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31 October 2014 21:07 (South Africa)
Opinionista Greg Nicolson

Dreaming of a true leader

  • Greg Nicolson
After falling asleep during Zuma’s lecture on Nelson Mandela, I wondered what the president could learn from the icon of leadership. Perhaps there's one lesson he can still implement: “Quitting is leading too.”

I gazed over my office in the Union Buildings as I put a full stop on the address of President Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma. Golf clubs leaned on a corner wall. Keys to a Mercedes sat on the desk. Lava lamps filled the bookshelf.

Was the speech announcing the president would take another wife or was it a declaration of war against Zimbabwe? The details are foggy.

With only minutes before His Excellency was to speak to the media, I rushed through the halls of power past characters of the West Wing to deliver the address to his spokesman Mac Maharaj.

I was dreaming. I’d fallen asleep on the desk at the Daily Maverick offices while watching President Zuma on SABC delivering a lecture on “the life and times of the 10th president of the ANC President Nelson Mandela”.

Before dozing off, I was thinking that I don’t fancy myself as a speechwriter but even a Limpopo student without textbooks could do a better job than what Zuma was reading. He delivered a timeline of Mandela’s life, and it was a sore reminder that Zuma doesn’t have the leadership values South Africa needs.

It’s something lacking as the ANC needs to build on the achievements of its past administrations and confront ongoing tribulations. The structures of colonialism and Apartheid still need to be deconstructed, and it needs to happen while navigating away from South Africa’s Bermuda Triangle – poverty, inequality and unemployment.

Without jumping to radical policy shifts, finance minister Pravin Gordhan is one of the best analysts on how we can confront these challenges. Like many around the world since the financial crisis, he believes the state has a role to play in the economy but the key is to increase investment from all sectors.

He diagnosed the problem at a recent business breakfast. The current discourse cripples confidence and prevents investment, he said. Rather than discuss the country’s potential, we punctuate conversations with the fear that SA will follow the path of Zimbabwe. That’s one reason why private companies leave R550 billion in the bank rather than investing it, and why business confidence remains low.  

There needs to be a fundamental shift in the nation’s discourse, he suggested. “We need to work harder to find a consensus and common purpose. If we don’t, we will all suffer the consequences,” said Gordhan, adding that business, government and the media had to change how they relate to each other.

But a culture shift needs a leader. The country is too divided and its challenges too imposing for the change to sprout from good-willed citizens alone. The president needs to set the tone and allow his inspiration to filter through society. He needs to lead.

Zuma might want to brush up on his skills by looking to the subject of his lecture, Nelson Mandela, ranked as the world’s most reputable leader. 

For sure, Thabo Mbeki learnt that governing in the shadow of a demigod is infuriating; Zuma shouldn’t be held up to the iconic status of Mandela.

But on Madiba’s birthday this Wednesday, the president should look at some of his key leadership lessons, listed by Richard Stengel, who helped with Long Walk to Freedom.

Lesson number one: “Courage is not the absence of fear – it’s inspiring others to move beyond it.” Currently there are fears Zuma wants to control the press and state institutions to cement his power. People are scared they’ll never access basic services; they are terrified of nationalisation, land appropriation, crime and tokoloshes. Zuma could take his pick of the country’s fears, and inspire us to overcome.

Lesson number two: “Lead from the front – but don’t leave your base behind.” Zuma doesn’t forget a friend, whether they helped him avoid jail or get elected, but is he leading South Africa’s charge to a better future? At this stage of his presidency, it’s still difficult to tell who he is, what he stands for and what his vision is for the country.

Mandela’s legacy as president is largely defined by his convictions. He made a number of unpopular and surprising decisions and tried to stick to them in the face of criticism. Zuma should ask himself what his convictions are and how has he tried to get the public on board.

These lessons still felt relevant as I dreamed of a fat paycheck as the president’s speechwriter. But when I awoke, the speech had finished. The Limpopo address was marred by violence between Umkhonto we Sizwe veterans policing the event and ANC Youth Leaguers against Zuma. An elderly comrade died, reportedly from the effects of pepper spray.

It’s too late for Zuma to reinvent himself, I realised. He’s left with lesson number eight: “Quitting is leading too.” 

“Knowing how to abandon a failed idea, task or relationship is often the most difficult kind of a decision a leader has to make,” wrote Stengel.

Zuma should take heed. His term has not been marked by leadership, but by factional battles stemming from his feud with Mbeki and gearing towards the ANC elections. His Nelson Mandela lecture was a flop, but he could make a bold statement and prove his credentials by exiting the race to Mangaung.

One can dream. DM

  • Greg Nicolson
greg nicolson BW

Nicolson left his hometown of Melbourne to move to Johannesburg, beset by fears Australia was going to the dogs. With a camera and a Mac in his bag, he ventures out to cover power and politics, the lives of those included and those excluded. He can be found at the tavern, searching for a good story or drowning a bad one.

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