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Opinionista

South Africa cursed by a staggering lack of ethical leadership

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Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar was raised by his determined mother, grandparents, aunt and the rest of his maternal family. He is an admitted attorney (formerly of the corporate hue), with recent exposure in the public sector, management consulting, advisory and private sector. The focus of his work is about enabling equity, justice and leveraging public policy effectively. He is an Atlantic Fellow, Obama Africa Leader, Mandela Washington Fellow, Mandela Rhodes Scholar and WEF Global Shaper. He had a stint in the South African party political environment, and found the experience a deeply educational one.

For South Africa to undergo a real reckoning, we will have to wrestle with how to create an environment that punishes those who fail to serve the country and its people.

Two weeks into 2021 and South Africa continues to struggle under the second surge in Covid-19 infections, with thousands dying and the sober knowledge that “20,063 people died in one week”. The climbing death toll, and the expansion of the growing number of “excess deaths” is in part a result of the nature of the Covid-19 variant, but also in part to an overwhelmed health system and the inability of South Africa to care for its people.

The headlines are replete with stores of despair, hopelessness and death. Beyond the health crisis that has wreaked havoc across the country, there are dire socioeconomic consequences that have not been fully assessed or accounted for. All the while, those at the public trough continue to be provided with comfort and care funded by public coffers. Coffers that continue to be pillaged, but also coffers that must support incompetence, lacklustre public policy and deference to party political affiliation instead of outcomes that serve the people.

The Covid-19 stimulus package announced by the Ramaphosa administration has been insufficient in directing a vibrant recovery, though it has ensured we were spared a complete collapse of South Africa’s economy.

The global pandemic has created space for vultures of the worst kind to manipulate procurement needs across the globe, but particularly at home where contracts were corruptly structured to siphon funds from those who needed it most to those who were only interested in funding their exorbitant and abhorrent lifestyles. 

We are left with a country gripped by hunger, desperation and suffering because corrupt public servants and public representatives decided to feed themselves while others starved and died.

Poverty and despair are spilling on to the public square. The structural legacy of apartheid can no longer hide the true extent of poverty, despair, unemployment and suffering. Covid-19 has revealed how South Africa has failed its people. Failed, not because of any specific natural disaster or event, but rather because there is a staggering lack of ethical leadership. Leadership that is not interested in title, privilege and deference, but rather a leadership solely focused on service and commitment to the people of this country. 

The early days of the global pandemic in 2020 found South Africans under siege by their government from excessive and irrational force from the South African Police Services and the South African National Defence Force. We found ourselves targeted and brutalised by local governments hellbent on conducting evictions, and of course a favourite pastime for many metropolitan cities — policing poverty and whitewashing the truth. 

For some, this may seem like the anomalies of living in South Africa, but this is an everyday occurrence for the vast majority of South Africans. Poverty, unemployment and inequality continue to strangle any opportunity for most who call South Africa their home. The implementation of the Covid-19 government regulations has in part been flawed, illogical and in some instances even irrational.

The implementation of the regulations has often been brutal and misguided. Yet, those responsible, those entrusted to serve and protect the country — have been found wanting. Those responsible have not been held accountable and in some instances, they continue to retain privilege, power and deference by virtue of their public office. 

South Africa has been yearning for leadership, hoping that after a lost decade, perhaps a new dawn could offer some semblance of normality, decency and commitment to serving the country. Instead, the new beginning many hoped for has seen the recycling of flawed policies, the regurgitation of the same narrative (perhaps even doublespeak) and the unfortunate retention of public representatives who should have long been retired or subjected to criminal prosecution. 

These are not unique challenges that South Africa faces, but are reflected across the globe in varying degrees of dysfunction and malfeasance depending on the latitude and longitude of the respective nation-state. 

America itself has struggled for most of 2020 with anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers and the rise and articulation of white supremacy — all orchestrated and encouraged by outgoing President Donald Trump. The insurrection and sedition orchestrated on the US Capitol were not accidental, but as consequential as the enablers and the presidency of Trump over the past four years.

The focus for public representatives was not about serving, but rather about retaining power at any cost. The attempts in America, much like attempts in South Africa, to simply turn the page and embrace the notion of unity and reconciliation will simply fall flat without proper accounting, responsibility and a proper and just reckoning.

South Africa’s body politic and political parties have long exhausted their use and purpose. Poverty, unemployment and inequality exist because the present crop of leadership has continued to not only fail South Africa, but in many instances has only been focused on lining its pockets and funding ridiculously extravagant lifestyles and whims. 

For South Africa to undergo a real reckoning, we will have to wrestle with how to create an environment that punishes those who fail to serve the country and its people. A reckoning focused on addressing poverty and inequality cannot simply be served through a policy paper or implementation of a government programme. We need to begin demanding more from these delinquent public representatives. We need to ensure we begin demanding more from political parties. 

Truth be told, we may need to start over. The recycling of people, thoughts and policies has created a world where doublespeak and deceit will always trump service, commitment to the people and the hard work of building a real participatory democracy. DM

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All Comments 4

  • I agree wholeheartedly. But the masses still vote for them and while they have the power they won’t change the system. As soon as they are directly accountable, we will see change. Fundamentally the ANC is socialist with a communist base and they believe that they can do it better and won’t ask for or take advice

  • Andrew I agree with you 100%. The solution is actually really simple and was designed by and legislated by the ANC. Back in 2002, Trevor Manuel recognized that the SA public were being prejudiced by incompetent and dishonest insurance salesmen and financial advisors, so he introduced the FAIS Act. At its heart are two components: Fit & Proper (F&P) Requirements and Personal Liability. The F&P aspect consists of competence, (educational & experience) and integrity standards (Far higher than that currently needed for public office.) This step resulted in many people having to exit the financial services sector, but was good for SA. The similarities are glaringly obvious as is the solution. (Copy & paste) just apply the same F&P and personal liability regulations to all public office bearers and most of South Africa’s problems are solved. I understand why they don’t want to apply these regulations to themselves, but as the ANC created the FAIS Act they must think the solution is good. Therefore I would like to hear a rational counter argument.

  • Well said.
    Can the situation be corrected by appeals to human decency and common sense? I think not
    Some situations need radical action: A benevolent dictatorship – State of Emergency – Martial Law – Rounding up and detention of the ringleaders of those who have and would continue to obstruct corrective action – Harsh penalties for offenders. Is there any alternative?
    Who among the “leaders” of our society is suited to the role of benevolent dictator

  • An excellent and prescient article. We need a decisive break with the past that has failed, not only in South Africa, but the whole of our continent. “Big-man Politics” which seeks to both serve and enrich only a very narrow, politically-connected elite cabal has let down the whole of our continent and most relevant to us here, South Africa.

    Until the links between politicians, their proxies, family appointees and cabals are exposed and their grip on the economy broken, can our country and continent truly flourish. More fundamentally, the link between political power and with it patronage – including cadre deployment, BEE and other forms of favourtism – need to be totally dismantled, and replaced with a truly level, transparent economic environment, enabling competition, a vibrant economy and with it job creation to flourish.

    This is the vital lesson for our continent AND South Africa. There is no future for anyone but the narrow cabal elite for anyone in Africa until the “big man” cartel, syndicate, patronage system is fully smashed and true democracy enabled. The bridge to extreme wealth via politics, which is the way throughout our continent, must be something of the past.