The leaders we need

2011-11-19 12:55

It has been a bit of a year “in the frying pan”, so to speak, as our series of investigations into ANC Youth League president Julius Malema and our penetration of the private life of the Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula have yielded a chorus of conspiracy.

The assumption has been that we are embedded in a political camp using our pens to weaken the youth league camp. If you write critically about President Jacob Zuma, the assumption is you are in the opposite camp.

The ANC has become a party in a permanent tussle for position, where factionalism is rampant and assumption of motive riotous.

In such an atmosphere, it has become difficult to make dispassionate and reasoned assessments of the quality of leadership because smoke screens are thrown up so quickly and believed so easily.

As editor-in-chief, I hold no particular brief for any camp – in fact, I think each (there are now broadly two) have flashes of talent, but are on the whole mediocre and don’t exhibit the quality and decisiveness of leadership our country now needs.

We have elevated the mediocre to a status ill-befitting the country if your telescope and measure is our previous generation like Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.

Malema is not “brilliant” as his scouts like to tout. He is merely street smart, but even a novice like me knows his economics is beyond dodgy.

Mbalula is not a “visionary” – a commission of inquiry into the cricket balls-up was sensible but not visionary.
Zuma is not “decisive” – he is friendly and down to earth, but that’s about it.

We are each fallible and human, but in deciding that these three men will symbolise this era, it feels to me as if we have lowered the bar and looked straight past an assessment of whether they practise a values-based leadership and really whether they are the right stuff to lead such a country.

In assessing leadership and punting a values-based ethos, I have been profoundly influenced by Isaac Shongwe, an executive director of Barloworld.

He has taught us methods of assessing leadership and punting a values-based ethos. He quietly runs the Africa Leadership Initiative (ALI) together with the US-based Aspen Institute.

Now covering the continent, the programme is in its seventh year in South Africa and has graduated 130 of us, qualified to take a harder look at leadership.

How do we learn? It takes almost two years and you study through the great writings all the way from the classics to assessments of contemporary leaders.

Gandhi exemplified servant leadership – to live like the people and to discard the trappings of power that scream “us and them”.

Lee Kuan Yew took a fishing village with no natural endowments and turned it into Singapore, a giant regional and global force. He did this through decisiveness and a purpose though, of course, he traded true democracy.

Nelson Mandela? We all know what he did and while I know many of our readers differ, many millions think it was truly visionary. He prodded us into nationhood and bequeathed a sense of being South African.

He embedded (perhaps imposed) reconciliation upon us and while the jacket does not fit perfectly, the alternatives were too awful to imagine.

The other pillar of our work is to think deeply about what makes a good society. How do you strike the balance between equality, equity, efficiency and community?

What do leaders do with power, how is abuse prevented, how do elites ensure they do not become self-interested but continue to engage their communities and society?

These are all essential questions for the age and ones that have fundamentally altered my attitude to government bling and blue lights.

Having teethed as a journalist watching the ANC displaying a laudable form of servant and simple leadership, the culture of bling and the high life is personally astounding, especially in a country with massive wealth gaps.

It has morphed into a “bunga-bunga” culture where partying and debauchery define a large part of young political life, which need not always be staid and boring, but should at least be focused and outcomes-based.

Fellows of the Africa Leadership Initiative learn to inspect deeply what the level of “enough” is (in terms of resources and assets).

For you, once you have achieved success, how much do you give? How do you ensure that you continually impact on your community, society or country?

This weekend, some members of this fellowship (now spread across Africa, the US, India, Central America, China and the Middle East) met in Cape Town to assess the state of globalisation and of how to lead in an era of uncertainty.

I realised that we sit on the horns of a dilemma in South Africa.

We can choose among three paths: the inchoate youth-led slate of policies which include nationalisation and expropriation; continuing to muddle along in the soup of the Zuma administration’s debating school that passes for a government; or putting our collective noses behind the grindstone of the national plan released by the minister in charge of the National Planning Commission last Friday.

It’s a watertight and well-motivated document, almost deceptively simple for Manuel, who is usually given to arguments of greater complexity and philosophy.

You saw the summaries here last week (if not, they are on our website) but in a nutshell it suggests a philosophical shift in how we understand development.

Until now, we counted development as a tally of social grants, water and electricity connections, and houses built.

But the plan goes further to advocate the idea of an endowment society where it is recognised that, in order to truly develop a society, you need to provide citizens with a set of endowments: decent education, good infrastructure and reliable transport.

In some areas we are on the path, in others not. I got the sense last week that Manuel was entirely uncertain that his plan would carry the stamina and political will that it should.

The ANC is a distracted home now, with all energy focused on the political survival of incumbents or on the political ambitions of those who want to take over next year, which is a write-off in governance terms.

If we were to put our noses to the grindstone, it feels as if success can’t be far off: South Africa has weathered the global financial storm with less hail damage than the nations of Europe or the US; we have enviable infrastructure, health and education budgets; and we are blessed by geography.

Sitting at the rich and developed end of Africa is a good thing with the continent now in the top tables of go-to emerging markets.

The other key lesson we learn at ALI is to lead from the middle, a leadership lesson from Jean Monet, the architect of what has become the European Union.

He used his networks and influence to push through a tough idea that in the end was good for Europe.

This is the intention of the ALI network – all of us committed to playing a role in using our skills to ensure we
are actors and not a passive audience in our country.

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