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Discernment is at the heart of leadership, writes Dr Allan Boesak, who takes a look at the global and local challenges of leadership

There is a lot said about leadership: ethical leadership, visionary leadership, and servant leadership, to name but a few.

With something like ‘servant leadership’, one understands that concept is always followed by the question: what kind of servant are we talking about? It is never enough to call for politicians and public figures to be “servants”, they all are, by definition, always servants. The question is servants of whom, and servants to what? The people, or those whose instructions they really follow, whose demands they always meet, because these people give them what the people cannot, and will not: instant wealth. The people can give you their trust, their respect, and their love, but what does that count for when my desire is to have millions, or even billions? And what is the price for closing my eyes to the plight of my people, closing my ears to their cries, turning away from their misery? Not very much either, we have found in South Africa, much to our shame.

We know that leadership does not rhyme with brazenness, shamelessness, and impunity. We want leadership that is not “captured”, as the new buzzword in South Africa goes. But I would want leaders to be captured: but by something I have been talking about all over the country for the last few years, namely, what African American scholar, intellectual giant, and intrepid activist WEB DuBois called the politics of decency, honesty, integrity, courage, and virtue.

For this big debate, let us look at leadership through a different lens: that of discernment. Let’s examine: “Discernment as the Heart of Leadership”.

But let me begin with the global context within which leadership is so necessary. Our world today is a world of great upheaval. Even as we speak, the NATO/US/proxy war in Ukraine against Russia can at any moment turn into a nuclear Armageddon. This war was entirely preventable, were it not for the imperialistic greed of the West, from whom the levels of political stupidity are stunning, to say the least.

It is also a rapidly changing world: the overwhelming dominance of the West for the last 500 years and especially in the era of colonialism with regard to the Third World; The dominance of the United States since the end of Second World War; The unipolar “new world order” almost exclusively embodied by the United States empire since 1990—is all coming to an end.

This is the Global South once again turning into the Third World: a new global movement of global solidarity and revolutionary purpose.

The global tectonic plates are shifting: great geo-political and geo-economic changes are taking place before our very eyes: The rise of China and Russia, economically and politically, with just about the only strongly growing economies in the world today; The political and diplomatic achievements pulled off by both; Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria in the Middle East; The ending of the war in Yemen; Their leadership in the economic and political unification of the vast majority of the people of the world: in the Eurasian Economic Union, (Putin’s answer to the European Union); The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation led by China; The New Development Bank—the response to the World Bank; The Contingent Reserve Arrangement which offers support to members with financial deficits—the alternative to the International Monetary Fund.

And then, of course, BRICS, with new membership every year, is already in control of the world’s energy supplies, old and new.

What does leadership mean in such a rapidly changing world, where all the paradigms are shifting, and all the known fundamentals are being rearranged?

If we look at the financial arrangements put in place by these countries, for the benefit of countries across the Third World, with South Africa such a prominent member of BRICS, why is President Ramaphosa asking for a loan of no less that 500 billion dollars from the IMF, at higher interest rates and those destructive conditions, when better terms are available from BRICS institutions?

South Africa is an early member of BRICS, which gives us great advantage. This year we hosted BRICS. The opportunity to put a South African stamp on BRICS initiatives and offering leadership as the first African country to have joined, making sure African interests are high on the BRICS agenda, and not leaving them waiting on political support from countries like China, Russia, India or Brazil were there for the taking. So why do analysts describe President Ramaphosa’s speech as “lacklustre”, “uninspiring”, and “repeating already agreed-upon talking points”? Is that leadership?

What leadership is South Africa giving right now, given our standing—led by the oldest liberation movement on the continent; with a history of nobility, leadership, and struggle second to none; with some of the most illustrious names as leaders and visionaries; with a diverse people with so much talent and so many gifts thriving within a multi-plurality of cultural wealth; with the credentials of a struggle fought and won against the most oppressive, and mightiest forces the continent has ever known, and with the stamp of authority by a noble people?

But what about Africa?

Africa is in turmoil right now. This continent has experienced seven military coups over the last three years. Every time the West and the African Union have condemned these coups. They threaten an ordered, rule-based, democratic society, and bring chaos in the life of a people and their communities. It is always dangerous to let the military take over a country. Pakistan is perhaps the most strident example of this right now, like Chile where exactly fifty years ago on 11 September 1973, Salvador Allende was overthrown in a military coup led by General Pinochet, in turn back by the US, as was the coup against Imran Kahn in Pakistan.

So already here a first question: if our concern is democracy, the rights of the people, the rule of law, and the safety and security of the people, should we not, in condemning the coup, also be as loud in condemning the powers behind it? What agenda do they have, and whose interests are they serving? Why do they plan, support, and finance those coups, but keep their own hands clean so that the blood always pools around our own feet?

The last three coups in Africa—in Burkina Faso, Niger, and Gabon—have been equally harshly condemned by all concerned. But it is clear by now that there is something very different about those coups. I will mention only four things:

  • These coups, to everyone’s surprise, are receiving the wholehearted support of the population. And not just verbally, in singing, slogans or marching up and down the streets of the cities. The masses of people in Niger literally put their bodies between the French military base and the city and by extension the people of Niger in support of the junta, will remain an unforgettable sight.
  • The coups were set against “democratically elected” governments. The people are rejoicing because their “elected” leaders are no more. That should give us pause. It means that the people know the difference between democracy and a sham democracy, to put it bluntly, between a leader and a puppet of the West.
  • The coup is against corrupt rule, but more importantly against neo-colonialism, at its most blatant and exploitative, exercised by France. That means the coup is an expression of resistance against colonialism, in a form not seen since the 1960s. It also means that there is a new awakening, a new political consciousness amongst the people of Africa. All of a sudden, the memories of the visionary leadership of people like Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Souke Toure, and Thomas Sankara is inspiring a new, younger generation.
  • There is not only a new understanding of historical developments regarding the ravages of colonialism, there is understanding regarding the ongoing destructions of neo-colonialism, of which France is only the closest symbol, but Western imperialism as a whole is the undeniable framework and the ultimate target. Africans, especially young Africans, understand the consequences for Africa of the double standards applied by the West concerning the so-called rules-based international rules, by the International Criminal Court, and even the United Nations.

That, in my view, is a huge alarm bell ringing for Africa and the West. It is perfectly articulated by the new, young leader of Burkina Faso, President Ibrahim Traore: “The Africans of my generation,” he told the Africa/Russia Summit in St Petersburg, “are asking, why is Africa, the richest continent on earth, also the poorest?”

That “new generation of Africans” is not only in the North. They are right here, among us. It behoves us to remember the seminal contribution to the debates around colonisation, neo-colonisation, and decoloniality made by our own youth in the #RhodesMustFall movement.

That impact was worldwide.

Ibrahim Traore is not just asking: he is doing, in his own country and in all of West Africa. That is why he is hated by both the West and the old guard boys club of African leaders, but he is revered by the younger generation who call him “the New Sankara”. Here in South Africa, suddenly the image of Che Guevara, the revolutionary icon of the 70s and 80s, is replaced with the image of Ibrahim Traore, the revolutionary icon from Africa. He is the model of leadership they are looking for.

Here are some comments from young Africans I traced on YouTube:

  • “The aspirations of African people for real independence, sovereignty, and economic security should be respected and at the centre of the attention of African leaders…”
  • From a young woman called Abigail Lucymary, with regard to the steps he is taking to secure safety, security, and prosperity for the people of Burkina Faso: “Traore keeps on giving assignments to African leaders.”
  • From a young man in Liberia: “If we have five leaders like Traore, Africa will never be the same…”

So here is the question: When and how does a military coup become a revolution, embraced by virtually the whole population? One answer could be: when the leader matches words and declared intentions with deeds; when immediate steps are taken to rectify that which has been identified as wrong, corrupt, and short-sighted.

When a programme unfolds in which the interests of the people are paramount, domestically and externally. In other words, when the boldness of a coup is followed by the boldness of progressive politics, with immediate consequences for the social, political, and economic wellbeing of the people.

And another: Why is Ibrahim Traore a role model of leadership for young South Africans, and not Cyril Ramaphosa? Why are they seeking pride as Africans in him, and not in Cyril Ramaphosa? Why do they think he has a vision for Africa and Cyril does not?

This leads me to another question: If Africa is in such fundamental transition, if this not just a “wind of change” but a hurricane, if it is a revolution led by the youth of Africa and changing the world, why is there a debate in South Africa on whether we are an African country?

In conclusion: A word on discernment

Leadership is the embodiment of discernment. It is discernment, not just analysis and interpretation of statistics that informs real leadership as the guardian of democratic values. In this regard, I will make seven statements, which I hope we can discuss:

  • Discernment is not the ability to read the direction of the political winds in order to make a choice. Discernment is reading the signs of the times.
  • Discernment is knowing the difference between the politics of expediency and what WEB DuBois called the politics of honesty, integrity, decency, courage, and virtue.
  • It is knowing the difference between false modesty and humility; between firmness and arrogance.
  • Discernment is knowing the difference between power as a tool for self-aggrandisement and self-enrichment, and power as the vessel of the dignity of the people in taking up their responsible role in the shaping of their own history and striving toward their destiny.
  • It is not just discerning the workings of power, but also the power of power to lure us into the traps of self-deception, self-delusion, and self-destruction.
  • It is knowing, and understanding the difference between what the people’s needs and the people’s rights. What the people need and what the people deserve.
  • And perhaps the most important: discernment is understanding, without equivocation, that justice is the heart of good governance. That means understanding African Church Father Augustine: “a government that does not know justice, is nothing more than a gang of robbers.” It is discerning that justice, in its simplest and most basic form, means who and what matters most.

Dr Allan Boesak is an anti apartheid activist, cleric, and author.

This article is based on Dr Allan Boesak’s address to the Worldwide Institute of Leadership and Development.

By Editor