Opinionista Jay Naidoo 16 May 2021

Learning leadership: Trust is the essential ingredient of social cohesion

It’s the glue that holds society together. The magic of solidarity and interconnectedness that leads to a caring society. It’s fallen apart. And so will we, as a democracy, if we don’t act now. How do we build trust? What is the leadership we need in a country turned upside down by the cancer of State Capture and corruption?

“The political class only thinks about itself. They don’t care about the people. Look at the ANC today. Most of those guys only feed themselves. And it’s no different with any political party,” says Alpheus Khumalo. He was driving a truck delivering cooldrinks.

“I understand this truck belongs to you. How is it going?” I asked at a local service station. And the door opens a litany of woes, “It’s a scam. We were sold a story of being independent entrepreneurs. We still work for the company. Our contracts are exploitative and unfair. It’s a way to drive down costs, take away transporting risk and avoiding paying us benefits. We are cheap outsourced employees. I have to pay truck insurance, my truck repayments, maintenance costs, product insurance. I barely cover my expenses. Who can we trust today,” he asks. “No one,” he answers.

Trust – the essential ingredient of social cohesion. The glue that holds society together. The magic of solidarity and interconnectedness that leads to a caring society. It’s fallen apart. And so will we as a democracy if we don’t act now.

How do we build that? What is the leadership we need in a country turned upside down by the cancer of State Capture and corruption? The role of leadership is not to pretend that we are some exceptional society with some unique role in the world. We are ordinary. A messy, noisy democracy that is still a toddler with leaders throwing their toys out of the cot like delinquent children.

How does a wounded society deal with this delinquency?

Why not learn from our past? We have stood at the edge of the precipice before. At a crossroads. In 1994, we had the courage of leaders who rose above the vested interests of their narrow constituencies and found common ground. We agreed upon a constitutional democracy that enshrined our hopes, aspirations and dreams, in negotiations led by our current president, Cyril Ramaphosa.

We had leaders who we trusted. Today, how do we support leaders who want to do the right thing and send an unequivocal message to the predatory elites that we have had enough?

In the current Covid-19 pandemic, physical distancing is required to save lives. But distancing and alienation between leaders and people now threaten the foundations of our democracy.

The goal of building trust is to solve the multiple challenges we face in an increasingly more complex and volatile world. And to build the norms and rules and of governance that we can all be accountable to. Where there is the rule of law. Where we have transparency. Where we understand that politics is about servant leadership and the delivery of the public goods and services that our people have a birthright to.

How do we do that?

The Mandela generation showed us the way. In our founding father’s first speech on his release from prison 27 years ago he said, “Fellow South Africans, I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I, therefore, place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”

There is no divine right to rule. Leadership has to be earned daily. It is the Mandela humility and vulnerability that bridged the chasms of a wounded society that began our journey of reconstruction and development. That allowed us to start to listen to each other. To see each other. To start a process of reconciliation and forgiveness. Not as a passive acceptance of the past. But a bold ambition to address the painful apartheid legacy of the exclusion of the black majority.

In 1994, everything was under the microscope: Land redistribution; economic transformation; equity; training; right to quality education and health; healing the wounds of our past – of superiority and inferiority. It’s the same wound. We created a safe space of a Constitution as our framework and laboratory.

Where did we go wrong?

The leadership transformed. Not our country. Across the society we jettisoned the “Mandela values” and became a society that bred arrogance and contempt. In politics, we became governed by a small group of leaders who mostly saw state power as part of a career in personal enrichment and the sole goal of staying in power. In business, a nexus of corrupt corporate interests and public officials looted the state and undermined governance in once-strong public institutions. Our path of transformation faltered and our dreams and hopes were deferred.

We don’t need any more corporatist deals in air-conditioned boardrooms and luxury hotels. We need an authentic intergenerational conversation on how to bring us back to a transformation agenda we can all buy into. One that spans the deep feelings of resentment, not just in the ranks of the white population but increasing across society, as expressed by Alpheus Khumalo. And the growing anger and resistance to the repressive and exclusionary status quo that traps the majority of black people in poverty, hunger and joblessness.

There is no alternative. We must recognise that trust in the political and economic class has broken down. And this applies equally to the unions and civil society which have often become the conveyor belt of powerful vested interests. We don’t have to look very far to see how rapidly social cohesion collapses and visible cracks start to manifest in governance. State Capture, xenophobia, interracial tension and further afield, Zimbabwe, South Sudan or the Balkans as failing states.

What is to be done?

Now is the time for great humility. A time of integrity. A time to reimagine our shared future. To explore without anger our differences. And to be bold in how we propose solutions. What do we have to share now, to have a future together in our beautiful country? And do we start it in the home we share with those who work for us, to the streets we share as communities to the corridors of state and corporate power from local to national? To think intergenerationally. How to level the playing field and shift the goalposts of rank, privilege and power in our country?

We don’t need any messiahs. As Tata Madiba said at the crossroads of choice in 1990, we need to be “humble servants of you, the people”. Today we are at another crossroads. In the failing fields of hope, people grab at straws. Many even in the globally mobile black middle class feel that the politically connected “glass ceiling” leaves them no options but to leave our country, or drift towards the politics of political demagoguery or the evangelising “miracle prophets”.

Our enemy has nothing to do with an “external invasion” or foreign interference or partisan politics. It’s within us. We need a leadership language that reflects the covenant we had at the advent of our democracy. To strive always to unify. To build a shared national identity. To repair our differences not simply through an acknowledgement or apology. But for 58-million South Africans to reach out to those who are left behind, who are invisible.

In doing that we don’t need grandiose ideas. We need millions of small acts of kindness that recognise our interconnectedness and indivisibility as a nation. Those millions of little boats will guide us all out of despair and take us on a shared journey of Hope and Opportunity.

That is my prayer for South Africa, with which I rise every morning wanting to reach out especially to the younger generation. To listen patiently with my heart. To refrain from throwing my history of the Struggle into their faces. To accept that youth and many in our country are deeply disappointed with the crisis of leadership that has been so compounded by the coronavirus pandemic. And to build an authentic intergenerational dialogue with youth leaders who don’t want to be the cannon fodder of someone else’s political agenda.

Then we close the gap in the social distance between leadership and our people. And build the miracle of transformation we wanted to be in the world. DM

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