and the vision for the future means little.

At the heart of this confusion is the reality that we have not defined what leadership is in South Africa.

In the absence of a definition, anything can pass as leadership and anyone can pretend to be a “leader”.

Many of us find it easy to proclaim that it is obvious who – between President Jacob Zuma, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe or former president Thabo Mbeki – is a better or worse leader.

What we seldom say is why we think so and so is a great leader.

The two strands of thought within the ANC, which is divided on who should lead the organisation, have done a great disservice to the people.

This because proponents of either strand have not defined clearly why they want to be led by the person they prefer.

Vacuous phrases like “because we want continuity” or “forces of change” hide the bankruptcy of thought behind what constitutes a good leader.

With the ANC offering the closest thing to a real political leadership contest, South Africans are robbed by not being given an inkling of what the two men who are vying for the party’s presidency stand for.

While many achievements attributed to President Zuma are true, it only tells part of the story.

For one thing, they are not comparing apples with apples.

His opponent has never been in a position to either approve or disapprove of a R238 million house built for him in his hometown.

Furthermore, the ANC prides itself on being a “collective”.

If this is true, successes and failures must belong to all who lead the organisation.

In assessing President Zuma’s leadership skills, it is unhelpful to know that he is a great leader because two universities are to be built under his auspices and that the National Planning Commission took off during his tenure.

Others would even add that under his aegis we hosted a successful soccer World Cup and we seem to be getting the upper hand in the fight against the spread of HIV.

The flip side of the argument is that President Zuma is the only president whose executive decision has been declared “irrational” by both the Supreme Court of Appeal and the Constitutional Court.

It is desperate spin-doctoring to praise him for adhering to the rule of law because he complied with a court judgment.

Our considerable prison population is living proof that it is not always hard to do as a judge orders.

Leadership requires that we make less of brick-and-mortar projects than we currently do.

They will lead us nowhere.

The apartheid state created some of the best infrastructure, universities and, frankly, some of the best amenities in the developing world.

But who among us will say that Hendrik Verwoerd or any of his successors were great leaders?

It would have to be pointed out, for example, that the RDP housing project and indeed the arms deal were concluded when former Nelson Mandela was president.

Does this, in the opinion of the box-tickers, make Madiba a lousy leader?

Another thing about leadership is courage to have one’s convictions even at the risk of being unpopular or going against the grain.

The late ANC president, Oliver Tambo, may have never built a single school in his hometown, but his courage and vision made him an outstanding leader.

It took courage and vision to sell to his comrades the idea that the ANC – many of whose members dreamt of rolling tanks into Pretoria and taking over the SABC to broadcast the regime change – had to be ready for the day that the apartheid government wanted to talk.

Leaders must lead.

They must have the courage of their convictions.

They must provide us with a vision of what might happen or where they might take us if we follow them.

If they don’t, they are just office holders.

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