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Op-Ed: Leading in SA, stuck between moral courage and m...

South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: Leading in SA, stuck between moral courage and moral hazard

The daily news feed reminds us of how our leaders have failed us. The President turned out to be a “mafia” president. Brian Molefe's return to Eskom will no doubt turn out to be an expensive financial and reputational mistake for the ANC and the country. Even President Nelson Mandela is increasingly referred to by some at the margins as having been a sell-out for choosing settlement over conflict. So is South Africa cursed with bad leadership or is something else going on? Might it be the case that leadership is actually a messy and difficult business? By MARIUS OOSTHUIZEN.

SaveSA, SACC, Pravin Gordhan, imperfect examples of good leadership

The SaveSA campaign spearheaded by Sipho Pityana has shown us that we can express our displeasure at our leaders in the harshest possible terms. The movement has done so democratically thus far without threat or violence. Likewise, the recent “Unburdening Report” by the South African Council of Churches (SACC) demonstrated that there are good people in South Africa, who on the basis of conscience will take a stand against wrongdoing. So too, former finance minister Pravin Gordhan’s rigour in exercising parliamentary oversight in his confrontation this week of minister Lynne Brown shows us that moral courage has not disappeared from South Africa’s leadership landscape altogether.

But all of these are examples of imperfect leadership.

SaveSA is criticised for being occupied with “first world problems” when it protests about state capture in a country where millions of citizens are not feeling the benefits of the state, let alone their state being captured. It’s difficult to care about what happens in Saxonwold when you have to scrounge for taxi fare or money for baby formula. Although we know state capture will ultimately harm the poor most severely, in the short term SaveSA might be called out for being, in that sense, elitist.

The SACC, for all their moral fortitude in calling corrupt officials by name, could be called out for being somewhat of a latecomer to the public discourse when corruption and mismanagement have persisted for years and siphoned billions from our state coffers. One wonders how much loot made its way into church coffers as the corrupt faithful tried to appease their conscience over the last two decades? South Africa is a churchgoing nation after all, is it not? Why did it take Thuli Madonsela’s report on state capture to unlock a repentant unburdening? Were our pulpits too accommodating until now? These are questions that critics of our leaders of the cloth are asking. Even our beloved Pravin Gordhan was until recently a comfortable fixture in our bloated cabinet of ministers. Was the “good man on the inside” oblivious to the cronyism of his peers or did party loyalty run deeper than principle? So argue his critics.

All of these leaders share a common trait – they have increasingly demonstrated moral courage in the face of the moral hazards of exercising leadership in a country such as ours.

The Moral Hazards of Leadership

A moral hazard is a situation in which someone gets involved in a risky undertaking knowing that they are themselves protected against the risks while another party will incur the cost.

Before leading SaveSA, Pityana was quietly executing his duties as the chairperson of AngloGold Ashanti. The ANC felt that Pityana should thula, having been a beneficiary of its policies. “Pityana is a hired gun by big mining companies…”, those guilty of the “exploitation of workers,” said ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa. Such criticism is unfair and fails to account for the true contradictions inherent in the nature of holding positions of leadership.

Before burdening the country with the contents of their report, the SACC’s member churches were merrily merrily continuing their weekly liturgies, administering forgiveness to the newly “affluent” members of the flock. Were these ministers oblivious to the state of the nation? Certainly not, they were at times its saving grace, providing enclaves of cohesion and reflection amid the onslaught of despair that daily plagues the lives of many.

Similarly, was former minister Gordhan complicit in the policy and governance ambivalence that brought us to the brink of junk? Of course not! He was the last man standing, holding up the fiscal stability of the country while demonstrating the courage to cross the aisle and engage with big business, with the ratings agencies and with foreign investors to prevent the fall-out of leadership failures elsewhere in the system.

All leadership practice takes place in the uncomfortable space between moral courage and moral hazard. In South Africa, where most of our institutions find their roots and structures in skewed historic legacies, such complexities are unavoidable. These men, and women, are bastions of the practice of leadership. They have simply been navigating the contradictions that coalesce to constitute the South African context. They were in their lanes, running to win according to their given mandate, until the moment when they recognised the call to a higher principle. Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, convening the SEFSA initiative to secure the socio economic future of South Africa is another such leader, saying, “South Africans can no longer stand on the sidelines”.

Leaders of less fortitude would have opted to avoid controversy and probably sat on their hands and done nothing, waiting as the country suffers harm at the hands of a small group of self-seeking leaders. These men and women however, decided to take action. We should emulate them.

The Freedom Charter was a lofty dream – fixing SA will be a long, hard slog towards emancipation

One of the things I love about the legacy of the struggle movement is the lofty words in which it sketched the ideals of a perfect society. Some of those words made their way into our Constitution – words such as; just, fair, inclusive and equal. But the fact is, for all their flair, those words were mere promises, dreaming of impractical grandeur. Equality for all? Who were they kidding?

The Freedom Charter was a lofty dream, and not a workable plan for social restitution – but it did provide a guiding light. So too, our Constitution, while more robust, and equally imaginative and almost as equally unattainable – will require courageous leadership to turn its dream into reality.

What it will take to realise the hopes and aspirations of its authors, is an inter-generational effort by leaders of the calibre of Pityana, Bishop Mpumlwana, Madonsela and Gordhan and many many others. To fix South Africa will take a long, hard slog towards socio economic emancipation, while balancing competing interests. And yes, there will be moral hazards. Some leaders will need to run companies that employ people at a globally competitive wage, always pressured to “do more”. Some will lead churches, mosques and synagogues, where their benches are filled with imperfect citizens drawn from our imperfect society. Some will enter government and manage the institutions, however imperfect, that constitute our nation state. But what we must all do is find the courage to stand up for what is right and to stand against what is wrong.

There are those who want to throw caution to the wind and call for “land or death” such as the foot soldiers of Andile Mngxitama’s Black-First-Land-First (BLF), but these are miss-leaders, who believe that the ends justify the means. They are mistaken. The means matter. They are the test of our moral and ethical core and they determine whether, over time we reduce the hazards of leadership by creating a more just order.

However we eventually heal South Africa’s wounds, whether by “radical economic transformation”, or by “rapid inclusive economic growth”, what we will require along the way is leaders who can put the national interest above narrow personal interests. In this sense, the struggle is far from over. Perhaps the greatest struggle, the one that has only begun, is the struggle against our own instincts for self-preservation and self-enrichment. Fortunately there are a few brave leaders who are showing us the way. DM

Marius Oosthuizen is a member of faculty at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, South Africa. He teaches leadership, strategy and ethics and oversees the Future of Business in SA project that uses strategic foresight and scenario planning to explore the future of South Africa, Africa and BRICS

Photo: Pravin Gordhan in 2010 by EPA/NIC BOTHMA and Sipho Pityana by JAKOB POLACSEK.


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