Let’s take a step back. I was recently asked what it will take for Africa’s economy to take off. Interested as I am in this question, I refused to offer an answer because, in my view, the problems and many of the solutions are well known. What we lack is leaders with the vision, skills, knowledge, humility and courage to drive rapid, inclusive growth and social transformation.
We know what the problems are. Africa is too reliant on primary commodity exports. Our economies are too small, fragmented and disconnected from each other. Corruption, anti-meritocracy and inefficiency handicap and preclude a developmental state. Too often African business elites are concerned with rent seeking, consumption and spiriting capital abroad rather than productive investment. Regulation is poor or non-existent, presided over by bureaucrats who have no clue about how the private sector works. Powerful interest groups block required reforms, cowing politicians more concerned with retaining office than using it to drive change.
The solutions are not a mystery. Agenda 2063 lays out the major things we need to do as a continent, many of which could be found in the Lagos Plan of Action (1980) and the Abuja Treaty (1991). Here in South Africa, our National Development Plan Vision 2030 lays out many of the things we need to do to build the South Africa of our dreams. We have excellent intellectuals, think tanks and consultancies who regularly offer compelling ideas ignored by politicians.
If only we had the right leaders.
What do I mean when I say the leaders we have are not the leaders we need?
By and large, we have people who are skilled in party politics, not people who are skilled in planning and leading rapid social and economic development in a complex, hypercompetitive and rapidly changing world.
Here’s a shortcut for identifying a wrong leader. If you cannot imagine what career this person could feasibly and competently pursue if they were not a President/Premier/Mayor/MP, then they are probably the wrong leader.
The problem with public service is that it is one of the few professions that everyone believes they are qualified for. A person would not dream of practising law, medicine or accounting without first undergoing a period of rigorous study to obtain some sort of qualification. Only in public service can people assume leadership of a town, city, province, country, and make far-reaching decisions without first having studied how it is done.
This is exacerbated by the fact that politics attracts ideologues. Ideologues are people with terrible (or even good) ideas who then expect reality to adapt to their ideas, rather than adapting their ideas to reality.
We need a different kind of leader; we’ll call them the new leaders. The new leaders are educated, in a relevant and rigorous field, such as the social or natural science, business or engineering. This shouldn’t even be arguable, thus I refuse to argue it.
They should ideally have some career experience outside of politics, both for the experience of having had to deliver in a results-oriented field, and the exposure to the world outside of the political bubble. It is also dangerous for a person to see political office as their only means to earn a livelihood.
Finally, the new leaders must have diverse backgrounds – in terms of race, class, social milieu, experiences had – to effectively represent and communicate to a diverse and dynamic electorate.
Why is it that the wrong leaders tend to dominate? In the (South) African context I’d say three factors are important: social reasons, aesthetic reasons, and need.
The wrong leaders are particularly skilled at the social element of politics. This is not to say that mastering the social makes you the wrong kind of leader, but I would argue that the wrong kind of leaders tend to be strongest in this area, perhaps out of necessity. Mastering the social element of politics involves recognising and leveraging the power of identity and relationships.
All over the world, people support leaders they identify with. They support leaders they feel are ‘one of them’, who come from where they come from. This matters everywhere, and it definitely matters here. In politics, the guy that most people identify with is often ahead of the guy with the best CV.
In Africa, perhaps more so than in most other places, relationships matter. People need to know you and trust you in order to support you. The politicians that tend to emerge tend to be the ones that put in the work of building relationships, before and after branch meetings and caucuses, at football games, weddings and funerals.
The aesthetic reasons are rarely discussed, but no less real. A black politician in South Africa is expected to sound a particular way. Those of us with Model C, private school accents and ‘twangs’ can forget about it. Comrade-speak is the lingua franca of South African politics and if you aren’t fluent or inclined you should sit down and save yourself the trouble. Fiery rhetoric is preferred, regardless of content. This may seem trivial, but you are fighting an uphill battle if you don’t pass the aesthetic test.
Need is absolutely critical. In many parts of the world, aspiring politicians start out in or consider careers in law, commerce or consulting before entering politics. If politics doesn’t work out, or between political jobs, they have options. In South Africa, politics is the only route out of poverty for many people. Often aspiring politicians have invested so many years in full-time activism that transitioning elsewhere would be prohibitively difficult.
In this context, party and government positions are jealously coveted and fought over viciously. It becomes difficult as a professional with options, to compete for branch or regional leadership with an unemployed person who has nothing but time, and nothing to lose. It is difficult to match the hunger and time the other guy has to lobby and manoeuvre.
One of the most important pieces of advice I’ve ever heard – and wish I had heeded more myself – is as follows: 90% of life is showing up. It is so for opportunity generally, and all the more so for politics. Public leaders are not chosen from the total pool of adults in society. They are chosen from the subset of people who show up to places where leaders are elected – party branches, student government, union meetings etc – and put their hand up.
Potential new leaders, who look on bitterly at the latest blunders by the wrong leaders, and long for new leadership to emerge, are fooling themselves. Fooling ourselves.
To our enormous cost, we forget the adage – for it is not a cliché, but is indisputably true – we get the leaders we deserve. We have only two options: accept the leaders we have, or do what it takes to install new ones.
For new leaders to emerge, we have to find ways to overcome the social, aesthetic and need-based advantages of the wrong leaders. We need to find ways to win under the current unwritten rules, flawed as they are, or change the game entirely to establish better rules.
If we do not, a generation from now, Africa’s enormous potential will remain unfulfilled, and our beloved continent will remain a place where the few thrive and the many struggle.
We will have only ourselves to blame. DM
Mandla Lionel Isaacs is a public servant. He writes in his personal capacity.