Generational leap is the tonic

2018-01-07 06:10
President Jacob Zuma. Picture: Felix Dlangamandla

President Jacob Zuma. Picture: Felix Dlangamandla

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Rumour has it that there was much celebration at old age homes throughout the country when the election results for the ANC’s leadership were announced in December.

Ululating pensioners threw false teeth into the air and spun their wheelchairs in courtyards. Wrists were sprained as the oldies tried to do fist-bumps and high-fives. Walking sticks were thrown into piles and turned into bonfires.

It was a good day for old people. The ANC had elected a leadership that was sufficiently aged. There was a 64-year-old Gwede Mantashe in the chairmanship, and 58-year-old Ace Magashule in the secretary-general position. The very tall Magashule was to be deputised by 64-year-old Jessie Duarte in a classic Laurel and Hardy partnership. In the deputy president’s seat was 57-year-old David Mabuza. The baby in this line-up came in the form of Paul Mashatile (56).

In the top job was 65-year-old Cyril Ramaphosa, who beat off 68-year-old Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to get the job. These two were from the “young generation” to whom the 75-year-old incumbent was handing over the reins.

The rest of the candidates contesting the presidency of the ANC in 2017 were all in their sixties.

When Ramaphosa begins his first officially elected term as South Africa’s president in 2019, he will be 67 and will complete his first term when he is 72. Assuming the ANC wins the next general elections and further assuming that Ramaphosa’s successor will come from the current top six, he or she will be well into their sixties when they take over.

Let us take this a step further. If the pattern of the ANC’s succession is followed, the next layer of leadership will be as old as the current layer before they are handed the baton. If you look at some of the leaders who are emerging in the provinces, you will see that they will be old people when they take over.

Before this lowly newspaperman gets accused of being ageist, I must categorically state that I have absolutely no problem with old people. They are wonderful. The issue here is what kind of leadership mix a society and a dominant political party produce. When you have a leadership corps that is dominated by grey hairs and you establish a tradition that people can only lead when they have age-specific health challenges, you are holding society back.

Much has been said and written about the fact that the global trend – including on our continent – is to elect younger leaders. There are, of course, blips and deviations. In the US, the final race to succeed Barack Obama, who took office at the age of 46, was between a 69-year-old Hillary Clinton and a 70-year-old orang-utang. While Clinton’s challenger on the Democratic side was 75-year-old Bernie Sanders, the orang-utang’s main rivals on the Republican platform were youthful and vibrant. However, when 2020 comes around, a crop of youngsters in Washington and state capitals will be in the running for the White House.

The deviation happened across the sea in Britain. After a succession of young leaders on both sides of the aisle, the Labour Party is now led by 68-year-old Jeremy Corbyn and the Conservative Party by 61-year-old Theresa May. But they are both surrounded by youthful blood, ensuring that their successors will be from the ranks of the energetic crowd.

On our continent, the election of Adam Barrow (52) in Gambia and Liberia’s president elect George Weah (51) signals a trend that is set to be emulated elsewhere. The elevation of elderly leaders who cut their teeth in struggles against colonialism will soon be a thing of the past.

South Africa and the ANC should not be bucking this trend. An organisation that prides itself on being the continent’s oldest liberation movement and a trendsetter in many ways should not be a follower when it comes to the need for the injection of youthful energy.

As it is, the ANC is already a follower here at home. The leadership structures of the main opposition parties, the DA and the Economic Freedom Fighters, are packed with young people. It comes as no surprise that these parties have the agility and innovative nous to run rings around the ANC and force it into always being reactive.

It would be worth the ANC revisiting an unofficial conversation in its ranks about “generational leap”, the skipping of one generation in succession. This concept arose from a belief that, in times of crisis, it is unwise to simply hand over to the next generation that has imbibed the bad habits of the previous class. A healthy approach would then be to skip that generation and give responsibility to a cohort that can bring fresh ideas and chart a new direction.

Generational leap would probably be a tough sell in the ANC, as some believe they are entitled to ascend to power due to their years in service to the party. But if that does not happen, the party could see society finding solutions, inspiration and leadership elsewhere – as it is already doing.

Read more on:    anc  |  nkosazana ­dlamini zuma  |  jacob zuma  |  cyril ramaphosa

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