On Thursday, news emerged that President Jacob Zuma did not participate in an Africa panel session at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Although it raised eyebrows that the President of South Africa did not use the foremost gathering of investors and world leaders to market the country, it was not the worst news. Zuma’s leadership and views on economic issues has been somewhat disastrous for the country. South Africa needs a fresh approach to choose leaders or we will continue to gamble with our future and keep presidential foot shooting as our national sport. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
It has been said that Kgalema Motlanthe was the best president South Africa never had. The eight months that Motlanthe served as president was not sufficient to gauge how good or bad a leader he was. As deputy president he couldn’t really be his own person. Like Cyril Ramaphosa now, he had to undertake the tasks assigned by the president and could not claim the credit for any achievements. Motlanthe left public office relatively unscathed by the rigours and scandals of the Zuma administration.
Former president Thabo Mbeki is pulling the covers off his presidency in order to dust off his own damaged legacy. In the first two of a series of public letters he has undertaken to write, Mbeki is challenging perceptions that he was paranoid and dictatorial. While the letters might be an interesting insight into his thinking, they cannot revise history or undo the damage to his legacy. Mbeki retains the stature as one of Africa’s greatest statesmen but no amount of letter writing can negate the deadly consequences of his position on HIV and Aids and the involvement of state agencies in political battles under his watch.
Zuma too has been pulverised in the close to seven years he has been Number One. He went from being the “people’s president”, riding on the crest of popularity, to one who is derided and blamed for South Africa’s state of decline. Zuma’s flawed presidency is as a result of the ANC’s defective way of choosing leaders. Succession is based on the strength of the faction behind the candidate rather than an evaluation of leadership qualities, vision and track record.
Before Zuma became president, it was difficult to appraise what type of leader he would be. The ANC does not allow campaigning so Zuma did not need to say or do anything before the 2007 Polokwane conference where he was elected ANC leader. He was elected merely because he was the figurehead of the faction that went up against Mbeki and his supporters.
Zuma was the face of the ANC’s 2009 election campaign and became president on the strength of the ANC and its election manifesto. He only set out his vision for the country in his inauguration speech in May 2009, almost two weeks after the election. The configuration of Zuma’s Cabinet and programmes and priorities of his government were at his discretion.
In 2014, the same thing happened. Zuma did not have to set out his vision until after the election. The illogical way South Africa chooses its presidents and the inability to hold them to account can be blamed on the electoral system as well as the powers granted by the Constitution. But it is also that political parties do not really audition their leaders to test their leadership abilities. The Democratic Alliance did hold a mini contest to choose between Mmusi Maimane and Wilmot James to succeed Helen Zille last year but this was a contained process that occurred within a month. Most other political parties are personality-led and also have problems grooming successors.
South Africa is now in a fragile state, with the economy under severe strain, particularly after Zuma’s dabble with the finance ministers in December. Restlessness with poverty, the lack of economic opportunity and deepening levels of inequality is leading to a state of social instability.
Yet there is no indication that the ANC is willing to revise the way it chooses its deployee for the top job in government. The theory of how to choose good leaders is there, of course, in numerous ANC documents and resolutions. In its 2001 document “Through the eye of the needle”, the ANC spells out the broad requirements for leadership.
“A leader should constantly seek to improve his capacity to serve the people; he should strive to be in touch with the people all the time, listen to their views and learn from them. He should be accessible and flexible; and not arrogate to himself the status of being the source of all wisdom,” the document says.
It goes on to state: “A leader should win the confidence of the people in her day-to-day work. Where the situation demands, she should be firm; and have the courage to explain and seek to convince others of the correctness of decisions taken by constitutional structures even if such decisions are unpopular. She should not seek to gain cheap popularity by avoiding difficult issues, making false promises or merely pandering to popular sentiment.”
The document also says: “There are no ready-made leaders. Leaders evolve out of battles for social transformation. In these battles, cadres will stumble and some will fall. But the abiding quality of leadership is to learn from mistakes, to appreciate one’s weaknesses and correct them.”
While “Through the eye of the needle” is often cited as the ANC’s premier guide to leadership, these standards are rarely adhered to or used to assess the performance of leaders.
While the ANC has tried to modernise its communications and image, it remains stuck in its underground tradition of choosing leaders on the basis of their legend rather than ability. The one thing the Zuma presidency has repeatedly demonstrated is how dangerous a gamble this is.
With the ANC’s next elective conference scheduled for December 2017, and with the benefit of 22 years of governance, the ANC has the opportunity to allow a more vigorous process to choose its leaders. So far, Ramaphosa and African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma are in contention for the top job. But because neither them nor anyone else who might step forward will be allowed to campaign or spell out their vision, ANC delegates will vote on the basis of their legends and the lobbies backing them.
This means the ANC will remain stuck in a cycle of struggle-era traditions while the country and the economy require fresh thinking, new ideas and young dynamic leaders.
No electoral system is fool-proof or able to ensure that good leaders are elected. The US election process is testament to how open contestation and big budget campaigning can allow buffoonery and idiocy to triumph.
South Africa does not need expensive adverts and super PACs to choose leaders. But it would empower the nation to have presidential debates and the ability to question presidential candidates on what they stand for. This will allow for more informed choices when ANC delegates and South Africans vote.
Choosing leaders in South Africa is too much of a gamble. There is too much at stake for the country’s future to be defined through a tradition that could allow another weak leader to rise. Our country deserves better and whether it is the World Economic Forum, the United Nations, the State of the Nation or a visit to a school, our leader should make us proud. DM