It's all about character

2009-03-30 00:00

I have been watching South Africa’s election debates on SABC 2 on Sundays. During campaign rallies and meetings there have been hate speeches containing racist remarks and accusations of tribalism against opponents. Some say that there are too few good leaders in this country to stop these slurs and accusations, and this has brought into stark relief the necessary qualities of true political leadership.

The key qualities that leaders must have, have been debated time and again. The list can be rather long. Here I would like to concentrate on just one quality, an African concern for character or isithunzi.

A leader must have character. This means being able to project not only strength but virtue too. If the leader is arrogant and utters hate statements or is guilty of nepotism (this applies to both politics and business), followers will mirror these qualities. If a political party leader fights and attacks other party leaders and/or supporters, his or her supporters invariably take up arms against their rivals. We all remember the horrors of the Seven Days War of March 25, 1990, when clashes between the Inkatha Freedom Party and the African National Congress in greater Vulindlela became a full-scale civil war. The worst part of it was that politicians fought a cold war in the media and their supporters fought a hot war in our communities.

As I watched a television debate where the ANC, IFP, Minority Front and the National Democratic Convention (Nadeco) were represented, I was relieved to hear that the political party representatives and leaders remained sober and diplomatic. All of them were impressive and I was especially taken with Reverend Musa Zondi. Zondi has consistently shown good leadership qualities. What impresses is that he keeps his dignity and humanity, and is on good terms with his opponents, such as provincial chair (KZN) Dr Zweli Mkhize of the ANC, another trustworthy leader.

It is heartening to see political parties treating their rivals with due regard and courtesy, and it gives us hope that we will not topple into another civil war or more political no-go zones, as we saw looming at Nongoma in early electioneering. So often we, the citizenry, look at our leaders with their cold war talk in trepidation, as so often it flares up as violence. Zondi emphasised the point that in order to understand the current tense atmosphere in KwaZulu-Natal between the two dominant political parties, the IFP and ANC, we cannot ignore the history of political violence in this province.

The divide-and-rule system of the former apartheid government sowed hatred among people of this province. We cannot ignore that fact; therefore, talking about the past when necessary is not opening wounds, especially if the wounds have never healed. We refer to the past events to understand the present so that we can analyse the future — that is history. Our leaders, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal, need to prove the Nationalists wrong. African parties can work together for the greater good of the country.

During the unrest in the province in the late eighties, Zondi was quoted by the media as being at pains to show the danger of the escalating civil war not only to people who were fighting but he was also concerned about children who were observing it and being dragged into violent activities. This is what I mean by character. Zondi was not talking about children belonging to IFP families or children from UDF-ANC-supporting families, he was talking about children from all affected families and communities.

Finally, those who read my article in The Witness of March 3 will have seen another side to my indignation. I was challenged for my statements, which are incidentally borne out in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. Those who wish to take umbrage can refer to Constable William Harrington of the SAP, who was stationed in Pietermaritzburg during the Seven Days War when the police force moved from house to house. If the occupants could not produce certain party membership cards their homes were burnt. “I fired on any ANC house or group from my vehicle, I distributed weapons to chiefs and I transported ammunition. It was days of death and blood … It was my war, my personal war against the ANC.” (Antjie Krog, Country of My Skull).

To those who think I am biased, this is not true. I call it as I see it written in history and spoken by people who lived it. Where I see good I proclaim it, but equally, where I see actions that caused grief and suffering, I proclaim that too.

• Mxolisi Mchunu is a PhD candidate (history) at the university of KwaZulu-Natal (Howard College) and the head of research at the Voortrekker/Msunduzi Museum. He writes in his personal capacity.

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