Where is our leadership in nation-building?

Jeffrey Sehume

The calibre of national leadership can be a decider in generating, or stifling, national goodwill and economic recovery.

Americans have fond memories of president Franklin Roosevelt’s role in transcending the Great Depression.

British people remain in awe of Winston Churchill’s actions during World War 2.

Singaporeans revere Lee Kuan Yew for bringing their backwater country into the First World. South Africans reminisce about the racial bonhomie of the Nelson Mandela era.

Alas, faced with surrender of national sovereignty to one foreign family, the effects of “junk” status and recession, South Africans are rightly morose about the present and future.

Their jaded mood resembles that of Americans under President Donald Trump.

Fortunately for the Americans – who live in a First World country – they can survive Trump, as they survived the damage caused by George W Bush.

Institutionalised corruption

For South Africa, the incalculable costs of the #GuptaLeaks will take generations to overcome as corruption has become institutionalised.

Tito Mboweni reminds us that, when the governing party took over power in 1994, it inherited from the apartheid regime $25bn worth of debt.

To its credit, the architects of post-1994 South Africa repaid this debt so that, by 2008, they received an A rating from the international ratings agencies.

That hard work, sacrifice and dedication is now being wiped out, not least by stupendous own goals resulting in the downgrading of the country, its top five banks, Sanral, plus certain regional and local governments.

Despite their ideological bias towards Western countries, these ratings agencies retain a global hegemony that cannot be written off.

It is therefore not surprising, in this jeremiad mood, to see increased incidents of ugly racism.

It is probable that the likes of Helen Zille and Penny Sparrow would not have been so vocal if the executive office was occupied by someone exuding authority and competence.

There would have been no need to compare, unfairly so, South Africa to Singapore, even though Zille recently forgot to mention that Singapore achieved its economic glory and good governance under Lee’s benign authoritarian regime.

The importance of national leadership is sorely needed to bring into the economic mainstream the army of 3 million jobless young people, and to prevent 50 000 women and girls from facing the scourge of rape every year.

A selfless leadership would chart the way forward to arrest service delivery protests that, at times, provide criminal cover for xenophobic attacks.

A servant leadership would ensure society is galvanised to stem the enveloping depressing national mood filled with apathy, cynicism, anomie and Zillean racism.

It is a fact that the social ills that emerge from this downcast collective mood will encourage populism and far-right reactionary movements.

And because these movements and populist figures spout impractical bullsh*t, their short-term remedies for the country’s crises can only exacerbate the already adverse situation.

Waiting in the wings to offer binding austerity solutions are Bretton Woods institutions and the other international lending organisations that have crippled Greece.

The emphasis on national leadership and its ability to engender social cohesion is linked to the need to revisit social compacts.

What are these compacts or covenants?

They are implicit agreements made by government, industry and civil society about the proper policies to spur economic growth and shared prosperity.

A country left to its own devices

Before the recent Cabinet reshuffle, an example of such an agreement to collectively bat for Team RSA was related to the national minimum wage, agreed to by government, labour unions and business.

More broadly, if these compacts were in place, the National Development Plan would be meaningfully implemented even as various stakeholders improve the sections of the plan they are not wholly satisfied with.

In the absence of national leadership, South Africa is left to its own devices to deal with the menace of systematic inequality.

In their book The Spirit Level, social scientists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett warn that the short- to long-term negative effect wreaked by inequality is simply incalculable.

They argue that “almost all the problems that are common at the bottom of the social ladder are more common in more unequal societies – including mental illness, drug addiction, obesity, loss of community life, imprisonment, unequal opportunities and poorer wellbeing for children”.

What is to be done in the meantime while we wait for the outcome of the governing party’s December electoral conference, and start speculating about the prospects of a 2019 coalition government?

The fear expressed by some cynics among us about South Africa degenerating into a failing state like Zimbabwe is misplaced.

The fortitude of South Africans to stand and fight against injustice is legendary – apartheid was defeated largely by civil action driven by ordinary people accompanied by servant leaders such as Desmond Tutu.

Kleptocracy, which is literally rule by thieves, can never take root in this country because our people are prepared to make personal sacrifices even under the threat of harassment, violence, torture and death.

The example of capable leadership as experienced under Madiba and Roosevelt, in focusing people’s attention and energy towards social cohesion and nation-building, is motivated, as Martin Luther King said, not in a search of consensus but to mould consensus.

Sehume is a researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute

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