Defend Truth


The Lula moment and this country of ours, South Africa


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and former chair of Gain, a global foundation fighting malnutrition in the world.

"The biggest legacy of my presidency is not the programmes that took 30 million Brazilians out of absolute poverty and created 15 million jobs. It is the accountability of the public institutions and real partnership with business, labour and civil society that brought hope to the people. We put the needs of the people first. Not ours." This was the fundamental point that ex-president Lula made when we met this week. It was a meeting that would be difficult to forget.

“I was not the president. The people were the president. The foundation of the ‘Brazilian Miracle’ is not mine. It is that of the people. If I failed my people who elected me, it would be the people failing, and the poor would be proving their critics right that we did not have what it takes to rule,” he says emphatically. 

The challenges of the first term were tremendous. Faced with hyper-inflation, an unfriendly bureaucracy and suspicious military, the Lula Administration faced difficult choices. The Workers’ Party, led by Lula, only represented 17 % of the members of a fragmented and chaotic Congress, dominated by powerful vested interests that would more often than not oppose his policies.  

He recognised the need to stabilise the macro-economic environment through a set of pragmatic policies that established stability. But he did that through a transparent dialogue even with his fiercest critics. 

Lula is the antithesis of the ‘big man’ syndrome of political arrogance that dominates so many governments. He criss-crossed the country; engaged the landless movements, trade unions, civil society and social movements. 

His first term was defined by the launch of the “Zero Hunger” campaign, with a commitment that every Brazilian family should have a meal three times a day. His childhood of penury defined Lula’s memories powerfully. “The first time I ate bread was at 7 years old. We lived on cassava. My parents were penniless. In government I asked my ministers how the laws, policies and actions they proposed would contribute to eradicating hunger.”

It is that personal experience that drove his single minded focus on enabling the poor to succeed by creating pathways out of poverty. The Zero Hunger programme covers over 12 million families, a quarter of Brazil’s  population of 190 million; it provides conditional direct cash transfers to reduce short-term poverty, and places an obligation on parents to ensure that their children are in school and are vaccinated. Breaking the inter-generational cycle of poverty became the hallmark of the Lula Presidency.

But the long-term goal was to improve the human capital. Lula, himself the first president of Brazil without a university degree, is convinced that the right to quality education and social inclusion are the most important tools for building a globally competitive economy for any country. He prides himself on the achievement of being the one who created the most universities and technical schools. 

“By tackling poverty, improving skills and investing in education delivery, the government was critical in accelerating the rise of the poorest to decent jobs and the middle class. We must succeed in creating a class of entrepreneurs who can create their own livelihoods and drive job creation.”

Brazil’s diverse population was divided for centuries. That very divide had spurred a militant activism and several social movements; Lula himself rose through the ranks as the militant labour leader in the 1980’s. The clashes between the landless movements and the oligarchic landowner class, the militancy of unions under the military dictatorships, the inter-racial challenges – all were a significant reason to build trust through transparency and meaningful public participation. 

The popularity of Lula and his progressive public and social policies reflected the social cohesion that was painstakingly built, largely through the force of his personality.

One of his first actions as president was to set up the presidential advisory body CONSEA, in which civil society actors were integrated into the design and implementation of the Zero Hunger programme. It was not just a talk shop, but allowed non-state activists to influence government policy as well. 

Special credit lines to small farmers, who account for 70 % of the food production (and create more jobs and value per hectare) grew an entire industry around tractors for small farmers and facilitated access to seed, finance, water, land and fertiliser. 

CONSEA lobbied Congress to pass a bill obliging local governments to buy at least 30% of the family farmers’ produce and linked it directly to the government’s school feeding programmes, thereby boosting their incomes and giving them a vital access to markets. The immediate impact was the improvement in health, education and nutrition of their children. 

The trade unions negotiated a special programme of responsible borrowing against pay checks with state banks, which cut out the unscrupulous money lenders and avoided a debt trap for millions of workers. For the first time, countless Brazilians saw hope and opportunity materialise, and the consumption grew in the economy as lifestyles improved. A staggering 50 million people moved upwards into the ranks of the middle classes.

Lula would personally attend national conferences of representatives of grass-roots organisations organised by the Secretary General of the Presidency, listening to their pleas, frustrations and hopes. They felt that he was one of them; he stood with them and demonstrated empathy with their plight. He worked ceaselessly to reduce the social distance between the government and the vast majority of Brazilians.

Power with the Lula presidency sat with the chief of staff, who operated with a direct mandate from Lula. The monitoring and performance of ministers across government were measured, and reports released for public scrutiny. The current president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, replaced the previous head, who was implicated in a vote rigging scandal in 2006. She unified social programmes, instituted management systems and centralised monitoring, planning and accountability. 

Lula’s second term was defined by its flagship programme, the Growth Acceleration Programme (PAC), a project of over US$ 350 billion which aims to remove the barriers to growth and drive social and urban infrastructure. As part of the programme, the administration has created public-private partnership concessions for seven federal roadways. 

The leading role of BNDES, the Brazilian national development bank, and other parastatal corporations were critical in taking the risks that drove an industrial and infrastructure strategy that opened up new sectors and crowded in private capital. In 2011, the BNDES disbursed close to US$100 billion.

I have often met the leaders of the BNDES and could see the pivotal role it played in improving economic competitiveness and working on unlocking private capital through innovative public private partnerships, financing large scale industrial development, building capital markets and promoting small and medium enterprises – catapulting Brazil into the position of 8th largest economy in the world.

Lula was able to marshal effectively the state owned enterprises by appointing competent managers and ensuring clear division of responsibility between government and these entities in terms of corporate governance. 

Having visited Brazil several times, I was struck by the conversations I had with ordinary people: taxi drivers, hotel staff, youths in the streets, activists working in the favelas to business tycoons, and ministers in government. There is an overwhelming sense of hope in spite of the challenges they still face in a country almost four times the population of South Africa. 

And what happened when Lula left? In office for two years, President Dilma Rousseff has taken a tough line, firing seven ministers for corruption, misuse of funds and influence peddling. She has exceeded Lula’s popularity in her own right. 

As the political temperature rises in our home as we approach Mangaung and the next general elections, I hope that Rousseff’s no-nonsense approach to governance will be instructive for those wanting to learn from the “Lula Moment”.

Lula is certainly not a saint, as he correctly points out. He has made mistakes. There are very legitimate criticisms on his failure to implement a more radical agrarian reform programme and not being tougher on corruption that implicated senior Party comrades. 

And while the newsrooms and analysts still relentlessly probe his every move, he believes passionately in the independence of the media and freedom of speech. “The right of the people to express themselves is what we fought against the military dictatorship. We must never compromise that basic human right.” (It is timely advice to our own lawmakers in our Parliament, as they consider the passage of the Secrecy Bill.) 

But more importantly, as I listen to the instructive voices from Brazil, I understand what it takes to be a servant leader. Such a leader is one who unifies a hurting nation; one who listens to the desperate voices of the marginalised and who consciously lowers the toxicity in public debates, while still maintaining the robustness of the public discourse. It is a return to the spirit of service, reconstruction and development that inspired our nation at birth, guided by our oath of sovereignty to deliver a better life to all our people. 

And the servant leader in South Africa could push for our very own Lula moment. The steps are not so difficult to formulate: we need to make sure we make transparency our starting point and priority; then make a social contract that will establish trust between the business, government and unions. Only then the lonely and forgotten will sense hope. And only then will we be able to bring the best and brightest among us to serve this hurting nation and pull it out of the morass that is South African reality today. 

When do we start? DM