Politics of personality

2018-01-14 06:06
President Nelson Mandela

President Nelson Mandela

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Partly because of idealism, if not denialism, and partly because of the flaws of its leaders, the ANC spends a lot of time trying to convince the voter that it’s not about the individual leader, but about the ANC and its policies.

This is not unique to the ANC, but it usually takes a rude awakening for parties to realise that their leaders’ personalities matter, at times much more than its opaque policies and established historical ethos.

The past 23 years, if not the entire life of the ANC, have been a lesson on the importance of the leader’s personality, from James S Moroka, who abandoned his comrades when they needed him the most, to Alfred Bitini Xuma, who was not ready for the new wave of struggle.

Listening to ANC chairperson Gwede Mantashe talking about not personalising the ANC around individuals, it seems the denialism endures and, even after the personality flaws of its erstwhile leader Jacob Zuma caused rupture in the organisation, the lesson has not been learnt.

Many political thinkers agree that political parties do not only require clear policy visions, but also leaders with a quickness of mind, force of personality, the capacity to persuade, a degree of empathy with others, a willingness to take painful decisions and, not least, considerable inner reserves of self-confidence and resilience if they are to be effective.

In previous elections, both leader and party were relatively popular and it was not clear what the biggest motivator for people to go to the polls was.

Nelson Mandela was an institution in himself and Thabo Mbeki did not only elevate the party, but the presidency.


These leaders knew that an organisation with a history of excellence, such as the ANC, deserved no less.

But, in 2014, this changed.

People still loved the party, but had great reservations about the leader.

The influence of the leader and his personal misjudgements, particularly regarding Nkandla, led to devastating election results that were cushioned only by an overall national average of just above 62%.

In 2014, as highlighted at the 2015 national general council, except for a marginal gain in Buffalo City, the ANC’s support declined in the metro areas by an aggregate of 10.3%, with the Economic Freedom Fighters gaining 11.4% and the DA increasing its support by 6.5%.

For the first time, the party realised an ANC vote was not a given based on its historical accomplishments – the quality of the leader mattered just as much.

Before the 2014 elections, a fierce debate raged over whether ANC president Zuma should continue to be the face of the party’s campaign, as is established practice.

He was facing a possible reinstatement of criminal charges and there was a persistent sense that corruption or a perception of corruption was going to decide the 2014 elections. Gauteng was already rumoured to be refusing to use the president’s face to campaign for votes.

All this was an acknowledgment that the personality of the leader matters, sometimes more than its policies or its established record.

Most people are not deeply involved in politics and engage only through what they see or read about political leaders.

It is true that, for some voters, deciding which candidate to vote into office is simply a matter of party affiliation.

But a growing number cast their votes based on specific characteristics they look for in their candidate of choice.

A party leader can be either an electoral asset or a liability.

If anything, the past 15 years have taught us that politics is a tough vocation requiring distinct areas of expertise.

Some of the best politicians have been mastering politics for their entire careers.

It takes some doing, and choosing a leader is not something that must be taken lightly.

There are certain traits the party might not have, but the leader must.

A leader should at the very least be a decent speaker and an engaging interviewee so that he or she can articulately convey what the party stands for.

Party policies are but a framework that must be brought to life by its chosen leaders.

A leader, therefore, must have the skill to build programmes linked to a party’s values while appealing to the widest possible section of the electorate.

There is no point in having a programme a party adores if it is guaranteed to lose an election because society hates its chosen leader.

Equally, if a leader leaves the party too far behind in a bid for wider electoral appeal, he or she will soon cease to be party leader.

As many experts have observed, leaders must possess boundless energy and the ability to respond to unexpected crises.

It is not enough to simply give the appearance of boldness in an emergency, or proclaim boldness while merely following media fashion – they must be genuinely courageous and able to resist orthodoxy.

Finally, especially in a crisis, a leader must be indifferent to criticism and attacks from the media.

A 2015 British election study showed there was a high probability that individuals who liked a party’s leader would vote for that party.

The more they liked the leader in the early stages, the more likely it was that they would vote for the party at a later date.

Leaders are, after all, the public faces of their parties. Voters’ images of leaders may have real significance for electoral outcomes.

This is where the election of Cyril Ramaphosa might have saved the ANC from humiliating electoral defeats at least for the next two national elections.


Ramaphosa is an educated man, steeped in ANC values and principles, is market friendly, and has a crossover candidate appeal whose pedigree is unmatched.

He chaired the panel that drafted the country’s world-renowned Constitution and is therefore capable of working with anyone, including opposition parties that seek to work in good faith.

If the personal is political, Ramaphosa is the man for the job.

Diko is ANC spokesperson in the Western Cape

Read more on:    anc  |  nelson mandela  |  gwede mantashe  |  constitution  |  nkandla

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