The soul of wit
23 October 2014 21:42 (South Africa)
Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys

A major leadership resource, ignored in the new South Africa

  • Johann Redelinghuys
Jacob Zuma and the ANC are so focused on being in charge of everything that they are missing one of the keys to better governance and administrative competence. A different view could do the ANC a favour and ensure its reputation into the future. 

At every poorly managed South African challenge and at every missed opportunity, analysts assessing the cause of the problem have reached the unsurprising conclusion that it was due to “poor leadership” And when the cause of poor leadership is looked for, the conclusion comes down to a toxic blend of suspect qualifications, lack of experience and inadequate preparation, quite apart from personality flaws and a simple misguided yearning for power and self-enrichment.

Modimowabarwa Kanyane of the Human Sciences Research Council said at a July seminar in Pretoria that politically connected but incompetent people are often deployed in public positions leading to a demoralised public service. Talking about cadre deployment, he said, “One conclusion that seems to be common is that the ANC’s deployment strategy systematically places loyalty ahead of merit and even competence, and is a serious obstacle to efficient public service.”

This damning indictment, by an institution funded by, and under the protection of, the government itself, somehow slipped through the cracks of broader public scrutiny and was only given scant attention in the media. The obvious question is; if cadre deployment is impeding the public service, as it obviously is, is it also having negative effects elsewhere? Are the state owned enterprises like SAA and Transnet or state funded institutions like universities and even private-sector listed companies also suffering in the same way?

Bear in mind that in the private sector they have access to the best educated top talent and generally pay very well. ANC loyalty is not a significant factor. The good news is that transformation is now, finally, a top agenda item for most boards and listed companies. And the real good news is that there have been some excellent achievements where the CEO and top leadership of the business have been successfully transformed. Peter Matlare at Tiger Brands and Nku Nyembezi-Heita at ArcelorMittal, among others, come to mind. The top leadership in universities is mostly transformed, as is the case in the state-owned enterprises. Companies are avidly recruiting young talent and boards are developing considerable transformational strength. 

The bad news is that for many people beating this drum, the transformation process is not happening fast enough and has not produced the levels of leadership and engagement in the total economy that is wished for. Kgalema Motlanthe’s “Irish Coffee” comments resonate. 

The really bad news is that transformation is now embraced with such urgency that some dreadful compromises are being made.

Back to transformed universities for a moment. Five of them are now in administration. Poor governance, financial impropriety, corruption and general incompetence have been cited. All acknowledge that the pool of worthy candidates is not deep enough to meet the needs, and now two new universities are to be established. With dramatically lowered standards, great numbers of unemployable graduates are coming off the production line. The unemployed graduate is becoming a feature of our economic landscape.

Let’s forget about the list, as long as your arm, of disasters in the State Owned Enterprises, and look away from SAA, SABC, DENEL, PBMR and the rest of them.  

In the private sector, most briefs for the appointment of senior executives are for people from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. When suitable ones cannot be found, white candidates are grudgingly appointed. ANC cheerleaders insist we should just “try harder”, that more effort must be invested to find suitable candidates who will accelerate transformation. The implicit belief is that latent leadership is just sitting there waiting for the nod to come out and claim its place at the head of the pack.

But can competent leadership be created at short notice? Can it remotely come about by some fiat from a confused president? Unfortunately not. Sound leadership, like much else that is worthwhile in life, takes time. It takes learning and discipline and coaching from competent people and it needs years of trial and error under the watchful gaze of experienced leaders.  When President Zuma, quoted in Business Day by Sam Mkokeli, was challenged for his fitness to govern, he said:  “People say I know nothing, I should not be president of the country. I know what I am doing…I was in the struggle” Even he believes, in this complex and challenging 21st century, that struggle credentials trump leadership skill.

We have ourselves to blame for being hopelessly optimistic. Expectations of what untried, inexperienced and poorly selected leaders can achieve are pathetically unrealistic. We have set ourselves up. The exuberant optimism and hope, after the establishment of democracy and the birth of Madiba’s South Africa, have all come crashing down. Many now feel only the sad disappointment of a missed opportunity.

The truth is that no matter how badly it is wanted, solid, dependable transformation that can make the country proud again is a generation or two away, and will not work in just a few spluttering years. Wouldn’t the over-hasty ANC, which is trying to win a long-distance race by sprinting, prefer to have a sparkling track record that will shine in Africa and ensure its place as a liberation movement that genuinely freed all its people, and not just a few “chocolate sprinkles” at the top of our Irish Coffee society?

Rather than accelerating transformation, a radical suggestion might be to slow it down. We want it to be sustainable and not come off its hinges every five minutes. Look around. Is it working? Unpalatable as this will undoubtedly be to the hotheads, slowing it down will give time for proper learning and the growth of sound judgment. While this would clearly take a substantial mind-shift, just think of the longer term rewards.

The second suggestion will be even harder to digest. Traditional Africans are herders, grazing their flocks and when the grazing is depleted they move on. They are not, compared to the more strategic Chinese or Indians, people who cultivate crops, planting in the spring and harvesting in the autumn. The reason the Indians became such good administrators under the tutelage of the British Colonial Raj is because long-cycle thinking is in their blood. Why has Africa not built a reputation for good local government and consistent management of systems? And why is Africa, with all its riches and resources such a scruffy place? Could it conceivably be plagued by the grazing and moving-on model?

If the ANC, with all its African root structure, wanted to ensure a long-term win it would give up its insistence on short-term exclusionary transformation. It would deploy some of the thousands of white people, qualified teachers, experienced municipal employees, nurses, policemen, civil servants and many others, who have been pensioned off or selected out of the transformation stakes and forced to make a different living, to work alongside them. They would certainly add to the skills bank, and could not possibly be a threat to such a powerful majority.

And what about the hundreds of smart young graduates and many more dynamic, experienced executives who have left the country because they don’t see a future for themselves in an ANC-driven environment where there is no hope of influencing politics or governance? Most are doing very well in Australia, the UK, Canada, the USA etc. Many of them pine for their lives in South Africa, but stick it out where they are because they can’t see a safe, viable future here. Some smart-aleck cabinet minister, or was it Zuma, said that those who want to leave should do so. Doesn’t he realise that it is precisely those enterprising people whose skills and abilities will build businesses and create employment for his constituency? They should be courted back.

The Nationalist government had to learn the lesson, at last, that one cannot bring the ship of South Africa safely into the harbour using only one section of its wonderfully diverse and talented population. Must this poor country learn the same lesson all over again?  DM 

  • Johann Redelinghuys
JohanRedelinghuysBW

Johann Redelinghuys is a partner at Heidrick & Struggles the international leadership consulting business, which bought the firm Redelinghuys & Partners of which he was the founder. He has been deeply involved in career management and executive search all his life. He is the chairman of the South African company and now heads up its board practice working with chairmen and CEOs focussed on CEO succession, strategic leadership review and board evaluation.

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