Call it wasted nine years or whatever, the single biggest political problem South Africa faced in the last few years, that brought about massive regression in almost all national indices, was bad leadership.
We have a sound architecture of political institutions and rules, but they are vulnerable to weakening and decay depending on the qualities of the leader at the top. But, if institutions and rules can be weakened and destroyed, they can also be strengthened and rebuilt to perform their constitutional duties.
The question then is what kind of leadership would favour the nourishing and strengthening of institutions to the benefit of society. It's a question that those seeking political office must answer. Yet, listening to political party campaign messages, one does not get a sense that leadership would be crucial to the success of our country. Political parties and their respective leaders are predominantly interested in telling voters how bad their opponents are.
ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa was in Nelson Mandela Bay the other day where he said that the coalition government there, formed after the ANC lost its majority in the 2016 municipal elections, doesn't work because there is no single big boss; it would work well if the ANC was the boss. He did not explain why that would be the case. Did he have in mind the convict Andile Lungisa as mayor?
The Democratic Alliance is failing to say why the country would do better under President Mmusi Maimane. It runs media advertisements telling voters how bad Ramaphosa had been: he sat idle while Zuma ruined the country. This negative campaigning, which many opposition parties have adopted as a strategy, is often used to rubbish the ANC's record in government in the last 25 years.
Parties whose leaders were at different stages in their political careers part of the ANC frame their messages as if they were never in the ANC. When Bantu Holomisa of the United Democratic Movement, Terror Lekota of the Congress of the People, Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters, the African Transformation Movement's Jimmy Manyi and the African Content Movement's Hlaudi Motsoeneng speak, you would swear they were never card-carrying members of the ANC.
The ANC itself is caught in double-negative campaigning. The "New Dawn" and "Thuma Mina" slogans are often used to critique the Zuma years. Frankly, South Africans don't need any more criticism of the Zuma years. They have long critiqued that period while the ANC was pontificating about "collective responsibility".
What South Africans want to hear from Ramaphosa and all those eyeing Cabinet and other positions after the elections is how they will take the country to where it deserves to be and unleash its full potential. How will their selfish interests be tamed so that they serve the public interest? Why must we believe that they won't be corrupt, that they won't weaken state institutions and subject them to decay? The opposition leaders must also answer these questions in their campaigns.
Ace Magashule, Ramaphosa's secretary general, should ideally speak of why, under Ramaphosa, the country will be better. Alas, Magashule tells black voters that a vote for the DA is a vote for "umlungu" (white) and that the ANC depends on blacks. And he expects the same voters to believe him when he speaks of social cohesion and nonracialism – both of which are part of the ANC's values!
It would be helpful of political parties to spend the remaining days talking about the virtues – if they have any – of their own leadership qualities instead of focusing on the negatives of their opponents. This does not mean that punching holes in their opponents' campaign messages is necessarily wrong. It is of course part of the battle to win the hearts and minds of voters, but it should be balanced.
It would be better for voters to make a positive rather than a negative choice when they vote. It should not be about how bad the other parties on the ballot paper are. It should be about how good the chosen party and its leaders are. (I don't mean to promote Patricia de Lille's GOOD party!) Voting in this manner would mean voters would take responsibility for the choice made rather than options not chosen. What you did not eat does not make your dinner memorable or horrible. Rather, it's what you did eat.
- Mkhabela is a regular columnist for News24.
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