We beat conventional wisdom with a stick
24 April 2014 08:37 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sipho Hlongwane

Excellence and leadership are exactly what Africa needs

  • Sipho Hlongwane
Ah, South African couch-potato politics, how I love thee. Sit back, dim the lights a little, crack open a six-pack (will someone put out the braai fire, please?) – let’s solve South Africa’s crises. Hell, let’s solve those of the entire bloody continent while we’re at it.

Why didn’t the Mo Ibrahim Foundation award its prize for achievement in African Leadership this year? Why didn’t they do it last year? To understand why, we should be asking ourselves why do they award the prize in the first place. According to the Foundation’s website, the Mo Ibrahim Prize “recognises and celebrates excellence in African leadership. The prize is awarded to a democratically elected former African executive head of state or government who has served their term in office within the limits set by the country's constitution and has left office in the last three years.” Crucially, the prize is given to a leader who not only vacates office voluntarily when his or her term expires, but the one who delivered and improved the lives of his or her constituency while in office.

When the Foundation announced that the prize would not be awarded in 2010, it said, “The Prize Committee met yesterday to discuss the award of the 2010 Mo Ibrahim Prize. Following its deliberations, the Prize Committee informed the Board of the Foundation that it had not selected a winner. Last year the Prize Committee announced that it had considered some credible candidates, but after in-depth review could not select a winner. This year the Prize Committee told the Board that there had been no new candidates or new developments and that, therefore, no selection of a winner had been made.”

Pretty straightforward, then. I am sympathetic to the view that the Mo Ibrahim Foundation is ignoring many credible candidates by focusing exclusively on heads of state when deciding who to award the prize to. It’s true that there are many people who aren’t affiliated to any governments who work tirelessly to improve the lives of people on the continent.

However, no one has the power to eradicate poverty like governments do. And no one has the power to destroy lives and condemn millions to untold misery like governments do. Almost every assessment of “the African problem” comes to the same conclusion – Africa is poor because Africa suffers from poor leadership.

In 2007 the Mo Ibrahim Prize was awarded to Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique. In 1992 he played a crucial role in ending the civil war that had wracked the country for 16 years. He won the country’s first multiparty elections in 1994, and stepped down from the Presidency in 2004. Under his leadership, Mozambique achieved peace and made significant strides in economic development and the advocacy of human rights. These things did not happen for Mozambique by mistake – the gains were due to deliberate leadership decisions.

The decline of Zimbabwe was also due to deliberate leadership decisions.

Faced with this evidence, can we honestly afford the luxury of arguing over what constitutes excellent leadership, and what doesn’t, and who should get to decide what excellent leadership is? An excellent head of state is one who serves their constituency well. That is what the philosophy behind the Mo Ibrahim Prize boils down to. Xhanti Payi’s assertion that by choosing not to award its prize this year, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation is reinforcing negative perceptions of Africa, is disingenuous. It is exactly this type of thinking that led Mbeki down the path of Aids denialism – to his mind, to aggressively pursue Aids-eradication policies is to reinforce negative stereotypes of Africans. Do I need to break out the “Koki” pens and white board to demonstrate how twisted this logic is?

We should demand much more from our leaders because much has been entrusted to them. The Mo Ibrahim Prize, in all its idealistic glory, is exactly what Africa needs. And we need to see more Africans (especially those who get to deliver their 700 words of opinion) demanding more quality leadership from African political leaders.

Now, on a not-unrelated note, I think I have a brilliant solution, from the comfort of my sofa, for South Africa’s woes. I’ve said all along that the greatest danger to South Africa’s democracy is the fact that much of this country operates on a one-party-state basis. The ruling party’s plans for introducing an aggressive developmental state mean that we may very well see our multiparty democratic state fade and eventually die.

If only our precious opposition party could pause for a moment from inserting its head ever-further up its own behind, to consider what the best and most effective counter-balance to the ANC’s hegemony might actually be. I’ve argued before that what the Democratic Alliance needs more than anything else is to stop being a refuge for white paranoia and show that they’re down with the people. And there’s no new ground to be broken here. The ANC has done it before. Remember the Mandela years, when our president was doing the victory parade abroad and his deputy quietly ran things from behind the scenes?

Helen Zille could be the quiet, industrious deputy, who uses the already-impressive organisational infrastructure to run this country as it should be run – as a turbulent, noisy, extremely tough-to-govern state. For president, the DA needs to find someone the people could place their unwavering trust in, someone they could implicitly trust to have their best interests at heart. Someone with impeccable struggle credentials, a crystal-clear vision for the future and most importantly, someone with great personal integrity. I wonder what Mamphela Ramphele is up to these days? DM


  • Sipho Hlongwane
sipho hlongwane BW

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession.

He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

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