As our 5th democratic elections approach, public debate on the leadership to make South Africa a better place for all citizens has become fierce. While no change is driven by a single individual, it is useful to ponder lessons from what has become known globally as the “Lula Moment,” the period when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was president of Brazil (2003 – 2011).
“The biggest legacy of my presidency is not the programmes that took 40 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,” Lula emphatically articulated. It was 2012. He had just recovered from cancer. His punishing schedule did seem to matter – a whirlwind tour across Africa. I met him with my son, Kami. He patiently answered the questions of a 19-year-old. That was the defining characteristic of Lula. His ability to listen with attentiveness. A quality I recognised in Mandela.
Social cohesion in Brazil was built on trust, an openness from the ground upwards in his term. “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,” Lula reiterated.
Today, in the post-Lula residency, the streets of Brazilian cities are filled with thousands of protesting youth. Decrying the billions spent on the Soccer World Cup, their placards demand “FIFA quality education, FIFA quality health and FIFA quality public transport.” They are an important reminder to political elites in Brazil and even here in South Africa. If we can deliver world-class stadiums, why can’t we deliver water, toilets, textbooks and electricity to our people? Surely our citizens are more important than the well-fed, fattened FIFA bureaucracy sitting in Geneva?
Over the years I had the opportunity to interact with Lula regularly. I remember him being asked, “Are you a socialist?”
His reply was instructive for our party bosses. “I am just a lathe operator from the San Bernardo district of Sao Paulo.” His humility was irrepressible.
I reflect on the robust debates of the early nineties, when we connected to CUT (Brazilian trade unions). We were cut from the same cloth of militant political social unionism. It stressed a strong streak of independence from political parties we allied with. The alliances with the Workers’ Party (PT) in Brazil and with the ANC in SA was based on a concrete programme around agreed policy objectives and actions that put the needs of the workers, the poor and the marginalised at the core.
CUT was recently rejected by angry, protesting youth on the streets of Brazil and accused of being in bed with the government, which is similar to the today’s strong criticisms of Cosatu.
Has the independence of these past militant labour movements been compromised and turned into mere vote banks for the political elites?
Are those who proclaim to be the guardians of the left, left clutching the rhetoric of the past? These thoughts conjure up the image of Lenin in his critical piece on “Leftwing Politics: An infantile Disorder”; sitting in workshops debating socialism and press conferences while the streets and factory floor are in ferment. It is not surprising that the space of radical political thought is increasingly occupied by newer players with less of a track record and depth, but who still have a hand on the pulse of surging anger in our squatter camps and townships.
In Lula’s first term, he found his administration faced with hyperinflation, an unfriendly bureaucracy and suspicious military. There were tough choices to make. 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 recognized 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. He was the antithesis of the ‘big man’ syndrome of political arrogance and completely unlike how we introduced the GEAR programme in 1996.
He crisscrossed the country, he engaged the landless movements, trade unions, civil society and social groupings. He worked ceaselessly to reduce the social distance between the government and the vast majority of Brazilians. Lula openly championed the right of comrades within the Party to fight for the political direction they felt was important. Tendencies were acknowledged and allowed to fight for their positions within the PT.
Brazil’s diverse population, divided for centuries, had spurred a militant activism and several social movements; Lula himself rose through the ranks as the militant labour leader in the 1980s. 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. That presents so many similarities with SA.
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 seven 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; as the world’s biggest anti-poverty programme, 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. Poverty in Brazil fell by 27% during his administration.
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.
“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.”
SA, on the other hand, has failed generations of our youth. Our education system has failed to create pathways out of poverty for the majority of our youth. Official government statistics point to the fact that more than half of pupils who leave after 12 years of schooling have very few skills, no jobs and are unlikely to have a job in their lifetime.
Lula also recognised that China had established itself as the factory of the world and India as the technology capital of the world. Brazil aimed to be the farm of the world. 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 fertilisers. He understood the assets that Brazil had and used the power of the Brazilian state to tackle the poverty and joblessness of the past.
He 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.
Lula’s second term was defined by its flagship programme, the Growth Acceleration Programme (PAC), a project of over US$ 350 billion, which aimed to remove the barriers to growth and drive social and urban infrastructure. 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.
A singular trait of harnessing the levers of state power was premised on appointing competent managers and ensuring clear division of responsibility between government and these entities in terms of corporate governance. While there have been levels of corruption in the government, the heads of the state companies I met were of high ethical and performance-driven culture and standard.
Understanding the dangers of crony capitalism, investment drove outcomes that unlocked private capital to finance large scale industrial development, building capital markets and promoting small and medium enterprises rather than financing politically connected leadership elites. This is what catapulted Brazil into the position of 6th largest economy in the world, overtaking the UK.
But Lula stressed that “we cannot just focus on GDP growth. It has to be sustainable and socially inclusive. Otherwise it leads to rising inequality and with it social instability. Then the people have a right to rise up and condemn their government.”
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.” Something our own lawmakers in our Parliament ignored in passing the Secrecy laws, forgetting that our struggle for freedom was a struggle for voice.
But more importantly, as I listen to the instructive voices from Brazil, I understand what it takes to be a servant leader in South Africa; 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 with personal and political integrity. It is accepting that the buck stops at your office as the President, a Minister, Premier, business CEO or union General Secretary.
That is a prerequisite for our very own Lula moment to occur. The steps are not so difficult to formulate: we need to make sure we make transparency our starting point and priority; we need to go back to the painstaking work of organising our communities.
The lesson of our struggle is recognising that unmet expectations, especially amongst our youth, are the biggest threat to social stability. It needs a visionary leadership. It means being armed with a strategy and plan with performance driven time-frames. It means making tough decisions to fire incompetent and corrupt public officials.
Only then the lonely and forgotten majority in our country will sense hope. And only then will the best and brightest among us rise to serve our nation and re-uild the exceptionalism we had in the past. DM
Stephen Hawking held a party for time travellers. He sent the invitation out the day after. Nobody attended.