Melanie Verwoerd

10 crucial requirements for the next president

2017-02-08 08:14
President Jacob Zuma.

President Jacob Zuma.

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Tomorrow might be the last State of the Nation Address delivered by President Jacob Zuma.

Assuming he doesn’t stand for a third term as ANC President at the end of the year or that his successor does not leave him in place as president for the country – this will be the last time he will open Parliament. 

With the ANC leadership race picking up speed and America struggling to adjust to their new, morally corrupt president, it is crucial that we as a nation start to question what characteristics and value system we want in our next president. It is of course true that, unlike America, we do not have a directly elected president. 

However, it is important that as ordinary citizens we do not abdicate this responsibility to the ANC electoral conference. The decision on who should be the leader of our nation for the next five to ten years is too important for us to remain mere spectators. We have to start debating the issue and let the members of the governing party know what it is that we as a nation want. 

I challenged myself recently to identify the characteristics and values that I want to see in any president. It was an interesting journey and of course I know that it is idealistic to think one person could have it all. But then again, when you are the head of a country you should be measured against a higher standard. And so here are my top 10 requirements for the next president (in no particular order of importance). 

1) Honesty: I am sick and tired of wondering if my president and his government is lying or assuming that any government project is corrupt. 

2) Compassion: I want my president to truly care about the people of this country – more than about his/her own popularity or personal wealth.

3) Courage: Madiba said that a leader has to follow the wishes of the people and his party 90% of the time. “But,” he said, “a great leader is defined by the other 10% of the time when he/she must have the courage to go against his/her own party and people.” In a party driven political system such as ours, we need someone with back-bone who will take action against those who speak and do wrong.

4) Transparency: Secrecy breeds dishonesty and encourages corruption. I want my president to be open about what is going on – warts and all and…

5) I want my president to be able to say, “I am sorry” when things go wrong. Saying sorry is not a weakness, it is a strength. Archbishop Tutu tells the story of how Madiba once called him to apologise after he made a procedural error during the Truth Commission process. How different would our political history have been, if there was for example an apology immediately after the Nkandla matter came to light or the Marikana massacre?

6) Humility:  Of course the ability to apologise presupposes a sense of humility. Someone once said: If a person has no doubt whatsoever in their own abilities, they stare into the abyss of insanity. Remember Hitler or the slightly more benevolent Margaret Thatcher?

7) Inclusive and non-racial: We desperately need a leader who can again unite us across racial and tribal lines and not use these potentially divisive factors in our society to gain popular support.

8) Gender sensitive: I want a leader who understands that women are fundamentally equal to men and amongst others have the right to equal pay, be safe from sexual harassment and rape (and that includes from political leaders) and are not only destined for marriage and  bearing children. I also want my president to stand up for men and women of all sexual orientations. 

9) Economically literate: I don’t believe that every president should be an economist, but he/she should know something about the local and global economic systems … and if he/she could read numbers that would be an additional bonus.

10) Internationally respected: In our globalised world it is vitally important that our president is respected across the world. Remember how nice it was when we could just mention Nelson Mandela abroad and everyone’s face lit up? 

So there you go…. This is my top ten list. 

Much as I would want to see a woman elected as president, these values, characteristics and skills matter much more than a person’s gender.

I hope, as the ANC veterans have also said, that this will become more of a national debate. Our country has for too long been on a downward spiral because of spineless and valueless leaders. 

It is time for all of us to say: “Enough!” and demand a courageous man or woman who will lead this country with a commitment to solid values and principles. 

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland. 

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