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Analysis: The true meaning of leadership

Analysis: The true meaning of leadership

In a country as starved of true leadership as South Africa is, perhaps this would be a good time to talk about the many ways leadership could be displayed. Many of the solutions could be surprisingly simple.

As it happens, this writer has been busy with several Mandela biographies: Tom Lodge’s “Mandela”, Martin Meredith’s “Mandela”, and David James Smith’s “Young Mandela” as well as Alec Russell’s book on Mandela’s legacy “After Mandela.” Besides these books, I’ve been considering the rise of Barack Obama, as so wonderfully captured in David Remnick’s “The Bridge” and John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s “Race of a Lifetime”.

And as a pasella, I’m now reading Harold Holzer’s “Lincoln: President-elect,” a study of Abraham Lincoln after he was elected – but before he actually became America’s great leader during the its Civil War. What’s the common thread? Besides being about famous people, they are about the mysterious alchemy of leadership: Who has it, how do they develop it, and how do they use it? This may be easy to understand once someone has become a hero to millions. But it may be at least as important to contemplate what provoked them into leadership.

In the midst of the Great Depression, American writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans borrowed a famous phrase from the “Sirach” of the biblical Apocrypha to title their evocative photo-essay and its accompanying text, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”, to profile the thousands of unnamed, maybe even unnameable, ordinary, everyday heroes of the Great Depression who kept on working to do what they could, despite the horrific economic landscape around them.

And in our own time here in South Africa, playwright/actor John Kani fashioned his gripping drama, “Nothing But The Truth” around the long tension between two brothers, Sipho Makhaya, an assistant librarian in the Eastern Cape, and his now deceased brother, Themba, the firebrand revolutionary and then political exile. Themba has died and his daughter has brought his ashes back to South Africa for burial, years after the anti-apartheid struggle has ended. By one standard, Sipho was not a “hero of the struggle”, but he had kept right on working, feeding and taking care of his family as well as his brother’s through the dark days and now he, Sipho, has come through it to the present. And so, here again is a kind of balance between Homeric, transient glory and the everyday work of getting on.

A few days ago The Daily Maverick attended the big leadership conference, featuring the likes of Adrian Gore of Discovery Health and former New York City mayor Rudi Giuliani, but also former World Bank director Mampela Ramphele and human settlements minister Tokyo Sexwale. Sexwale spoke clearly – even courageously – about the need for this country’s government to remain true to the values of freedom of expression. Ramphele then used her time to admonish against the local political equivalent of “the tragedy of the commons”: What happens to resources if each member of a society attempts to get as much as they can for themselves, without worrying about the larger, destructive implications of their individual, but collective actions. And in Greg Mills’ just-published book, “Why Africa is Poor”, his answer is concise: Bad leadership.

To many, it seemed as if both Ramphele and Sexwale were poised on the cusp of declaring their intent to run for high office – although such is the hankering for leadership that too much could be read into their respective lectures. But maybe their speeches were just markers for future claims on the political system. Regardless, their words were a bracing relief from the increasingly frenzied sounds emanating from the trough by so many others. Missing still are the hands-up from business figures who are prepared to step up to the tasks and help lead rather than keep their collective heads down.

A key leadership test here will be for leaders to move beyond easy, glorious gestures and get on with the business of making real things happen. The Daily Maverick spoke with various members of South Africa’s black middle-class. What was clear from these conversations was that people, potential voters all, would be happy to rally behind a man or woman who set real targets and worked to accomplish these tasks. The disappointment is almost palpable that the success of World Cup in deciding on real targets and tackling them with a sense of drive and urgency – so many stadiums built, so much public transportation laid on, so much visible police presence – has not yet been transferred to everyday circumstances.

Rather than broad, unachievable policies and grand rhetoric, a real tangible list could easily look  like a national five-year commitment that:

  • Every school in the country will have a functioning library and computer lab  with real, working Internet access,
  • Every school in the country will have all its walls, windows and doors fixed (no more schools under trees),
  • Every teacher will be professionally qualified in their respective subjects,
  • Every public library will be filled with at least a minimum collection of core volumes in appropriate languages,
  • Every public hospital and clinic will have necessary standards of hygiene, the full range of medicines and supplies and committed staff to deliver services,
  • Every street light, street sign, traffic signal, pothole and curb will be inspected and fixed,
  • Every community will have routine patrols by the police through every neighbourhood and set up effective ways for people to report crimes,
  • Every community will get correct billing for its utilities and ways to report outages and ensure repairs,
  • Every province will establish a job corps for young people that provides a modest stipend and real training in real skills,
  • And, finally, the nation’s energy and water authorities will ensure all new construction in the country is increasingly energy efficient according to a national schedule of performance, and equipped for solar power and heating and water conservation devices.

None of these are rocket science; they’re probably not even horse-and-buggy science. But establishing this list of commitments would go a long way towards convincing citizens the nation’s leadership has the people’s interests at heart. Who wouldn’t consider voting for a party or government that espoused this roster and then succeeded in achieving them?

But besides the humdrum task of long, meaningful, normal life after the glorious battle, there is the symbolic dimension of leadership as well. This is, of course, where Nelson Mandela excelled. In understanding the need for a more inclusive society, Mandela was a master of bringing constituencies under the national umbrella rather than outside it, as he did so notably with his own embrace of the Rugby World Cup in 1995.

These days, look no further than the US President Barack Obama and the New York mayor Michael Bloomberg in the current controversy in the US over the proposed establishment of a mosque a few blocks from New York City’s Ground Zero, the site of the former World Trade Center as a study in leadership. Once the proposal for a mosque in lower Manhattan had been made, Bloomberg was the first to stake out a real moral high ground. He gave full support for the new mosque, once the city’s planning commission had certified that the building to be reconstructed for the mosque and community centre was not an architecturally significant building that needed to be conserved as it was.

While many people honestly opposed a mosque near the former World Trade Center site as an affront to the survivors of 9/11, Bloomberg has spent years encouraging New Yorkers, including the families of 9/11 victims, to emotionally move beyond the tragedy. Claims that the mosque would be part of a Muslim infiltration of America infuriated Bloomberg, according to reports,  “because of his own family’s brush with prejudice when his parents shielded their identity from the seller of their house in Medford, Mass., a town where entire neighbourhoods were still off limits to Jews”.

But Republican politicians like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, potential candidates for their party’s nomination for president in 2012, as well as Rick Lazio, the current Republican candidate for the New York governorship, quickly jumped on the controversy, vociferously opposing the mosque as a desecration of hallowed ground. The mosque was now a litmus test for politicians – support religious freedom (and the mosque) and risk losing political support, or tap into popular discontent over social and economic disruptions and then use the mosque as a symbol of everything that is out of joint for electoral gain.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama originally had hoped to avoid allowing the mosque to become a wedge issue for Republicans in the upcoming midterm election to peel off wavering Democratic support in key electoral districts. Eventually Obama felt compelled to offer support for the mosque as a defence of the country’s tradition of religious freedom (although he has now dialled back, just a bit, from his original endorsement). This brings us to another question about leadership – the  distinction between moral and political leadership.

Moral leadership is an affirmation of what is consistent with a country’s fundamental values. By contrast, political leadership is about what is possible – as in the adage, “politics is the art of the possible”. Sometimes a real leader will set out a moral precept, knowing it cannot be achieved politically. And, sometimes, too, in the face of a political tsunami, a leader may set out a moral sense of what is right in the hopes that the tide can be turned eventually. But a politician has to be prepared to go for the gold.

Perhaps surprisingly, former Bush advisor and speechwriter, Michael Gerson, wrote in The Washington Post on Tuesday that, ultimately, Barack Obama had no choice but to pick the path he took.

“No president, of any party or ideology, could tell millions of Americans that their sacred building desecrates American holy ground. This would understandably be taken as a presidential assault on the deepest beliefs of his fellow citizens. It would be an unprecedented act of sectarianism, alienating an entire faith tradition from the American experiment. If a church or synagogue can be built on a commercial street in Lower Manhattan, declaring a mosque off-limits would officially equate Islam with violence and terrorism. No president would consider making such a statement. And those commentators who urge the president to do so fundamentally misunderstand the presidency itself,” said Gerson.

Using that kind of standard, South Africa these days is looking again for a moral leadership that can be transformed into real political leadership – the kind of leadership that wants to achieve for the long term what Nelson Mandela provided to this wounded country in the 1990s.

By J Brooks Spector

For more about Michael Bloomberg’s approach to the mosque, see The New York Times; for more about Barack Obama’s position on the mosque, see The Washington Post and Politico. For the texts of the “Iliad”, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” and the book of Sirach, see the MIT site and the U. of Virginia.


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