Read in magazine

Londiwe Mntambo looks at the state of leadership in South Africa-and its possible solutions–as we celebrate Nelson Mandela Month

Historically, when we think of leadership, we think of particular names and personalities. In South Africa, the name Nelson Mandela comes to mind. The face of the Rainbow Nation who inspired unity and hope. When I speak to my parents and grandparents about 1990 to 1994, they talk about the feeling of knowing their lives were about to get better, with Mandela’s release from prison being a clear sign of this. They had fought against apartheid and for Mandela’s release, which for them signified the fall of the apartheid regime.

Many of our values as a society (ones we had and ones we were creating) were attached to Mandela the leader. We have witnessed the creation of the saviour narrative in different parts of the world, with great leaders and revolutionaries like Thomas Sankara, Patrice Lumumba, Ernesto Che Guevara, and Julius Nyerere, among many others. The idea that leadership is one face, one man, one saviour, has recently played out even more clearly with Julius Malema and the EFF, as well as with President Cyril Ramaphosa and the quest for ‘new dawnism’.

Leaders need people and ideas. Looking at the state of political leadership in South Africa, two things are clear. Firstly, leaders have determined who ‘the people’ are to them, at the exclusion of others. For the EFF for example, ‘the people’ are those who need economic freedom in our lifetime—the black and poor majority. For the DA, with their neoliberal understanding of democracy and governance, the white and middle class citizens are ‘the people’, and for President Ramaphosa, business or economic elites who buy into the idea that the new dawn brings reform and accountability are ‘the people’.

Secondly, there is a lack of ethical leadership. We can list the countless corruption scandals from local government all the way to national. We can speak to the different ways in which moral decay manifests in our communities through crime and violence, but one of the most telling examples of this lack of ethics is the response from parliamentarians to the Phala Phala report. Leaders in this context can do anything and everything and still will not be held accountable, even when it is clear that a crime has been committed or at the very least that the circumstances are not ideal—no one gets arrested or deemed as being in contravention of the Constitution. There then continues to be a crisis of exclusion and of ethics, with the idea of a majestic leader who embodies all ‘the people’ and ultimately will save us all, entrenched.

The crisis of a representative democracy

One of our first programmes/events as the Rivonia Circle was a ‘Meet-Up’ in Durban. The event was an introduction to who we are, what we do, and why we do what we do. In this particular Meet-Up, we ended up in a room with some UDF veterans (among other civil society organisations and activists), who are now engaged in democracy and leadership building initiatives throughout their different communities. As the discussion shifted to the crisis we find ourselves in as a country almost 30 years into the democratic dispensation, one of the veterans made the statement: “In 1994, after fighting the apartheid regime for many years, we handed over power to our comrades (ANC) and once we had given them power we stopped being activists, we stopped fighting.”

I think about this contribution often. For me, it speaks to the crisis of a representative democracy—the idea that we hand over power. What the UDF veterans then emphasised is that they did not think they would need to continue being activists because obviously their comrades would do what is best for the black and poor majority. Essentially, their interests would be well represented.

In the same conversation, one of the young people in the room said: “Vele ivoti elethu, iDemocracy eyabo (the vote is ours and the democracy is theirs).” Again, the crisis of a representative democracy. The handing over of power coupled with the seeming inability to take that power back even when those we have put in power no longer represent our interests, is what lands us in this crisis. The notion that ‘the democracy is theirs’ speaks to a sense of hopelessness. It implies that the people have lost the power and ability to lead and govern themselves.

Leadership in a representative democracy should be linked to the people and their interests. When we vote for a particular party or person, they should be accountable to those interests. However, in the current context, political parties and party leaders seem to be accountable to the interests of an elite group and, of course, to their parties.

What do we deserve?

When you have been in a toxic relationship for too long, you become convinced that that’s it—that all relationships are toxic, therefore normalising the toxicity.

That is how I often feel about the South Africa we live in. Somehow we have been convinced that what we have is it. That this iteration of our democracy is it, which could not be further from the truth. I believe the first step is acknowledging and accepting that something else can be a part of our imagination and reality. We as a people deserve better.

In our democracy builder workshops, we have an exercise called, ‘South Africa 2.0’. Here, we ask participants to ideate and create an upgraded version of South Africa. This is arguably the most successful part of the workshop because it gives us an opportunity to imagine ourselves outside of the status quo, to envision ourselves in less precarious living conditions. What this evokes in people is hope and the desire to work for and create solutions for the South Africa that they want and deserve.

We must be able to envision better leaders, who do more than just the bare minimum; leaders who think through the issues and devise solutions. We have met countless community workers and builders who are the leadership that we deserve, who care about how politics affects people on a day-to-day basis, and also practise a kind of servant leadership. Better leaders, for me, would be connected to people, but not in the passive representative way we have come to know. We need leaders who co-govern with people. It should not be outside of my imagination that I can hold any member of parliament or any public servant directly accountable for poor performance. We need a more inclusive understanding and framing of ‘the people and ideas’.

If we want to create something new, we have to do things differently—we cannot continue to ask people who buy into the crisis to be the ones who exclusively decide on and envision that future.The idea of a face or saviour is no longer useful. We need collective action and collective leadership.

The idea that leaders exist over there, outside of ourselves and outside our communities must be dispelled. The people are the leaders, and we must use that power decisively, because no one is coming to save us.

Londiwe Mntambo is the Programme Manager at the Rivonia Circle, focusing on democracy, civic engagement, and youth participation. She is an activist and has served in civil society spaces for 10 years.

By Editor