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Remaking the centre: No more corrupt, populist, village idiot leaders

Remaking the centre: No more corrupt, populist, village idiot leaders

It is urgent that we create a new, pragmatic consensus – one that spans ideology, race and class – in South Africa’s politics, economics and society.

South Africa will not be able to tackle its complex problems based on the current dominant identity-based, ideology-based, colour-based and past-based politics unless we remake politics, economics and society.  

Disturbingly, gangsters, populists, ideologues, the prejudiced, the narrow-minded, the ignorant, the unread and the corrupt are increasingly dominating South Africa’s political, economic, public and cultural discourse.

In public discourse, they are often vulgar, rude and self-interested.

They dismiss knowledge, as encapsulated in the often sneering dismissal of blacks who are educated – who are pragmatic and who embrace constitutional values – as “clever blacks”, in a world where only the countries that invest in knowledge become economically prosperous.

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They have captured struggle slogans and the country’s past, not to advance the best interests of the formerly disadvantaged, but to advance their own personal, party or factional interests.

Furthermore, many criminals, populists and violent men seek power by claiming to be “revolutionary”, supposedly championing the cause of the “people”, “transformation” and giving the “land back”, and being against “white monopoly capital” and “foreign interests”.

These promises are cynically mouthed solely to secure power.

These “leaders” often deliberately steer public discourse away from the real issues, resorting to scapegoating “enemies” for, in many cases, self-inflicted problems, whether it be media, foreigners or civil society, calling for single-bullet solutions to resolve all the complex issues such as land expropriation without compensation while steering debate away from corruption, mismanagement incompetence, nonsensical policies and dishonesty of elected and public officials. 

These “leaders” promise heaven on earth to desperately poor voters. They shout outdated ideologies, deliberately cause societal divisions and push nonsensical policies which, if implemented, will bring hell on earth to their supporters. 

Their thinking is often confined to black-and-white thinking or thinking in extremes.

The American Psychological Association calls it a polarised or “all-or-nothing” mindset which “keeps us from seeing the world as it often is: complex, nuanced and full of all the shades in between”. 

When called out for their corruption, incompetence and nonsensical policies, they often deflect by blaming the past or silencing legitimate critics’ “black-and-white thinking” style, by pointing out their white privilege, or “white monopoly capital” if they are white or “clever blacks” or pawns of “white monopoly capital”. 

The past cannot be ignored but should not be used to give a free pass to the corruption, incompetence and nonsensical policies of present leaders.  

Sadly, the criminals, populists and demagogues, the violent and the scapegoaters – those who scream violence the loudest and blame others vehemently and promise an impossible nirvana – are hero-worshipped and their behaviour is copied by many black youths. 

Ahead of South Africa’s seminal 29 May elections, false “leaders” are scapegoating “enemies” – whether they be foreigners or those of different colours, ethnic groups or political affiliations – for all the country’s problems. 

They peddle failed ideologies which have brought unspeakable misery across Africa in the post-colonial period.

Sadly, leaders who are competent, knowledgeable, pragmatic, forward-looking and promote evidence-based policies are often seen by ordinary citizens as boring or as clever blacks, Western imperialists or puppets of white monopoly capital. 

Many evidently prefer the fire-and-brimstone type of populist, corrupt, violent and divisive politician – those who promise nirvana if they are elected to power. 

It reflects what Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka said: “Only in Africa will thieves be regrouping to loot again and the youths whose future is being stolen will be celebrating.” 

Path to state and societal failure

Yet, it is critical that the angry, violent, ignorant, narrow-minded and populist “leaders” and groups on both the far left and far right be pushed out of the mainstream of SA politics.  

Continuing on the current path will lead to SA defaulting on its debt, a capital and skills flight, state failure, infrastructure system collapse, disintegration of social norms and a breakdown of the rule of law. It will lead to the tribalisation of politics. 

It will lead not only to a failed state but to a failed society. 

Importantly, there must be a realignment of the current dominant strands of the country’s politics – its liberation movement politics, political parties formed in the apartheid-era politics, post-apartheid breakaway parties from either of these – and new parties coming from none of these strands. 

The ANC may be on the decline but no opposition party on its own will be able to unseat it in the 29 May national and provincial elections. 

Parties dominated by one person are even more unlikely to make any inroads, no matter what policies they have.

It is critical that parties and leaders who support the Constitution, non-racialism, pragmatism and entrepreneurship align as part of a new pragmatic centre, rather than remain standalone. 

Voting for “leaders” with extremist views – whether of the left or the right – will bring more state failure, poverty and unemployment. 

How to beat ‘false’ leaders

The challenge for constitutionalists, non-racialists and those who want to foster a growing economy through promoting entrepreneurship not linked to state patronage, is how to win the war of ideas against the “false” leaders who prey on the poor for votes.

A political party realignment must also be accompanied by realignment of civil society organisations – those formed to oppose apartheid; those formed in favour of the apartheid government, and those formed in the post-apartheid era to hold the democratic government accountable. 

Most of Africa is dominated by military regimes that are plunging these countries into generations of freefall. Russia’s war against Ukraine and the conflict in Gaza are sucking up Western development aid, increasing nationalism and collapsing aid-dependent African, Latin American and Caribbean economies, former Soviet Union economies and Middle Eastern economies.

In this increasingly uncertain world, South Africa will have to create a stable economic and political bubble. 

However, unless a centrist centre takes control of the country, South Africa will also freefall like its neighbouring African countries. 

Allowing South Africa to fall into the hands of gangsters, criminals, populists, fantasists, ideologists and the narrow-minded will put the country on the path of a basket case, bracketed with other failed African and developing countries whose citizens are fleeing to the West – countries that are so devastated that they have to give their resources away cheaply to developed and emerging powers.

We need more evidence-based policies, pragmatic policies, reality-based policies – not ideological policies, wishful thinking policies or slogan-based policies.

The country is in a deep crisis – depending on who comes to power on 29 May, we may face a debt default and foreign and local corporates and high-income skills leaving the country. The financial sector tied up with the state – holding over 20% of government bonds – is systemically vulnerable.

There are no silver-bullet solutions such as land expropriation without compensation, the creation of new state banks, state factories, a fully state-owned National Health Initiative, or delinking the SA economy from Western economies, as some, including Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana, have called for. 

Such is South Africa’s deep crisis that one dominant ideology, party, silver-bullet policy or race group is unlikely to reverse the decline on its own.

A new pragmatic centre

As a starter, a new pragmatic centre must be based on common sense, reality and racial inclusivity. It must be based on decency, rationality and compassion that goes across race, identity or political affiliation, and on governing in the widest interests of all South Africans. 

South Africa has to aim to achieve a trillion US dollar economy – not to be deindustrialised, as is currently the case, where the economy becomes smaller. 

This can only happen with pragmatic leaders at the helm, leveraging the country’s diversity and its business, civil society and professionals. 

The country must prioritise economic growth as a national objective, and individual, private and state entrepreneurship rather than welfare, statism and state patronage.

Honesty must be a pillar of a new, centrist political order. 

A new pragmatic centre will need grown-up, honest and inclusive leaders who govern in the interests of all South Africans, not only themselves, their parties or their ethnic groups.

It will need to leverage the country’s racial diversity, civil society, business and professionals. Such a project must include business, civil society and professional organisations. 

Reasonable South Africans must do everything in their power to prevent the country from being captured by the corrupt, incompetent, ignorant, violent, ideological hardliners, populists and gangsters – and the village idiots.

We need to get them to the margins – not at the centre of political leadership in the country, which is currently the case.  If these evils are at the centre of South Africa’s politics, as they are now, they will destabilise the country.  

Core to such a new, pragmatic centre is for the country to base its governance on present realities, not based on the past, even if the past rightly impacts the present. 

Building a new, bright future must matter more than clinging to the past if the country is to prosper. 

A new, pragmatic centrist approach, rather than blaming imaginary enemies – foreigners, the West and imperialists, white monopoly capital, clever blacks – will have to deal with the real issues, which are in many cases self-inflicted. 

These include corruption, incompetence, anti-business attitudes and the embrace of village-idiot leaders, violent leaders, and narrow-minded leaders. 

A pragmatic centre in politics will have to be based on politics, not wishful thinking or ideological thinking. It must be based on embracing the Constitution, democracy and racial, colour and ethnic inclusion. 

Finally, it must be based on governing in the interests of all South Africans, not one political party, colour or ethnic group. DM

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand; and Founder and Executive Chairperson, Democracy Works Foundation, and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg).

This is an edited extract of his remarks at the recent FutureElectSummit24 in Cape Town.


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  • Just Me says:

    Corrupt, populist and village idiot leaders describes the ANC, EFF, MK and the PA fairly well.

  • Shaun Slayer says:

    Thanks for a good read. Those words need to be forced into every politicians daily startup menu.

  • ST ST says:

    Thank you William. I couldn’t agree more. It’s the only way. We’ve been told for over hundreds of years. But we won’t listen. It’s exhausting this constant fighting and looking back.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    This man is brilliant as always. Erudite, wise and intelligent! I follow his columns in the Sunday Times and really appreciate his insight. This is the calibre of individual sorely needed to lead this long-suffering country and take it to its right-full potential. If only!!!

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