South Africa

Lindiwe Mazibuko’s address to The Gathering 2.0

By Lindiwe Mazibuko 26 November 2012

2012: the President's endgame, and the birth of a patriotic, realigned opposition. By LINDIWE MAZIBUKO.

It is a great privilege to be here today, and to have this opportunity to speak about where South Africa stands at the close of 2012.

I will try to cut through the thicket of information and events this year to make sense of how the crisis of leadership in South Africa is likely to unfold and affect the lives of every one of us.

Before doing so, it is worth touching upon the role of the conference conveners in all this.

Electronic media platforms are changing the face of political commentary and public policy formation in South Africa at a rapid rate. The Daily Maverick is at the forefront of this change; influencing debate and informing people about current affairs. I would like to particularly express my gratitude for your investigatory coverage of the Marikana tragedy. 

To provide hard-hitting and relevant commentary on a daily basis is no mean feat. You are doing a great job. And I congratulate you.

Technology is enabling South African citizens to shape the national debate in a way unimaginable even one decade ago. Individuals are using smart phone, emails, blogs, Twitter and other platforms to shift the balance of power away from the state and monolithic corporates towards its citizens. 

I believe that these new technologies are also likely to play a pivotal role in future elections; especially in a country like South Africa with high mobile phone penetration. The DA, for example, is tailoring digital campaigns with a broad range of voter contacts – in person, on the ‘phone, via email and through campaign websites. 

These combined forces pose a new kind of challenge to leadership in South Africa today. The governing elite and polity may substitute the word ‘threat’ for ‘challenge’, but I’ll stick with the word ‘challenge’. 

It is a challenge because the twin forces of the rapid spread of information, and the decline of deference to authority figures, mean that politics is no longer the sole provenance of governments and political parties.

Around the world, the power of technology is undercutting governments’ former advantage of access to state resources.

And when embarrassing information of wrongdoing or impropriety goes viral today, there is no authority figure who can count on any kind of clemency.

This intense scrutiny powered by technology is a reality that President Jacob Zuma and the African National Congress (ANC) government are contending with on a daily basis too. South Africa’s revitalized opposition – the strongest it has been since the 1994 – will be held to the same bar of accountability as it moves closer to driving the ANC below 50%.

2012, I believe, will be recorded as one of Malcolm Gladwell’s “tipping points” when the political centre of gravity shifted decisively away from President Zuma and the ANC. 

The President and the government are beginning to suffer from what academics have described as the “power curse”. In the biblical story of David and Goliath, Goliath’s superior advantages misled him into an inferior strategy. This led to his death with one fatal blow. This story may, sooner rather than later, serve as a metaphor for how Mr Zuma’s political dominance expired.

The problem for the President is the speed with which political parties and the media can now use the tools of technology to uncover mistruths. Last week, for example, the President claimed in Parliament that his Nkandla residence was bonded. In the blink of an eye, City Press uncovered that it appears no such bond is recorded.

The speed with which the media disseminated information about the Nkandla upgrade in the first place caught the administration off guard. Ministers and spin doctors simply did not have the time to get their story straight – as it were. They could not obscure the embarrassing details from public view. 

The President probably realises that his actions are wrong, but appears simply to think that the rules of the game apply to him. Power, as the famous dictum reminds us, particularly corrupts those who think that they deserve it.

The potency of new technology was most dramatically displayed in August when 34 mineworkers were gunned down in cold blood at the Lonmin mine. Al Jazeera, based in Doha, Qatar, was the news agency which broke the story first. Many of the killings were recorded on mobile telephones. The speed with which the images sped around the globe meant that the government struggled to spin its way out of the crisis. 

Because of the photographic record, the state security apparatus was unable to doctor evidence. Indeed it was the Daily Maverick’s own Greg Marinovich who revealed that photographs of the slain miners had been doctored by police.

The first pictures taken by the media and observers were taken while there was still daylight. They showed the deceased mineworkers, few of whom had weapons near them. The false set of corresponding images showed the same men with traditional and hand-made weapons close by, or placed on top of their bodies.

Marikana may be considered, to use a popular concept in academic and social media circles to be a “black swan” moment. The concept is derived from the book ‘The Black Swan: The impact of the highly improbable’. 

Black swan events have a major impact but are difficult to predict. In hindsight, however, they appear predictable.

With a higher resolution lens to zoom in on this black swan moment, Marikana would not have been so unexpected before the event if decision-makers and forecasters had adopted a broader public policy perspective. 

Putting it as simply as I can, South Africa’s political and economic stars were aligned to produce this tragedy in a proverbial ‘perfect storm’: high levels of poverty and inequality; the un-reconstructed migrant labour system; and the broken labour bargaining system. The President and his cabinet failed to read what the data and, I assume, what their intelligence briefings were telling them. The probability of this black swan moment was, in fact, high.

As I still reflect on this in those sad days of early spring, I can see that the black swan concept also applies to South Africa’s crisis of leadership. 

You will know that last week, the DA, and seven other opposition parties, tabled a motion of no-confidence in the President.

The reasons for our motion were clearly defined and evidence driven, and please allow me to restate them:

  • The lack of empathetic leadership in the dark days after the Marikana tragedy;
  •  The unfolding ‘Nkandlagate’ scandal that I have also outlined;
  • The failure to deliver textbooks and workbooks to school children in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape; 
  • The downgrading of South Africa’s credit rating by two ratings agencies; 
  • The undermining of the Constitution; 
  • The growing number of people who face the indignity of unemployment; and,
  • The spread of corruption in the public service.

Intuitively, when one looks at this list, each item may appear to be random. But using the progression of the opposition motion, imagine a line of dominoes collapsing one by one, and work your way backwards. You can switch the order of some of the dominoes but the outcome remains the same: 

Flip the first domino: Accountability. Corruption undermines the capacity of the state to deliver the text books to the school children in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape, but no one is held accountable.

Flip the second domino: A failing education system fails to provide the requisite skills to drive the economy. The unemployment rate continues to spike. Poverty and inequality deepen.

Flip the third domino: the President and his coterie undercut the constitution as a defensive move in response to their failure to fulfil the government’s basic functions. 

Flip the fourth domino: the President, in order to cling to power, and live in the lifestyle he thinks he deserves, is forced to slice up the rules. The executive continues to take an axe to accountability and transparency.

Flip the fifth domino: Marikana implodes. The mineworker feel, like many South Africans do, that the rules-of-the-game are rigged against them. People are divided between two groups: the smaller group of politically-connected “insiders” in big government, big business and big labour, and the larger group of “outsiders” – those unable to access the spoils of power and favour.

Flip the sixth domino: South Africa’s credit rating is downgraded after Marikana because of perceptions of political instability.

The persistence of this trend suggests a giant feedback loop that cannot be broken by President Zuma – or politics as usual. If presidential accountability is the first domino to fall, how can the others be expected to remain upright?

Leaders usually fall into the category of being either ‘transformational’ or ‘transactional’. 

While transformative leaders inspire followers to transcend self-interest for the sake of a higher purpose, transactional leaders motivate followers by appealing to their self-interests.

Electorates around the world usually choose a leader who possesses one of the two skills. Nelson Mandela was probably the most transformational leader of the 20th century, and famously left the day to day transactional management of government to his deputy. Only Mr Mandela in today’s world would be graciously allowed to do that. He is an outlier in the best sense of the word.

Thabo Mbeki, in turn, possessed remarkable transactional skills, but his transformational vision took South Africa in the wrong direction with divisive and elitist policies.

So we see that most successful leaders in office try to deliver on transformative objectives using transactional skills. Mr Zuma, probably uniquely among the world’s democratic leaders, possess neither skill set. 

He has no conceptual engagement with any policy problem other than his all-consuming re-election bid. 

The reason that his re-election bid is all consuming is because the President failed to deliver ‘a better life for all’. And ANC supporters know this.

The President’s failure of leadership confers a grave responsibility on the opposition. Authentic leaders are, by definition, repositories of hope. 

DA leader, Helen Zille, speaking recently about the realignment of the opposition, provided a road map that is greater in conception than narrow party advantage. 

This plan represents a more fundamental change than a shared public policy programme for South Africa’s first post ANC government. 

We seek nothing less than the long-term transformation of the quality of leadership, manners, and principles of South Africa’s executive leadership.

Helen’s plan to realign the opposition in the political centre is based on four inviolable values which transcend party politics. They are South Africa’s deepest values.

The first is to defend our constitution by securing its promise of equal rights and fair opportunities for everyone irrespective of where they come from and who they are;

The second is to nurture non-racialism and tolerance through reconciliation and redress;

The third is to create the conditions for an appropriately regulated, market-driven economy to achieve the levels of sustainable growth needed to reduce unemployment and inequality; and,

The fourth, and last, is to build a state that places competence above party loyalty, values service, and punishes self-interest and corruption.

Based on a shared national platform that we are all in this together, we want to end the polarisation of our politics.

Instead of the ANC’s populism and mobilisation of nationalist narratives, there are no “insiders”, and there are no “outsiders” in our vision. In the realignment of the opposition, there are no party-political enemies to ‘contain’ or sideline. 

Because we know that the ANC is beyond reinventing itself from within, we hold out the hand of friendship to our constitutionalist friends in the ANC who believe in our four principles. The door is wide open to them, as it is to our friends in the four corners of our country who do not identify yet with any party. 

Our far-reaching realignment is not designed to create a two-party system, although that may well be its by-product. 

Our commitment to the four unshakeable principles of constitutionalism; non-racialism through reconciliation and redress; a market economy; and a capable state will render another black swan event – and a rerun of the 2012 crisis of leadership – improbable.

I thank you. DM

Photo by Osiame Molefe.

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