Mpumelelo Mkhabela: When leaders fail to lead, the vacuum will be filled

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Ramaphosa has to reclaim his leadership relevance on the Collins Khosa matter and take charge as a commander-in-chief.


There are times when the official leader of a country is rendered irrelevant by momentous events. To be irrelevant could be the outcome of many factors.

A leader could be out of touch, shy to exercise authority, not suitable to the task, lacks the requisite intuition, narcissistic or divisive.

Such leaders are usually swept aside from influence at defining moments in a nation's history even as they continue to hold their positions of power as authorised by law.

South Africa has had its moments of this kind.

On 10 April 1993, South Africa was like a nuclear bomb waiting to explode, following the murder of popular liberation hero Chris Hani by racist right-wing individuals who wanted to stop the ushering in of a new democratic order.

The official president of the republic was FW de Klerk.

But as an apartheid president, albeit the last, his stock of moral capital was so low for him to command the influence of the whole nation.

Not least because the apartheid regime in its dying days was complicit in the gruesome violence in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng, fuelling a mini-civil war, the so-called black-on-black violence.

Only Nelson Mandela, the unofficial president who was recognised as the moral force, could speak directly to the hearts of South Africans, black and white, appealing for calm.

He gave an address to the nation through the public broadcaster.

He condemned the murder of Hani, who, like many, had sacrificed his life for the struggle for freedom.

Mandela declared 14 April the day of national mourning.

There was no coup against the De Klerk government. But only Mandela, under the circumstances, could address the whole nation. De Klerk was technically irrelevant.

In the United States, after the murder of George Floyd - which gruesomely and symbolically brought to the fore racial injustice against African Americans - many people in that country did not look to the official US President Donald Trump to provide leadership.

With the leadership void at the White House, young and old leaders of all racial backgrounds have emerged in the United States to make statements that ordinarily should come from the heart of the US President.

They are leading protests demanding structural changes in the criminal justice system.

They understand the brutality of the murderous police officers is directly linked to the unjust economic system that dates back to slavery. They are saying things Trump is woefully incapable of saying.

The depth of the meaning of the murder of Floyd, his last words - "I can’t breathe" - and the unrest that followed cannot be understood by a sub-standard leader.

Trump has sealed his legacy as a divisive character, a quackery, a joke and an embarrassment.

The only thing that is good about his presidency is that he personifies the faults of democratic outcomes.

He is a reminder that, although there is no better form of human organisation that can replace democracy, the system can produce deeply flawed leaders.

Fortunately, only democracy has in-built corrective measures that gives voters the right to reconsider. This means voters must continuously reassess their choices, take responsibility for the outcomes of their decisions and strive to improve.

If Trump is re-elected in November, that would mean Americans see the outcome as an improvement or an expression of appreciation for a "good job" done during crises like the Covid-19 and the handling of Floyd's murder by the White House.

In South Africa we are waiting for anyone in the echelons of the political and security establishment to take responsibility for the death of Collins Khosa.

Commander-in-Chief Cyril Ramaphosa had publicly issued an instruction to security forces to not use "skop and donner" tactics in the enforcement of Covid-19 lockdown rules.

Yet, they proceeded to do exactly that, resulting in the death of Khosa in Johannesburg.

Since Khosa's death, no sound political leadership has come from either Ramaphosa or Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. 

The only time when Mapisa-Nqakula came close to providing leadership was when she stated in a press conference AFTER a question by journalists: "We hang our heads in shame."

But a person who genuinely feels those words in her heart would have tendered her resignation immediately after uttering them.

Alternatively, the commander-in-chief would have sacked the immediate supervisor of the members of the South African National Defence Force  involved in the assault of Khosa and others, for failing to obey his command.

The High Court found that there were no guidelines on how the security forces were expected to enforce the lockdown regulations. Who will take leadership responsibility for that?

Were those involved aware of what they could or could not to do enforce lockdown?  

In the absence of leadership from those duly authorised to provide it such as the commander-in-chief, it had to come from somewhere. And it came from Judge Hans Fabricius.

Fabricius demanded a full and a speedy investigation into the death of Khosa and any other person whose rights may have been infringed by the security forces during the lockdown. He also ordered the suspension of those involved. The report must be filed to the high court today (June 4).

Fabricius's words hit the conscience hard for those who have it: "It is ironic thought that, having regard to the history of our country, the very institutions that have been created to safeguard and protect the population from crime and violence are the very [ones] who now fail to impose appropriate remedies against the transgressors, but have the audacity to tell the court that it has not function in the matter."

It is worth repeating: in the absence of leadership from those whose responsibility it is to lead, others will step in. In the Khosa case, Fabricius and the advocates who brought the matter to his attention provided much-needed leadership.

In addition to the tragedy of the death of Khosa, we have a political tragedy where the commander-in-chief and his subordinates have to be told by a judge how to command and discipline their forces.

The moment to show leadership after his instructions were violated, passed by while Ramaphosa watched.

Were it a game of football, we would say the captain was caught ball-watching while a teammate scored an own goal.

It remains to be seen how Ramaphosa will reclaim his leadership relevance on the Khosa matter and take charge as a commander-in-chief.

Or maybe he’ll wait for Judge Fabricius to tell him what to do.

- Mpumelelo Mkhabela is a former parliamentary correspondent, editor of Sowetan and a political analyst. 

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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