Blue lights and leadership

2008-11-18 00:00

There is an inspiring story involving the Danish king and queen set against the sombre background of Nazi-occupied Denmark. A Jewish rabbi, Bent Melchior, had written a book of commentaries on the first five books of Moses. He decided to send a bound copy as a gift to his king, Christian X. His wife took the book to the palace and happened to bump into thequeen who was just walking out of the palace. The queen graciously accepted the book, and the next day the rabbi received a personal letter from the king thanking him for thebook and sending greetings to him and to the Jewish community.

With this fine example of humane, principled leadership, it was therefore probably no accident that the Danes, alone among nations, worked virtually as a unit to save their Jewish community from deportation and the hell of the concentration camps.

The point of this story is that, contrary to the beliefs of those who say that individuals do not matter in the great tide of human affairs, history shows that the actions of individual men and women with influence can have a profound effect on the societies in which they live. Yesterday’s paper underlined this very strongly. Readers cannot help having been struck by the contrast between the arrogant thuggishness demonstrated by Social Development MEC Meshack Radebe’s bodyguard firing shots at another road user, and the graciousness, humanity and statesmanship of Nelson Mandela’s actions at the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

The first action caused a serious accident and set an example of contempt for the law and the constitutional rights of citizens; the latter helped unite a nation at a time of great tension and division.

Unfortunately, the recent history of South Africa has been littered with cases of leaders setting bad examples: from the corruption in high places, to the mad ranting of the likes of

Julius Malema, to the arrogant self-importance of politicians who feel that they and their staffs are above the law, exemplified by the rash of blue-light incidents over the past two years.

It is time that all South Africans united in demanding higher standards from their leaders, including a commitment to the nation as a whole rather than the self-serving party political jockeying which seems to pass as leadership in these challenging times.

A first step should be a scrapping of the blue-light culture, signalling the end of an era where public officials appear to demand the respect of their fellow citizens without having earned it.

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