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Leadership in Question (Part One): The leadership we ha...

South Africa


Leadership in Question (Part One): The leadership we have

Illustrative image | Sources: Photos: EPA-EFE | Harish Tyagi | Leila Dougan | EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook

Questions of leadership and ethical leadership continue to preoccupy South Africans. We may have seen the worst, in the Jacob Zuma period, but we still lack an adequate leadership that is moved by the plight of the poor and acts against abuse by security forces. This article is part of a series that will examine lessons from leadership figures of the past and present.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s

In some discourse, it appears that leadership, and who leads, is not very important. There is a Marxist critique of the “great man” version of history, which attributes historical changes almost exclusively to the person who leads. 

This is contrasted in much of early Marxist historiography with seeing great historical developments as attributable to the role of the masses in history. 

I do agree that it is important to be critical of elitist interpretations of history and practices of politics, and that we need to find a way of having the popular return to political life. It is important that every one of us should have a role to play in determining how our future unfolds. 

We ought not to cede our agency to representatives every five years and play little role in our future after casting our votes. 

In fact, the original meaning of democracy, enunciated (with distaste) by philosophers like Aristotle, put the role of the masses at the centre of democratic political life, directly determining what happened in their lives, as they have sometimes done in revolutionary situations, and was very much a feature of some periods of the Struggle against apartheid. (See Raymond Suttner, The UDF experience and prospects for popular democracy, NMU webinar, 21 October 2020, PDF available on request).

But that is not to say that leadership is unimportant, even or especially when there is a considerable mass presence. To achieve some goals requires mass involvement and mass power. 

The achievement of a negotiated settlement in South Africa cannot be separated from the preceding insurrection and popular power period of the 1980s. That created an impasse, where the apartheid regime could not secure sustainable governance and, at the same time, the forces of resistance were not able to defeat the enemy on the battlefield. 

This situation is referred to by Antonio Gramsci as one of “reciprocal siege”, and such conditions may be amenable to a negotiated resolution.

Even if the role of the masses in history and the present is crucial, there are some functions in contemporary societies that can only be carried out by a section of the population. 

This applies to specialised activities like teaching in educational institutions or managing cities or producing goods on a small or large scale, in industries or trades and craft centres. Likewise, making laws in the current world may require participation of a segment of the population, though the original Athenian definition of democracy saw law-making as one of the key areas where the populace as a whole was directly and decisively involved.

This contribution is not about the displacement of mass democracy, so it will not discuss how the word “masses” has come to be seen by some as a mark of democracy, but by others as akin to ignorance, crudity and a range of unwelcome qualities, that need to be contained or displaced. (See Raymond Williams, “Masses” in Keywords, Revised edition, 1983, pp 192-197).

Whatever the role of the populace, leadership is always important. 

One sees this when one observes a leader with great stature (a word that itself admittedly requires careful and conditional definition) or one who does not have the attributes required to lead (again, being a conditional statement requiring elaboration) or chooses not to carry out the responsibilities that attach to leadership. 

A leader who does not carry out the responsibilities incumbent on him or her, in one or other situation, may squander resources or divert these to their own benefit. 

Alternatively, such a person may not become enriched or erode the country’s resources, but nevertheless, fail to take decisions that are needed at various moments. 

It may be that the failure to act decisively does not make an observable difference at particular moments, because the state of the country is not one of crisis and such failure to act may be at a moment and in a context where institutions are functioning well and the lapse may not be readily observable because the stakes were or are not so high. 

But repeated indecisiveness or failure to make choices necessary for the good of a country may cumulatively come to impact on the character of the country and its well being. 

What was not a problem earlier may become one through repeated lapses. What was of minor significance may, through a succession of failures to act adequately, lead to a pattern of malfunctioning and affect institutional performance and be a source of societal stress.

Failure to act effectively may derive from capacity; being unsuitable for leadership by virtue of the absence of certain qualities that are needed to perform certain work; not having the required skill set or temperament or being inflexible in a changing situation; or being ready to bend in a situation where firmness is needed.

Courage and choices

I have said that unsuitable leadership may relate to personal capacities or to ethical choices. That is not to suggest that ethical choices are easy to make, much as one chooses whether to take one or another route in reaching a geographical destination. 

Nelson Mandela is often held up as an exemplary leader. Some of his actions and decisions required considerable courage. Mandela makes it clear, however, that there was nothing automatic or natural in acting with courage or taking an ethical route that entailed high personal costs. 

Mandela had to learn and prepare to choose and act with courage.

The question of trust

No matter what the individual qualities and courage that a specific leader may possess, there cannot be a successful leadership of a people in the absence of trust. 

When people discuss leadership, even across ideological boundaries, trust seems to be a constant factor that is emphasised. (See numerous statements of the conservative General Colin Powell on trust and leadership on YouTube).

One of the problems of present-day South Africa is that there is a lack of trust. 

The ANC that was once trusted by very many, especially during the Mandela period, is not trusted today. Gaining and losing trust are not simply people or organisations going out of fashion or others coming into favour as a fad. 

The ANC had to work long and hard to win the support that it ultimately gained by the 1990s. 

For much of its history it was not the hegemonic African nationalist or resistance force in South Africa. (See Raymond Suttner, “African nationalism” in Peter Vale and Lawrence Hamilton (eds), South African intellectual traditions, (UKZN Press, 2014),121-145, available on request). 

It won support by virtue of being seen to represent the aspirations of the majority of the oppressed people in South Africa and enjoying some measure of support from democratic whites. This was not simply derived from reading policy documents of the ANC. It relates to how the organisation’s actions were understood at the time.

ANC’s long road to hegemony

Not only did it take long for the ANC to achieve pre-eminence; for the earliest decades of its existence it was not a mass organisation. It was often superseded by more militant organisations like the Garveyites and the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU). 

It was only in the 1950s, after the Defiance Campaign, that its membership rose to 100,000 and the Congress of the People Campaign, through which the Freedom Charter was adopted, that the ANC became a hegemonic force among black people. 

That was possibly short-lived insofar as the banning of the ANC made it impossible for people to directly voice their support until it recovered its public presence, partly vicariously through other organised forces like the UDF.

Over the years of illegality, however, the ANC and its allies worked long and hard to rebuild what had been smashed by apartheid repression and, after the 1976 uprising public space was reopened and many of the organisations that were then formed, especially under the banner of the UDF, also periodically “raised the colours” of the ANC as an act of defiance and allegiance. 

Many ANC leaders and supporters paid a heavy price, often with their lives. Many young people lost the chance to finish their schooling (although the exiled ANC often advised young people to complete their education before joining the military) and had little chance for leisure.

People watched what the ANC and its allies were doing. They sang songs about its leaders, who became their leaders and they referred to the activities of MK with reverence. 

Because the ANC leaders and cadres of that time were prepared to give up everything to achieve freedom for all, the ANC won the trust of the people.

Squandering trust and legitimacy

That trust has now evaporated, and it is not simply because of the State Capture project of Jacob Zuma. 

The election of Cyril Ramaphosa to leadership of the ANC was an opportunity to act with considerable goodwill and support. That has been lost. 

In a time of Covid-19, the country appeared to stand as one in support of firm steps to contain the virus. But that was squandered by a high tolerance of security force brutality and looting of funds required to supply the medical materials needed to fight the virus. 

What type of leadership can stand by while videos proliferate of security forces assaulting or killing the poor and marginalised? 

What type of leadership can tolerate more people dying at the hands of security forces than the virus in the first week or two of the lockdown? 

What type of leadership is so slow to react to the hunger of much of the population and the failure to reach those who need food distributed? 

What type of leadership deploys xenophobic responses in such a crisis?

That is nothing but callous indifference towards what, in the main, used to be its own constituency – the people in whose name the ANC previously acted and now still claims to act. 

I do not believe that there are only a few bad apples that need to be discarded, or that the ANC can self-correct. 

It no longer leads in a way that is meaningful or captures the imagination of its one-time supporters or the population as a whole. 

The ANC has lost the appetite for debate and exchanging ideas. 

It has become stale and lacks imagination. 

Whether it can recover any of the features that previously evoked trust and admiration is doubtful. 

The ANC won trust because many people believed it belonged to them – it was not simply an organisation “out there”. 

There is, regrettably, no other organisation in South Africa today that evokes such sentiments. 

We, who are committed to making our democracy work, will need to think long and hard about how we remedy this gap with a political force that cares – and in a way that is sustainable. DM

Professor Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor at the Centre for the advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD) at Nelson Mandela University, Port Elizabeth. He has been presenting a series of webinar engagements as part of’ the ‘Living History Series’, hosted by CANRAD in partnership with the Department of History and Political Studies. Suttner served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner. He is currently preparing to write memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the periods through which he has lived.


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  • Great article Raymond! I am of the opinion that many people (not only in South Africa) have no grasp of the concepts of ethical and servant leadership or fiduciary responsibility. Most enter politics, not to serve others, but to serve themselves, and that is where it all goes wrong. South African political leadership is particularly poor, both incompetent and unethical, but when we look around the world, “the best” leaders many countries manage to elect are rather uninspiring. Is it the education systems or democracy that are defective? Something in society is failing.

  • I don’t believe we can expect any reasonable form of governance under a democracy (etymologically speaking “people power”) as it implies a lack of good leadership as the elected leaders only have to garner a relatively small number of voters and they don’t need to demonstrate any proven leadership skills. Compare this to an aristocracy (best power) where a leader of proven ability leads. We shouldn’t use current and past so-called aristocrats as examples because mankind has for thousands of years been declining in terms of ethical and moral behaviour. And it’s well understood in most circles that it the leadership that fails first and in time the rest have to follow. Clues as to how societies fail are well documented in Gibbons “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire”.

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