Mpumelelo Mkhabela

Popularity vs ability in the leadership debate

2019-01-25 06:00
President Cyril Ramaphosa and former president Jacob Zuma celebrating a 107 years of the ANC. (Tshidi Madia, News24)

President Cyril Ramaphosa and former president Jacob Zuma celebrating a 107 years of the ANC. (Tshidi Madia, News24)

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The ANC must find a way to balance democratic popularity with ability. It must produce leaders in tune with the demands of their moment in history, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.

Different types of leaders have at different stages in history emerged to either guide their nations to success or ruin.

A random selection sums it up. Some leaders have guided their nations to prosperity. Consider for example Deng Xiaoping who is credited for modernising and laying the groundwork of what would become of China: the world's second largest economy today. 

Some leaders have the ability to unite antagonistic racial groups into united nations without suicidal violent revolution. Nelson Mandela was such leader. 

READ: Ronald Lamola - The future of the ANC is bright

Some leaders could lead their promising nations to catastrophic decline after a promising start. For example Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe led his people to political freedom but expropriated the freedom (along with farms) without compensation as soon as he realised freedom was inconvenient for his continued stay in power. The tragic consequences are there for all to see today on the streets of Harare.

Some leaders are able to lead their nations out of ideological quagmire. For example, Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union implemented perestroika, the economic and political reforms that acknowledged the backwardness of Soviet economic system. He helped end the Cold War.

Some leaders have dragged their nations to fatal racial hatred. Think of Adolf Hitler of Nazi Germany. He was the mastermind of gas chambers among other horrors of the Holocaust.

Some leaders have no sensible national vision and lead their otherwise progressive nations to the cliff. They close their ears to voices of conscience. For example, Donald Trump of the United States and Jacob Zuma of South Africa.

Some leaders have emerged to suit the demands of the moment and circumstances. FW De Klerk, the last apartheid leader, lacked the political intransigence that was the hallmark of the arrogant PW Botha. De Klerk couldn't go against the political force of gravity. He faced the inevitable.

Since 1994 South Africa has become a very complex democratic society. It requires dynamic political leaders who can carefully manage its diversity, enable radical reindustrialisation, lift millions from unemployment and unemployability, pursue national well-being aggressively and unquestionably adhere to the Constitution.

When Thabo Mbeki succeeded Mandela, it appeared as though it was logical, not only in terms of his seniority in the governing party, but also in meeting the demands of the moment. He had the requisite diplomacy and skill to continue on the path of democratic state-crafting. Let's say nothing of Zuma.

Faced with multiple societal fractures – some of it caused by populism – a stagnant economy, weak governance and voter impatience, Cyril Ramaphosa is trying to craft a consensus presidency. Carefully managed and not to be confused with indecisiveness, he can achieve a lot as a principled unifier who takes bold measures to fix all that is broken.

Consensus leadership, if implemented wisely, could see him making an effort to seek counsel from leaders in business, trade unions and others sectors to secure quick wins. But poorly executed consensus leadership can also come across as bereft of imagination and decisiveness. It can be a handicap that makes it impossible for him to take groundbreaking and unpopular decisions even when necessary.

His major advantage is having been exposed in almost all aspects of leadership: trade union, United Democratic Front activism and business. Whether this exposure means he has what it takes to lead South Africa to "grow together" he must demonstrate.

The leadership question is whether in the current political environment we can see the emergence of genuine leaders beyond the current crop that includes Ramaphosa who are in their 60s. The leadership turnover in the ANC every 10 years or less suggests the governing party is likely to have more opportunities to install new leaders. But that doesn't guarantee that it will elect good leaders unless leadership criteria are developed and strictly adhered to.

The party has some good ideas, including those contained in its discussion pamphlet "Through the eye of the needle" calling for principled leadership. These ideas haven't been institutionalised and embedded in political practice because so far, they are not in the interest of factional power brokers.

The party must find a way to balance democratic popularity with ability. It must produce leaders in tune with the demands of their moment in history.

Leaving the emergence of good leadership to the fortunes of popularity will not take the country further because popularity can be purchased; ability can't.

The time to start debating leadership abilities is not immediately before or during elective conferences where rationality habitually gives way to other considerations. Closer to conferences, emotions tend to be high and any debate about leadership qualities would be linked to leadership opportunities of certain individuals rather than the relevant leadership the country needs. 

The time is now to discuss the quality of leadership required beyond the current cohort in an attempt to ensure the needs of the country become the foremost political imperative rather than the ability of aspirant leaders to manipulate electoral outcomes. This imperative is as relevant to the ANC as it is to all political parties.

- Mkhabela is a regular columnist for News24.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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