Opinionista Camaren Peter 13 May 2021

ANC must reclaim ethical high ground and undergo total reformation of its leadership culture if it wants us back

Under Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, the ANC government projected a leadership culture that was professional, diplomatic, disciplined and devoted to public service. They were sincere about improving the lives of South Africans. But President Cyril Ramaphosa inherited a fractious and dysfunctional ANC, one that had become nearly wholly compromised by the project of State Capture.

Camaren Peter

Professor Camaren Peter is an Associate Professor at UCT’s Graduate School of Business and is Director and Executive Head of the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change. Opinions expressed here are his own.

Internal conflicts within the ANC have been destabilising the country for a long time now. To be precise, it has been embattled since the Polokwane Conference of 2007 when the presidency of the ANC changed hands in dramatic fashion from Thabo Mbeki to Jacob Zuma.

It is true that the seeds of instability within the ANC were sown early on in the new democracy, and some would argue long before that, but under Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, the ANC government projected a leadership culture that was professional, diplomatic, disciplined and devoted to public service. They were sincere about improving the lives of South Africans.

It was this leadership culture that saw South Africa through a difficult transition into the democratic era, where the trust of the citizenry in the ANC’s leadership was paramount. The proof is in the fact that we successfully navigated a democratic transition that would have otherwise devolved into an all-out civil war. This is not an exaggeration to those who witnessed the traumatic violence of the 1980s, and I shudder to think what would have transpired had the ANC of today been in place then.

Back then, it would have been unthinkable that a secretary-general who was suspended for being charged with more than 70 counts of corruption would dare to declare that he was suspending the sitting president and leader of the party. While Nelson Mandela was the figurehead of that ANC, the public identified strongly with the ANC leadership as a whole; with many beloved leaders enjoying the trust and faith of the ordinary citizenry and various sectors of society. Leaders like Sol Plaatje, John Dube, Albert Luthuli, OR Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada — among many other intellectually and ethically inspirational leaders — had laid the blueprint for the leadership culture in the ANC and that culture transferred intergenerationally. This leadership culture attracted the best of us into the ANC.

As a young teenager in 1988, I had the privilege of meeting Chris Hani in a safe house in Harare. He was charismatic, sincere and inspiring in equal measure; he easily connected with people. Yet as charismatic as Chris Hani was as an individual leader, he was acutely aware of the potential for a deeper malaise, an organisational malaise that would sabotage the efforts of any individual leader to represent the ANCs goals faithfully. In the early 1990s, he prophetically stated, “What I fear is that the liberators emerge as elitists who drive around in Mercedes Benzes and use the resources of this country to live in palaces and to gather riches.”

Hani understood the need for an organisational leadership culture that would render the ANC sustainable in the long term. Real political struggle is all sacrifice and little reward. For some, it is an unmarked grave. Very rarely does the payoff bring great wealth and conspicuous consumption. The focus on individual political leaders — typically in the “big man” casting — detracts from what we need most in political organisations. That is, a focus on how leadership is distributed throughout the organisation, and what kind of leadership culture propagates.

President Cyril Ramaphosa inherited a fractious and dysfunctional ANC, one that had become nearly wholly compromised by the project of State Capture. In addition to navigating a leadership crisis in the ANC, he has had to provide leadership during a global pandemic that has hamstrung the global and local economies. This is a tough balancing act, and it should be acknowledged by both friend and foe of the ANC alike. The internal political instability of the ANC, combined with the political and economic instability brought on by the pandemic, has meant that great care needs to be exercised over every decision.

The ANC was already losing public trust before the pandemic hit us. More than a year into the pandemic, pre-existing fault lines in society have deepened and intensified. Political polarisation, xenophobia, racism, sexism and gender-based violence have spiked, threatening to undermine the constitutional vision of a South African society that is tolerant and open to all. Instead, we’ve witnessed conspiracist and divisive narratives seed and flourish as the social alienation, hopelessness and despair that the pandemic has visited upon us continues without a clear end in sight. High levels of unemployment and a lack of clear pathways out of poverty — which pre-date the pandemic — make things worse. Many South Africans don’t know which way to turn to feed themselves and their families.

Fostering public trust in the ANC during the pandemic remains a formidable challenge. Public trust does not extend to the ANC as a whole; it extends to a set of leaders that is demonstrating its devotion to public service through transparent, tangible contributions that have advanced the country in its capacity to navigate the pandemic. Nonetheless, many remain deeply suspicious of the ANC’s motivations, not unfairly, given the corruption that unfolded around Covid-19 PPE and other vital supplies that were intended to protect frontline workers and save lives. Even food parcels intended for poor households were fair game.

And the current political moment, where the step-aside resolution of the ANC is now being implemented and descending into a showdown between the now suspended secretary-general of the ANC and the NEC (and the president), has shone a spotlight on the insidious nature of the political infighting within the party. Everyone is watching and asking the question; can the ANC overcome internal division and corruption and heal itself?

The need to re-establish a culture of leadership that revolves around public service and not the raw acquisition of power over people and resources is paramount for both the ANC and the country. To this end, in the scholarly literature, leadership theory differentiates between leader and leadership development. Leader development focuses more on cultivating individual leadership traits and personal resilience while leadership development is more about creating a culture of leadership that permeates throughout an organisation.

While both are necessary, it is often leadership development that is ignored in organisations with potentially disastrous results. Paying attention to how leadership development propagates throughout an organisation ensures that there is greater strategic and operational effectiveness in organisations. It enables organisations to navigate complexity and crisis better, precisely due to coherence in leadership at every level in the organisation, whether formal or informal.

There is a desperate need for a reformation of the ANC at all levels in the organisation, one that fully acknowledges the failures that have hamstrung the governing party since the ill-tempered events of Polokwane in 2007. The immediate task of leadership is ensuring that the step-aside resolution is enforced and that prosecutions of criminally charged members proceed unhindered by political interference. The medium and long-term task is to begin the process of developing a political leadership that provides consistent and coherent leadership at all levels of the party. Without undertaking the latter, the ANC will remain vulnerable to hijacking from opportunistic internal networks that seek only personal gain through political power.

When an ethical culture of leadership prevails, the boundaries between right and wrong are more effectively self-regulated in an organisation. When the norm is ethical leadership, deviants from the norm are more easily called to account. And here’s the rub: what we have recently learnt from examples around the world is that when we focus on individual “big man” leaders and the politics of their bases, we become drawn into a blinkered view of what is important in political organisations.

Instead of focusing on what the leadership culture of an organisation is, we lapse into the factionalism that accompanies the brinkmanship and one-upmanship of political wrangling and polarisation. And in that process, we unwittingly help reproduce dysfunctional leadership cultures in the political realm. We are ultimately complicit in the political leadership we are subject to as a body politic. So, we — the citizenry — need to be careful about what narratives we buy into.

Casting an eye back on the historical leadership of the ANC, it is self-evident that the ANC’s lost treasure is its historical leadership culture. There was a break with this culture at Polokwane in 2007 that the ANC has never recovered from, progressively descending into increased division and chaos within its ranks. So, the questions we should all be asking of the ANC now is: what is their plan for a total reformation of the leadership culture of the ANC, and how is it going to reclaim the ethical high ground so that the ANC attracts only the best of us, as it once did? DM

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