The rise and fall of leadership in the 26 years of democracy

This year South Africa marks 26 years of democracy, a good time to reflect on how far we have come. There are numerous aspects of South African life today I want to focus on and what the developments that have shaped us say about the kind of leadership our country has experienced. The sentiment… it was an age of wisdom and an age of foolishness probably sums up the state of leadership that has shaped South Africa at different times.

“It was the best of times and it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom and it was the age of foolishness…..”  (Charles Dickens)

The age of wisdom was represented at different times by different leaders. In 1993 I had the privilege as a student leader to speak at various Universities in the United Kingdom. The cross cutting question I had to field from students and staff alike was whether the world should expect a blood bath and whether our leaders had what it takes to avoid an incessant conflict like those seen in the middle east and other parts of the continent and the world. The answer to this question only came in 1994 but not before there was blood letting, massacres and assassinations. The negotiate settlement was the sign of an age of wisdom from across the political spectrum. This was the best of times as the world stood in awe of what the country had achieved.

While the settlement was not perfect, it was indeed a good start and a demonstration of wisdom where it was most needed. Many nations who have been through what we traversed had to make hard choices to rebuild their nations. The wisdom of leaders like Nelson Mandela chose the path of reconciliation instead of revenge and retribution. The economic policy choices while they were no where near defeating the poverty that was rife required less populism and more wisdom. To take South Africa out of bankruptcy, inequality and huge burden of social collapse required the continuation of such wisdom as we settled into a new normality of a democracy. This era saw the rise of leadership in the age of wisdom.

Make no mistake there were many other issues that underlines wisdom from across society as well. Business and Labour also threw their weight in different ways to show leadership to support what the Mandela administration sought to achieve. The approval of our constitution, the establishment of the constitutional court and the birth of consensus building organs such as NEDLAC underlined a certain level of energy that was focused on rebuilding a nation. Citizens also led from the front in academia sports and culture as South Africa punched above their weight around the world. It was the best of times.

Within the Mandela administration there were blind spots that can be described as the seed to the worst of times. Its important to make this point to debunk the myth that all was perfect under Madiba. The loose screws were on the issues best summarised by the sunset clauses. Issue of landlessness and land reform were neglected and, the targets set at the negotiating table to redistribute land to the disposed. 26 years later, the targets set are yet to be met. This was a dangerous mistake that showed a big blind spot – the fall of leadership planting a seed of the worst of times. This misstep is directly responsible for the poverty levels that we are currently experiencing. During Apartheid days, we were the skunk of the world as Apartheid was declared a crime against humanity. We are back with that badge as the most unequal society in the world.

This reflects very badly on the kind of economic leadership we have had. It is my view that leaders must be judged on the results of their policies not on plans and promises. The manifestos of political parties promise all kinds of heaven and earth and so they should always be taken with a pinch of salt.

The age of foolishness was underlined by many moments in our national life. The poor handling of migration, the poor handling of the HIV/Aids crisis especially under President Thabo Mbeki with all his wisdom were the worst of times for South Africa. Such foolishness of leadership begetting these worst of times was a shameful time indeed and represented a fall of leadership. It is fair to say, the country found a way to recover from this before being befallen by a terrible winter of discontent under President Jacob Zuma who perfected the fall through corruption and a deep era of patronage that destroyed the already weak economy that was growing at 5 percent at some stage under Mbeki. By the time Zuma was done with us, the economy was growing at near zero rates, unemployment approaching 30 percent and jobs being lost at an alarming rate – the worst of times propelled by the age of foolishness.

The business sector is often left off the hook when we analyse the rise and fall of leadership. The poor economic growth and our demotion to junk status and no growth to talk of must also say soothing about the kind of leaders that are in our private sector. Where is the wisdom of an investment boycott in the face of such inequality? The terrible relationship with government must also partly be blamed on the fall of business leadership and not merely on those of the country’s leadership. The state of poor leadership on economic transformation represents the worst of times for the majority of South Africans and it’s a direct birth of the age of foolishness.

So this tale of two cities continues today. As a society, we must reflect on how we reverse the age of foolishness upon us. We need to ask ourselves what kind of leadership across society do we need to reclaim the best of times.

· Tabane is Anchor of Your View on Newzroom Afrika and Author of Let’s Talk Frankly

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