Choose the person who can deliver

2017-12-17 06:12
Thuli Madonsela

Thuli Madonsela

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During my opening remarks at the democracy dialogues at the pilot Democracy Festival at Constitution Hill last weekend, I mentioned that I am often asked to make myself available for election as president. When I ask why, the answers point to fault lines in our choice of public representatives, including the president.

Virtually every time I ask why a person considers me good material for the highest office, I am told, “because you stand your ground” and “because you speak truth to power”.

But are standing your ground or speaking truth to power the main qualities we need in a president of a functional democracy, or leader of any entity for that matter?

When this is highlighted, there is usually a Damascus Road moment resulting in a paradigm shift on what we tend to emphasise at our peril when choosing leaders. We tend to choose people based on who we like, without adequate consideration of their capacity to deliver. Unsurprisingly, they flounder, taking our fortunes and us with them.

Despite a fierce, insightful and unresolved debate on the meaning of democracy, there was consensus that democracy must be centred on the people, hence ours and other constitutions begin with, “We the people”. We also agreed that a functional and sustainable democracy must work for all. For this to happen, public representatives and leaders must be the most competent from a vision, purpose anchored, principled and skills fit point of view. We also agreed that public representatives should be the most selfless and able to subordinate their interests and those of their families and loved ones to public interest, and that they be the most trustworthy.

Despite an equally fierce and relatively inconclusive discussion on national identity, there was some consensus on the view that a cohesive group or democracy needs to have values and goals that are shared by all. It was further agreed that such common ground is important for multicultural democracies such as South Africa’s. Participants generally argued that distilling core elements of national identity is important for national cohesion and global solidarity.

A dysfunctional democracy

Some of the key dimensions of South Africa’s common ground values that form the national identity were said to include the flag, ubuntu, respect for human dignity, kindness, fairness and integrity. On the question of integrity, the agreement was that this value was aspirational as transgressions such as corruption and fraud were increasingly becoming systemic. A similar conclusion was arrived at regarding social justice in recognition of the reality of existing racial, gender, disability, sexual orientation, age and other socioeconomic disparities that, though inherited from past legalised injustices, are growing under the new democracy despite its constitutional anchoring in the achievement of equality and freedom for all.

Panellist Mallence Bart-Williams, a young German-Sierra Leonean social justice activist, shared thought-provoking insights on the mistakes we make when choosing leaders. She said that we tend to focus on attributes that are irrelevant to the competence required for the leadership position we want a person to occupy. We also tend to focus on promises without paying attention to a candidate’s history, particularly whether they had acted or led in a similar capacity on a small scale.

Prince Mashele, a fellow panellist, took the argument further and added the importance of vision in leading. He asked if the public and media were doing enough to interrogate the vision of the ANC presidential candidates and the leaders of the DA and the Economic Freedom Fighters, which are key opposition parties that seek a public mandate to govern. Another panellist weighed in, and emphasised that a functional democracy should present a real merit-based prospect for anyone to become a president should they wish to. It was agreed that a functional and sustainable democracy requires the best and most trustworthy people as they will be entrusted with public power and control over resources.

As the ANC executes its elective conference, the average South African is obliviously going about his or her business or is uninterested in the outcome. The impression I get is that many who are not members or supporters of the ANC don’t care what happens at the ANC conference, but merely display a healthy curiosity about whether Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa or Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will win.

The reality is that a dysfunctional ANC is bound to engender a dysfunctional democracy, which is a threat to sustainable peace.

One could say that we may replace the ANC in 2019. The reality is that the ANC’s decisions will drive what happens in the next 18 months. In the digital age, far more can happen in 18 months than was possible over 18 years in the past. Furthermore, the ANC is an important part of the South African democratic system and, like all systems, when there is dysfunctionality in one part, it affects the whole.

You must agree with me that our country needs inspiring, confidence-building leaders who will get us back on track regarding building a united nation where everyone’s potential is freed and life is improved. Such leaders should help us recentre democracy in the people and re-anchor democracy in good governance, supremacy of the Constitution and the rule of law. OR Tambo, Nelson Mandela and the women who led the march to the Union Buildings in 1956 are examples of such leaders.

Leaders in all institutions, particularly in political parties, must, as a priority, help us break with our current dysfunctionality, which includes an increasingly dysfunctional country as state-owned enterprises gobble up limited public funds instead of boosting the national coffers. This is a struggling economy, with official unemployment at about 30% nationally during a job shedding trend. Among other things, that leadership should fit South Africa in terms of the fourth industrial revolution, and resolutely galvanise the nation to fight corruption and ensure that no one evades accountability for wrongful exercise of public power or any conduct by making a mockery of our justice system and other democratic checks and balances.

I hope that in their policy and leadership choices, the ANC and others will prudently consider the constitutional vision regarding the South Africa we want, the character of leaders who are best suited to drive delivery on that vision and the building of a united nation at work to grow its fortunes, redress historical imbalances and reclaim its place as a winning and exemplary nation. I hope we will get proposed policies and leaders who are responsible and inspire confidence in our collective future. I also hope we will no longer be led by those who constantly need courts to tell them how to behave.

Madonsela is founder and chief patron of Thuma Foundation, a Harvard Advanced Leadership Fellow and former public protector


Do you think there is a potential leader in SA who is responsible and could inspire confidence?

SMS us on 35697 using the keyword THULI and tell us what you think. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50

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