We may not all have elected the unaccountable elite embodied in President Jacob Zuma and his cronies. The fact that they could survive this long is partly a measure of our tolerance for wrongdoing, and by implication we are complicit. Worse still, the fact that we have lowered our expectations of leadership, and are happy to accept anything other than evil, is a sign that we have completely lost our self-confidence as a country. There was a time when we believed that our economy could grow at 5% and above; today we are happy to accept anything as long we do not dip below 1%. We have acquired high tolerance for leadership mediocrity.
With that attitude there is no guarantee that history will not repeat itself, perhaps more viciously the second time around. Leadership failures, which are at the core of South Africa’s political and economic challenges today, are not just limited to political elites; there have also been ethical failures in corporate leadership, and a loss of moral and social responsibility among ourselves as individuals.
The almost decade-long Zuma years have witnessed massive deflation of our morale and self-belief as a country, the corrosion of our institutions, and large-scale public theft with few consequences. This reality has, in large part, been abetted by our limp and ad hoc activism, marked by a weak sense of civic spirit and responsibility. It may take many years to reverse the damage caused by our political elites and for us to rediscover our moral bearings.
If our social conscience was alive and we had clarity of thought about the likely condition of the unknown future, and the place of the next generation in it, we would be less selfish and demonstrate more urgency to act now. We would do more than simply being outraged on social media and around dinner tables, and be jolted to push back strongly against the political elite.
A sense of civic consciousness would help us direct our energies through other positive channels in civil society. There are a few unsung heroes that are active in the civil society space and are promoting the cause of opposition politics, which potentially holds better promise than the status quo. However, there is lack of critical mass, which means that as a society we are not sufficiently motivated to fight for a better future.
Institutional dysfunction in the state
It is not just the political leadership that has gone on a tailspin, but defects are manifesting in various critical institutions in the country. The law enforcement agencies have been in disarray during Zuma’s years, with many lacking any credible leadership. Even when they seem to be performing their jobs as seen in the various raids that are targeting Gupta-linked individuals, they tend to act on the basis of political whim, which means they are still defective. For a long time, the rule of law has been denuded of its sting, with criminals no longer fearing any consequences. A few raids or arrests cannot instantaneously create a good culture. Reconditioning these institutions and fixing leadership is not something that will happen at the blink of an eye.
When criminals look at law enforcement authorities they hold a mirror unto themselves, and if there is any fear they have, it is that law enforcement authorities are powerful competitors in the dark art of criminality. Of course, there are men and women who are working hard and taking their jobs seriously, but their good effort is overshadowed by systemic dysfunction from the top echelons of leadership.
There have been many inexplicable changes in the leadership of critical law enforcement agencies, including at the National Prosecuting Authority and the Hawks. At the end of last year the current head of the NPA Shaun Abrahams, for example, was discredited by the High Court as someone who is unfit for his role. Berning Ntlemeza, the former head of the Hawks, was in 2017 castigated for his lack of integrity by the same court.
Quite clearly, government has become a den of thieves and liars. Cleaning this up will not be as easy as it looks. The sooner will get our heads out of fairy tales and consider the brutal facts that stare us in the eye the better for our state of mind in the long run.
Weak ethics in the corporate sector
While institutional failures in government are evident to the naked eye, those in the corporate sector have largely gone unnoticed until major scandals blow up, as has been the case with Steinhoff and their accounting irregularities, McKinsey’s shady dealings with the Gupta-linked companies, and unethical conduct at KPMG, among others. Corporate leaders have not been the standard-bearers of ethics and good corporate governance in society, let alone champions of transformation.
There is a sense that corporates have preference for narrow short-term goals at the expense of sustainability and the collective upliftment of society. The notion that businesses only exist for the bottom line is out of sync with public expectation, and the emerging global trend where corporates are expected to be co-creators of solutions to address complex social challenges in societies where they operate. The behaviour of corporates can influence public virtues. Given their social power, corporate leaders should be held to a very high standard. Sadly, one has to light a torch in broad daylight to find transformative corporate leaders.
Where one is lucky to find enlightened leaders, it is the case of a curate’s egg depicted in George du Maurier’s cartoon in 1895: a timid-looking curate is feasting on an egg in his bishop’s house. Observing him closely, the bishop remarks: “I’m afraid you’ve got bad egg, Mr Jones; to which the curate responds: “Oh, no my lord, I assure you, parts of it are excellent.” Indeed, parts of our corporate sector are as excellent as the curate’s egg. It is only in recent times where the voice of corporate leaders could be heard boldly, with one eye tackling failures in government, and another eye blind to ethical failures and underperformance on transformation in the private sector.
Corporate leaders have been afflicted by both sins of commission in their tolerance of unethical behaviour within their ranks, and sins of omission for doing the bare minimum – or nothing at all – for social change. Building a better South Africa is not just about what government does; this is a shared responsibility of leaders across all sectors.
While it is now clear to all that our politics are broken, and we have for a long time been saddled with destructive leadership, the problems besetting the country go much deeper. These are not just about a failed political elite, but a generalised poverty of leadership, and a lack of responsible citizenry, with the exception of a coterie of non-governmental organisations that survive on a shoestring.
Changing our current reality will require that we become a lot more engaged in holding leaders to account. We have to take appropriate lessons from the Zuma years and avoid the pitfalls of overly relying on a political party or a cult leader to solve society’s problems.
The signs of change on the horizon should offer us an opportunity to move beyond just being anxious or resigned about the state of politics in the country but to rediscover our responsibility in holding those in power accountable, to consider seriously the weight of our votes, and to roll up our sleeves and be involved in initiatives that are aimed at building a better country and a functional society that cares for its socially marginalised. We need not accept a mediocre leadership because things could have been worse than they have turned out to be – that is a bottomless hole – but push harder to get the best outcomes we deserve. DM
Qobo is deputy at the NRF Chair on African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy, University of Johannesburg