Opinionista Alex Eliseev 30 April 2014

Madonsela, the Defence Review, and SA’s cries for leadership

The public unveiling of the Defence Review and Thuli Madonsela’s name making Time magazine’s list of the world’s most influential people last week may have no direct links, but look at the two events together, and a powerful lesson about leadership emerges. ALEX ELISEEV argues there are few more pressing issues.

Halfway through Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula’s speech about the Defence Review, a colleague who works for another news organisation sent me a direct message on Twitter: “Shall we have a bet as to who on the podium will fall asleep first?”

I found the message amusing and played along: “I would, but I just woke up myself…”

As Mapisa-Nqakula droned on about the plan and how the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) was “intact” and “performing admirably well” it really did look like some of her colleagues had drifted away to happier places.

The problem wasn’t that the Defence Review is insignificant. On the contrary, it’s hugely important and the process of analysing the SANDF, with a view of piecing it back together, is big news.

The review, by the way, found that South Africa’s armed forces were in a critical state of decline and required massive funding, urgently.

Mapisa-Nqakula explained that the SANDF was in a very different place today than it was at the dawn of democracy and that its responsibilities had swelled dramatically. She said with plans to expand peacekeeping missions into Africa, government no longer had a choice but to channel more money into the military. During South Africa’s 20-year journey through democracy, the cash that used to flow into the SANDF was redirected to social programmes: improving education, building houses or offering people grants.

That’s all fair enough and there’s little controversy there. There’s also little disagreement about just how deep the crisis is now, with our troops being ambushed and killed in foreign lands or battling to keep it together back home, with a chronic shortage of equipment, illegal soldier strikes and endless scandals over airplanes or submarines that are perpetually broken or abandoned, with no one to fly or pilot them. I think it’s probably “fair comment” (to borrow from another political drama playing out in our courts) to say that our military has deteriorated to such an extent that many see it as a tragic joke.

The Defence Review offers a plan to turn the ship around. To “arrest the decline” and to “rebalance” and “re-equip” the military and make it fully functional once more. It is a comprehensive document that is only marginally shorter than Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s Nkandla report. Independent analysts agree that fundamentally, it is a solid piece of work which requires political will and money (eventually up to almost R90 billion) but which can be implemented successfully. It’s a plan that stretches 14 years and offers milestones along the way. It also has “quick wins” which are cheaper and quicker to realise.

The trouble is that it’s loaded with jargon, which no amount of PowerPoint can bring to life (and there was no lack of trying). Take a look, for example, at the five key milestones:

  • Arrest the decline through focused interventions

  • Re-balance the forces for future growth

  • Ensure that the defence capacity meets current needs

  • To develop capacity to meet future strategic challenges on the continent

  • To build strength to deal with a war should the need arise.

If the money from national treasury never comes, our soldiers can always bore their enemies to death with these milestones.

Another problem is that no matter how ambitious or relevant the Defence Review’s recommendations are, there are missiles lurking under the waters: the Arms Deal and Nkandla. The one has blown up much of the credibility the SANDF may have had and the other threatens to blow up any it hopes to claw back.

At the start of the Defence Review briefing, journalists were ordered (I say ordered because the initial request was defended later with military-style aggression) not to ask any questions which don’t relate to the topic at hand. An Arms Deal question was somehow accepted, but my question about Nkandla led to a skirmish. In essence, the minister tried to convince everyone that the Arms Deal was a bunch of unproved allegations and Nkandla was a non-issue because despite being involved in the project, the SANDF hadn’t actually parted with any money yet.

Ultimately, as far as the Defence Review goes, what the nation got was another complicated plan for a brighter future, with little concrete action for today. With the Arms Deal and the Nkandla scandals unresolved and a Defence minister who has lost most, if not all credibility – and surely has to be one of the worst performers in president Jacob Zuma’s Cabinet – it was a little difficult to get excited.

South Africa has many plans and policies. It has the National Development Plan. Government parastatals have endless turnaround strategies. Some probably have more than a dozen by now. The country also has excellent laws and a proud constitution. The trouble, as we all know, is the implementation part – from decreasing road deaths to firing up the economy and creating jobs. So while the Defence Review may have been a virtuous exercise, it has been sold badly and has lacked the wind of credibility in its sails.

Let’s turn now to Thuli Madonsela.

Together with her team, she spent years investigating the outrageous spending at Nkandla. She produced a report which was over 400 pages long. Her report is also filled with excruciating technical details and words like “maladministration”.

And yet, we all know exactly what the report says and what Madonsela found. (Well, with the exception of the ANC’s chief whip in Parliament, perhaps).

Granted, the Nkandla report dealt with a far more mainstream scandal, involving a country’s president, but that’s not the real issue. The main point is that South Africa was prepared to listen to Madonsela.

Time magazine has named Madonsela one of its 100 most influential people around the globe, calling her a “fearless public advocate”. She is described as someone who has extraordinary courage and patriotism, and who gives hope to the continent. The same continent, by the way, that the SANDF and its political masters are so determined to secure and stabilise with extra deployments.

As soon as the news broke, the well wishes literally began to flood in. Newspapers devoted entire front pages the next day to celebrate Madonsela’s achievement. She was interviewed on radio, joking about how she first thought the Time nomination was a 419 scam. She was humble and dignified, taking her entire office and her counterparts around the globe along for the ride.

The reaction to Madonsela’s recognition is a sign of how desperate we, South Africans, are for strong leadership. How the slightest spark of excellence translates into front-page news. AFP’s Andrew Beatty said it so well: “Reaction to Madonsela’s inclusion on Time list vividly shows South Africans want their leaders to be moral rock stars.”

Madonsela is a moral rock star, but in truth South Africans don’t need rock stars (even though we have been spoilt in the past)… we just need leaders who are fit to govern. Leaders who have the interest of the country at heart. Leaders who don’t weaken constitutional institutions and defend a quarter billion Rand upgrades at their private homes. Leaders who don’t try to convince us that being flown around in a helicopter and wearing Louis Vuitton shoes is meant to inspire the poor. Leaders who don’t treat us like idiots when they make blatant mistakes or bungle political mergers. Leaders who don’t embarrass us or betray our trust. Leaders who can stand tall and be acknowledged by the global community, which we are a part of.

As South Africa marks 20 years of the greatest miracle in the world, now more than ever, it needs leaders who can not only plan for the distant future, but inspire us today. DM

Alex Eliseev is an EWN reporter. Follow him at @alexeliseev.

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