Opinionista Gushwell Brooks 13 February 2013

We don’t need another hero

Africa seems to be hunting for heroes. In South Africa in particular, we’re looking for someone who can rescue us from corruption, mismanagement and violence. The trouble is, heroes don’t exist. At best, they’re strong leaders with strong teams. But even the strongest leader in today’s South Africa will struggle against the widespread rot in their workforce.

Africa is burdened by one common thread – the need for a hero. A symbol of salvation; someone who can step in and lift us out of desperation.

It is understandable. Look at our history: the entire continent has individuals that led movements and parties that liberated entire nations and peoples from the oppression of Apartheid and colonialism.

An impressive list of patrons ring across the continent: Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, Julius Nyerere in Tanzania and Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, for example, all are personifications of Africa’s defeat of colonialism. Robert Mugabe is still president of Zimbabwe because of the liberation he led in Zimbabwe; old diehards – people who still believe in good Ol’ Uncle Bob – actually vote for him. Not every vote is rigged.

Born-frees, along with the whole of South Africa, see Madiba as our Messiah, the one who singlehandedly delivered a democracy after serving 27 years behind bars. So sentiment akin to religious persuasion has led us to become dependent on the notion of the flawless leader, a sacrosanct man with no sin.

Sadly, Madiba’s torch of perfection failed to be passed on to his successors. Mbeki gave us AIDS denialism, BEE that failed to trickle down to the hungry masses and a request for an unconstitutional and very defeatist third term. Then, of course, we have our current president, famed for his pre-presidential shower debacle, corruption association with the Shaiks, Nkandla-gate, Marikana under his watch and an endless list of head-scratching laws, policies and utterances.

In this vacuum, the party has become the new hero. With Mr Mantashe constantly referring to the party as a separate, omniscient entity, deified in its perfection, dispensing punishment toward transgressing inconvenient youths and banks, but rewarding the current faithful leadership with victory at Mangaung.

But the current hero, despite its purported displays of strength and integrity, has fallen under some disrepute, bedevilled by corruption, inefficiency and an inability to deliver to its largest constituency; it has now turned to cultivating a new generation of heroes.

Whilst our current president is the ordinary man’s leader, steering clear of intellectualised, high-speak and rather breaking into melodious harmonies, his understudy, one Cyril Ramaphosa, has been touted as the business-friendly, respectable face of the party. Middle-class South Africa, usually preoccupied by the fact that this country is going down the drain and Australian plane ticket prices, have sighed a breath of relief because he will be president one day.

Mamphela Ramphele, meanwhile, has caused a stir in the last month or so. With Tony Leon letting the cat out of the bag, and announcing to everyone willing to listen that he knew the good doctor was in the USA, allegedly canvassing for funding for her party, everyone is waiting with bated breath for the formal announcement for the launch. With Zille snubbed, the doctor has emerged as the new opposition hopeful that will defeat the evil empire. 

So after the disappointment of two sub-par presidents that came nowhere close to filling the great shoes of Madiba, a faltering movement and party with flawed individuals at its helm, South Africa has found two new potentials, two new heroes that in the minds of rational people wouldn’t be bad at the helm of this great nation. Both represent a new hope in effective leadership, the people that will fix this country: one for her activism and outspokenness against all evil, the other for his corporate savvy and legacy of leadership.

They are, unfortunately, nowhere near the solution to our collective problems – a solution that is hinged on the need to be led by strength and veracity. This is to an extent an expected expectation. The Americans have Mr Inspirational himself, Barack Obama, the Brits have the feisty David Cameron; the Malawians have her fairness, Joyce Banda. The world, particularly countries where things seem to be working out, are led by seemingly inspirational, iconic leaders; a deficit here.

Call it hype or the ability to exploit the media’s unrelenting search for the sound byte, but these individuals, with their perfect family lives, perfectly tailored suits and photogenic smiles, personify their country’s greatness, even in the face of adversity.

However, all great leaders have an army of ministers, premiers, mayors, civil servants and a further menagerie of deputies as their support.

Like all these democracies, party politics, cadre deployment and keeping your friends closer than your enemies determine whom takes up what position. Our democracy has been plagued by three unfortunate realities, the very thing our new heroes want to fix: corruption, inefficiency and poor service delivery. 

Despite popular sentiment, they cannot clone themselves to be every Metro Police officer, Home Affairs front office assistant, Procurement Manager or Minister. Other people, usually those loyal to the party occupy some of these, particularly the senior, positions.

Apparently fish start their rot from the head. I have not seen this decomposition process myself, but it is a metaphor for the fact that corruption usually starts at the top. Even if we are to accept this as being the case, the thing is that the rot here in South Africa has extended all the way through, to the extent that it has become institutionalised.

So how would either one of our would-be heroes actually be able to bring about this major turnaround? In the case of the incumbent party, a purge is highly unlikely; it makes for bad politics because some of your most loyal supporters and protectors might be the most corrupt and inefficient. This therefore usually leads our political leaders to either turn a blind eye to indiscretions, or alternatively not to actively look for them in the first place.

The good doctor in particular will have a hard time. Let’s assume she wins the next national election; let’s assume that she compiles a dream team of honest, hardworking ministers. How will she be able to extend her net of efficiency to the far-flung villages of Limpopo, the Northern and Eastern Cape and to the Mafioso-fashioned areas where cronyism, cadre deployment and “it’s our turn to eat” rules the day? Would she be able to guarantee that every member of staff or new party member is as forthright as she might be?

Our current and ailing heroes started out idealistically in 1994. Wearing simple tracksuit jackets, smiling broadly and promising equally broadly. They were idealistic; they wanted to fix all that went wrong in the three-and-a-half centuries before they took over, but pretty soon, many realised that it was far more profitable to fix things for themselves.

As different as their politics might be, as much hope as they might represent for us all, one thing Mamphele Ramphela and Cyril Ramaphosa have in common is that they, despite their impressive resumés, cannot and will never be the sole basis for the solution to our problems.

The need to be led by a hero has led much of this continent from liberation to an enslavement of a new kind, all because the individual was the sole symbol for an entire nation. Heroes fall. Some allegedly beat their wives, others leave politics; they all grow old and they all have people working for them. People who have the potential to destroy legacies of fortitude and servant leaders.

Rather than looking to individual new heroes, we need to change the institutionalised ecosystem that sustains and maintains our three great vices. DM



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