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30 September 2014 12:00 (South Africa)
Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys

US and South Africa: Leading in disaster and disastrous leadership

  • Johann Redelinghuys
Political leaders get a chance to shine when they have to manage some kind of national disaster. In the US, Hurricane Sandy has given Barack Obama a platform from which to lead. Here in South Africa the disasters are of our own making. 

Barak Obama skipped down the stairs of his aircraft, smiling. He is a hard-working man-of-the-people in his windbreaker, and has come to console and rescue New Jersey. There are speeches and photo ops and much talk about “the great American people who come together during these hard times…” Hugs and high fives all round. He holds a sobbing woman in his arms, patting her back in consolation. She has lost everything.  It’s a pre-election media gift from heaven.

His Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, without any official platform or mandate, is left out in the cold, handing over Red Cross food parcels and trying not to say anything that might suggest he is undermining the president in his presidential role 

The mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, until recently a Republican,               and after being downright critical of Obama on several occasions, suddenly becomes a convert and compliments the president for doing an “excellent job”.  It’s still a day or so away, but it seems likely that many Americans will also be swept up into this image of a man who is not just knocking the opposition but is out there batting for them.

Winston Churchill is still regarded as an outstanding leader because of his “fight-them-on-the-beaches” leadership during World War II. Margaret Thatcher’s ratings went right up after her invasion of the Falklands. Even goofy old George W Bush, who had seemed on to be been playing golf until then, only found his mojo after his 9/11 speech at ground zero, and then really got going after the invasion of Iraq. 

President Gerald Ford, not known for having done too much, suddenly got good reviews after he sent in the US Air Force and the Marines to take back the American freighter Mayaguez, which had been seized by the Khmer Rouge.

This kind of decisive action strikes a chord with us. We feel protected and safe when our leaders can step up to fight for justice on our behalf.

Reflecting on this makes me think about our own lot. The only fighting many of them do is to stay out of jail, yet they still want to capitalise on whatever new possibility is thrown up by the incoming tide of infrastructure projects and tendering opportunities. 

Is there any kind of national disaster that could provide a platform for some heroic leadership here? Or is the leadership itself is the national disaster? I don’t see any president or political knight-in-shining-armour rolling up sleeves to come to the rescue. Thankfully we have few natural disasters, the real opportunities to show leadership. Man-made disasters somehow don’t provide quite the same opportunity for kudos.

I’m sure the resident and some of the people who will also be contenders at Mangaung have pondered on this. Is there an opportunity, anywhere, to respond to some threatening national emergency and then to be recognized for good leadership? We could of course invade a country, but the experience a few years ago when we invaded Lesotho did not create any heroes. And in any case, African solidarity would prevent us from any strong-arm tactics with neighbouring countries, no matter how they are abusing their own people or provoking territorial anger.

The president, who is now championing a return to tribal customs and the “African Way” of traditional government, is proud of his Zulu heritage. And what a heritage! Who can forget the stories of the triumphant Zulus at Isandlwana, one of the greatest defeats of the British in their military history?  And what about Shaka Zulu? Now there was a Warrior King! A man renowned for his statesmanship and his vigour.

What has happened to the Zulus and their glorious heritage? We still see the nostalgic movements of the Zulu war dance at festive occasions; the stamping feet, with loud menacing sound effects and mock-charge with shields and spears reminding them of their better days. There was even an element of this as the protesting workers of Marikana came down the hill, mimicking the fighting postures of war, brandishing sticks and spears.  

All we see now is the unseemly spectacle of a Zulu president, on the back foot, fighting to defend his extravagant personal spending that has been funded by taxpayers. The image of him, at the wedding ceremony with his fourth wife, wearing the leopard head dress and the imponderable white trainers, lingers.

And then the head of the once-proud Zulu nation, King Goodwill Zwelithini, also in royal leopard-skin regalia, and all he is doing is whingeing about his household expenses and what it costs to keep his four wives and 20-some children in the way the royal family has become accustomed. Is he there for his people? The only battle he is fighting, it seems, is for an increase in his allowance. He is a sad remnant and a caricature of a once-mighty nation.

Where are the real heroes who would be able to respond to a national crisis and deserve our genuine admiration? 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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