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Servant leadership as a vital model for South Africa’s political leaders and their followers


Craig Bailie holds a Master’s degree in International Studies from Rhodes University and a certificate in Thought Leadership for Africa’s Renewal from the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute. He is the founding director of Bailie Leadership Consultancy.

With a great majority of South Africans professing to hold Christian values, it is time for citizens to consider whether their political leaders demonstrate the principles of servant leadership rather than self-interest — and to hold them to account.

Citing corruption, a culture of impunity, the riots of July 2021 and the burning of Parliament at the beginning of this year, political commentator Barney Mthombothi asked South African readers last month what we have done to deserve “such incompetent leaders”. 

Citing the same realities, Ray Hartley and Greg Mills of the Brenthurst Foundation asked whether South Africa’s leaders have what it takes to put the country on a path to prosperity. 

More recently, former South African president Thabo Mbeki called for the entire ANC membership to be audited. That South Africa is and has been experiencing a leadership crisis for some time, no reasonable person can deny.     

Among South Africa’s more pressing challenges, the most significant — which sits at the foundation of many if not all of the country’s ills — is a self-serving and self-interested ruling political leadership. It is a kind of leadership that, for those who can and are willing to see, reveals the true agenda underlying the liberation and radical economic transformation narratives of the ANC.  

In contrast to self-serving and self-interested leadership is servant leadership — the kind of leadership that South Africa will need, especially at the governance level, to turn from its present trajectory towards state failure.

Servant leadership defined

The originator of the term “servant leadership”, Robert Greenleaf, defined the servant leader as one whose aspiration to lead is rooted in a desire to serve others. What distinguishes servant leaders is the care they take to make sure other people’s priorities are being met. 

For Greenleaf, the test of servant leadership is, “do those served, grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or at least, will they not be further deprived?”

South Africa’s ruling political leaders have failed Greenleaf’s test of servant leadership. 

In the words of Camaren Peter, Associate Professor at UCT’s Graduate School of Business, “Occupying public office, whether in local, provincial or national government — or in the state itself — has become a job-holding exercise.”

Consequently, one would be hard-pressed to defend the claim that overall, South Africa is a country whose people are growing to realise their potential — that they are becoming healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and are more likely themselves to become servants under South Africa’s current ruling political leadership. Such a claim certainly cannot be made about the least privileged in South African society — the group that suffers first and foremost in the absence of servant leadership.

In 2018, it was reported that close to 40% of South Africans are “dangerously inactive”. In the following year, a brief published by the South African College of Applied Psychology indicated that “the state of [the] country’s mental wellbeing is in severe crisis” — a reality that government measures taken to contain the spread of Covid-19 aggravated

Furthermore, South Africa has been listed as one of the “most violent and dangerous places on earth, and getting worse” — another negative indicator for national wellbeing.

If knowledge is defined as “the ability to assess and then integrate information into a meaningful whole”, and wisdom, “the capacity to apply knowledge effectively to new situations”, the fact that both knowledge and wisdom depend on an effective education does not bode well for a country in which education is said to be the “biggest failure” of government in 25 years.

Based on Freedom House rankings, South African society has experienced an overall decline in freedom over the period 2014 to 2021. Although Human Freedom Index (HFI) rankings show an overall increase, columnist Ivo Vegter notes that South Africa’s improved HFI rankings from 2008 to 2019 can be attributed mostly to increased personal freedoms, while the country’s economic freedom has remained largely stagnant.

In 2021, South Africa’s unemployment rate reached a record high in the country and was the highest in the world at the time. South Africans became poorer over the period 2016 and 2021. Writing in 2014 already, Unisa theologian Matsobane Manala argued that the social conditions of South Africa’s poor “have remained the same and have, in certain instances, become even worse.” 

Moreover, the growing number of South Africans who rely on welfare grants is a sign of decreasing autonomy and increasing dependence on the state.  

Prof Peter writes about South Africa as a country in which “each person fends for themselves, and if it means trampling over others to secure one’s own safety and security then so be it”. This does not reflect a culture of servant leadership among South Africa’s citizens. There are exceptions, as we learnt from those who took the opportunity to serve during last year’s highly destructive riots.

That many South Africans seek their interests alone is unsurprising in a country where “service delivery remains a pipe dream”, largely because those elected and appointed to represent and serve citizens engage instead in self-aggrandisement and corruption of the highest order

South Africa’s ruling political leaders have set an example that many citizens appear willing and eager to follow, even if in a different form. Think again about last year’s riots.

During research conducted in 2014, the Institute for Security Studies found that “for some young South Africans, the perception has been created that a job in government means access to lucrative business and an ‘easy way’ to make money”.  

How much longer will South Africa’s existing personal and political freedoms hold if these trends continue?

South Africa urgently needs a government made up of servant leaders. 

That the ruling political elite doesn’t exercise this kind of leadership, or at least, exercises very little of it, is significant because of the relationship that the servant leadership model has to South Africa’s form of governance and the country’s largest religion.

Servant leadership and democracy

America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, defined democracy as “government of the people, for the people, by the people”. Based on this widely known, elementary definition of democracy, those elected and appointed to positions of authority and power are representatives and, therefore, servants of the people. 

Government for the people means nothing other than government in service of the people.

Therefore, while servant leadership can exist beyond democracy, democracy cannot exist beyond servant leadership, and more specifically, servant political leadership. This is why Nigerian scholar Joseph Akinniyi, in his critique of Nigeria’s military and civilian leaders, calls for servant leadership to sustain Nigerian democracy. Theologians Matsobane Manala and Mookgo Kgatle respectively cite servant leadership as “a required leadership model for efficient and effective service delivery in a democratic South Africa andan urgent style for the current political leadership in South Africa”.    

The extent to which South Africa’s ruling political leaders fail to exercise servant leadership is the extent, therefore, to which they fail at being democratic. 

In a candid 2019 conversation between radio host and political commentator Eusebius McKaiser and CEO of Business Leadership SA, Bonang Mohale, the former said, “We’re not really a democracy in the texture of our society. We are formally or theoretically a democracy, but quite frankly… [there] are continuities between the regime before 1994 and the black-led government that was elected in 1994.”

Reinforcing McKaiser’s point, Mohale described South Africa’s first 25 years of post-1994 governance as a situation in which “we have replaced white oppressors with black oppressors, we have replaced white masters with black masters, we have replaced white billionaires with black billionaires”. 

Mohale added, “What have we done in South Africa in 20 years? We have slipped backwards.”

As long as South Africa’s ruling political leaders continue in this vein — or as long as eligible voters, whether through voting or abstaining from voting, continue to endorse or allow the status quo — whatever substantive democracy South Africa currently has is not sustainable.    

Servant leadership and Christianity

Although Greenleaf coined “servant leadership” as a term and made a significant contribution towards developing the concept, from a Christian perspective it was Jesus Christ who first taught the concept and best exemplified its practice. 

Several Christian authors, including South Africans Costa Mitchell and Afrika Mhlophe, have drawn on the example of Jesus in their writing about servant leadership. It is not surprising, therefore, that theologians such as Manala and Kgatle are among those who have called for South Africa’s democracy and political leadership more broadly to be infused with servant leadership.

The Christian belief that Jesus was the first to teach servant leadership and the best example of a servant leader is significant for the South African context for two related reasons. First, the majority of South Africans identify as Christian. In 1996, this was true of 74.1% of the population; in 2001, 79.79%; in 2013, 85.6%, and most recently in 2015, 86%.

If one considers that of all South Africa’s post-1994 presidents, the leadership of former president Jacob Zuma was the most antithetical to servant leadership — and considers alongside this fact the population data on Christianity published by StatsSA in 2014 and the country’s national election results in the same year — one gets a sense of the disconnect between what some South Africans imply about their worldview and their values when they identify as Christian, and how they vote.

In the 2014 national elections, 21% of the South African population (above 54 million at the time) voted for the ANC. If one is generous and assumes that the full 14.4% of the population who identified as non-Christian in 2013 voted for the ANC in 2014, this would mean that at least 6.6% of South Africans voted for a party that had, as its president, a leader who was unfit for public service. This is more than 3.2 million people. If all 21% of the population that voted for the ANC in 2014 identified as Christian, this would be more than 11.3 million people.

Thus, in 2014, between 3.2 million and 11.3 million South Africans who identified as followers of Jesus — the man many Christians view as the greatest leader of all time — voted for a party whose failure to exercise servant leadership was visibly growing and whose leader was by that stage quite evidently not someone endowed with servant leadership qualities.

My argument is not that Christians must lend their support through the vote or otherwise to exclusively Christian political leadership. I disagree with the view that only Christian political leaders can fix South Africa. But South Africans who profess to be Christian, and who take their faith seriously, will be guided by their faith values, including servant leadership, in their political decisions and actions. This means looking to support servant-, values-based leaders, who may or may not identify as Christian.

Second, this issue is particularly important in our parliamentary landscape. Relying on data from a survey conducted in 2013, Hennie Kotzé and Reinet Loubser of Stellenbosch University concluded that “God is… highly important to those of the country’s parliamentarians that profess Christianity, which happens to be the majority”. 

In 2013, 77% of South Africa’s parliamentarians identified as Protestants. This is a Christian denomination that historical and empirical studies have shown to have a positive correlation with the development of liberal democracy.

Based on the religious/denominational demographic mentioned above, at least 308 of Parliament’s 400 seats were occupied by professing Christians in 2013. In that year, ANC parliamentarians occupied 264 seats. Even if one assumes that the non-Protestants in Parliament were all ANC members, this would mean that at least 172 ANC parliamentarians — or 65% of the ANC members of parliament — identified as Christian. 

If those 172 ANC parliamentarians had supported the motion of no confidence tabled against the former president in 2010, they might have spared South Africa eight of the “nine wasted years” under Jacob Zuma.  

Studies conducted by Afrobarometer reveal a growing discontent among South Africans over the functioning of our democracy. 

The problem is not that South Africa adopted a democratic system of governance in 1994, or that its political leaders have been democratically elected since. The problem is that South Africa’s democratically elected leaders are themselves not servant leaders and, therefore, not democratic leaders.

In a democracy, the power to change this resides with citizens. However, Mthombothi noted, we have a “tendency to impose weightier responsibilities on the shoulders of people who can barely give a good account of themselves”. Argentinian organisational psychologist, Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, says, “If we want to improve the competence levels of our leaders, we should first improve our own competence for judging and selecting leaders”. 

Servant leadership is a model by which political leaders can lead citizens and by which citizens can assess the performance of their political leaders. When South Africa’s political leaders and their followers fail to prioritise servant leadership in their political decision-making, we do so to our detriment and the detriment of our fellow South Africans.  

Not since South Africa’s transition to democracy has the country been in greater need of servant leadership at the highest political levels. 

Nelson Mandela answered the call then, but one man or woman isn’t enough. Who and how many will answer the call now? DM


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