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We are a nation that has surrendered itself to be led by fools – we need courageous and visionary leadership

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Brutus Malada is a political strategist and consultant. He holds a Master's in Education from the University of Johannesburg.

Despite his failure to resolve the national question – race relations – General Jan Smuts conceived a vision for an industrial South Africa. He recognised that his vision would be a chimera if not anchored on a reliable and cheap electric supply and on steel production.

In his reflections on political leadership in the modern age, British political scientist Archie Brown dispels The Myth of The Strong Leader.

Brown dissuades us from using strength as a measure of leadership, for as he says, “strength is better suited for judging weightlifters or long-distance runners”.

However, with the collapse of our state unfolding before our eyes, we should be pardoned for crying out for strong leadership. Yet, what we are actually yearning for are not weightlifters or marathon runners. Our country is crying out for courageous and visionary leadership. 

The role of political leadership is to articulate a vision and attract relevant expertise to translate that vision into practice. 

Very few of our political leaders – past and present – have illustrated this ability. General Jan Smuts is among the few who exuded the qualities of a courageous and visionary leader. As a war general, Smuts is hailed for his courage during the Anglo-Boer War and his stratagems during the two world wars.

His contribution to the formation of the League of Nations and his craftsmanship of the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were the hallmarks of visionary leadership.

Despite his complacency in the failure to resolve the national question – race relations – here at home, Smuts conceived a vision for an industrial South Africa. However, he recognised that his vision would be a chimera if not anchored on a reliable and cheap electric supply and on steel production.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Let’s not beat about the bush — South Africa is a failed state, now let’s all stand up and fix it

Thus, he searched for the relevant skills set that would translate his vision into practice. One scientist, Hendrik van der Bijl, stood out for him, for he had made significant strides in engineering.

We learn from South African Heritage: A biography of HJ van der Bijl by Alice Jacobs that Van der Bijl had left South Africa in 1909 to read for his doctoral studies at Leipzig, Germany. By 1912, he had acquired a Master of Arts and a Doctor of Philosophy in Physics, Mathematics and Chemistry.

From Germany he set sail for New York, where he worked at the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. By October 1915, with World War 1 raging, he had made possible for the first time in world history, “the transmission of speech without the aid of wires”.

That is how he became an authority on the thermionic vacuum tube which formed the basis for wireless telephony. His book, which was prescribed for engineering students, reigned for more than 20 years in the field.

Van der Bijl returned to South Africa in 1920 to take up “a position of Scientific and Technical Adviser to the Government of South Africa” after he was persuaded by Smuts to do so.   

To convince the engineer, Smuts went out of his way to offer him a letter of appointment with the space for a salary left blank for the former to fill in.

Today, South Africa is greatly indebted to Van der Bijl for most of her state-owned enterprises. From the Electricity Supply Commission (Eskom, 1922), the Iron and Steel Corporation (Iscor, 1925), the African Metals Corporation (Amcor, 1937), and the Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa (IDC, 1940), to the South African Marine Container Lines (Safmarine, 1946), Van der Bijl established them or contributed to their establishment.

He laid the foundation for the establishment of the Armaments Corporation of South Africa (Armscor, 1968), a predecessor of Denel, when he served as a Director-General of War Supplies during World War 2.

For his contribution, Vanderbijlpark – an industrial and residential area about 50km south of Johannesburg – was deservedly named in his honour. He is truly “the godfather of South African industry”.

A world war was raging when Smuts was mulling the idea of industrialising South Africa. Yet, he did not allow the dust and sound of the bombs to jaundice his vision for the country.

He used his dedicated “place of quiet” in Irene and took long walks interfacing with “the spirit of the mountains” in Cape Town, thinking hard about the future of South Africa. 

Fast forward to democratic South Africa and we have witnessed no single institution built. We have instead witnessed the pillaging and obliteration of the institutions Van der Bijl built and our country is today besieged by an unprecedented energy crisis.

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Yet, instead of making a call for our engineers and scientists abroad to come back home, instead of assembling a team to help our country to, in the short term, resolve the energy crisis and ready ourselves to take our place in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, our leaders celebrate the departure of South Africa’s best in the field or connive to frustrate South African-born initiatives.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s failure to intervene in 2022 when South Africa lost Professor Tshilidzi Marwala to the UN University in Japan is deeply regrettable and exposes him as a president out of his depth.

Marwala is no ordinary person. Among his many accolades, he is one of the few people in the world with a PhD in artificial intelligence from Cambridge University.

Marwala led the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. He conceived the establishment of the Artificial Intelligence Institute of South Africa. How do you let such a person go?

Before he became vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, Marwala was also a professor of electrical engineering at Wits University. He also served as a chairperson of the oversight committee for Johannesburg’s City Power.

Instead of making a bold decision to appoint Marwala to the Eskom board, our President thinks cancelling trips to London and Davos can bring an end to blackouts. As President, Ramaphosa had all the powers to give Marwala an offer he couldn’t refuse and he failed to do so.


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Meanwhile, another South African, Elon Musk, is breaking the boundaries of science and innovation in the US and our leaders have seen no reason to approach him for help. It is an open secret that electrical cars and robotics are the future, and one of the leading companies in this field is Tesla, owned by Musk.

That no attempt has been made to convince Musk to – even on a short-term basis – come home to assist us with our electricity challenges and aspirations in robotics, is another example illustrating the shallowness of our leaders.

It was not long ago that democratic South Africa was on the cusp of becoming a leader in the development of electrical cars. In his memoir, Triumphs and Heartaches, former science and technology minister Mosibudi Mangena laments the tragedy of the loss of South African innovation in this regard.

Mangena narrates that our engineers at the CSIR and the Meraka Institute produced a prototype electric car called the Joule which won awards around the world. We were so advanced in the field that scientists around the world made a pilgrimage to the CSIR to learn from us and to marvel at our electric car.

However, when Jacob Zuma ascended to the Union Buildings, he wasted no time and stopped the project all because it was “an Mbeki thing”. The Standard 3 man from Nkandla was later seen giggling in Durban celebrating the opening of the Japanese’s Toyota assembly plant, only a few months after he decommissioned a South African-born initiative.

We are a nation that has surrendered itself to be led by fools. The current leaders cannot see, let alone imagine South Africa beyond the current tide of destruction. None of the so-called leaders in our national Parliament has articulated a compelling vision for South Africa.

Meanwhile, a country in distress requires a leadership that embodies the qualities that Archie Brown asserts are desirable for modern political leadership: “integrity, intelligence… shrewd judgement, a questioning mind… courage, vision”.

In 2024 we do not need strong leaders – weightlifters and marathon runners. We need courageous and visionary leadership. This is our last chance to avoid a precipice and the last opportunity to steer our country in the right direction.

Let’s do the right thing! DM

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  • Justin Hall says:

    We need to elevate scientific and engineering competence if we’re to have any chance of rebuilding this country. Courage and visionary leadership are blind without the beacon of science and engineering to show which way to go.

    • Rory Macnamara says:

      Spot on Sir. we may have an increase in the 2023 matric pass rate (another story for another time) but maths and science were down. Proves the point.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    South Africa needs a working bureaucracy – and while not mutually exclusive, personality politics is overtly dangerous in our context as we have too many insufficiently educated and gullible souls.

  • Gordon Pascoe says:

    Excellent article free of prejudice and truly telling what can be done by leveraging the intelligence of people, irrespective.

    I would like to add that I think our government, particularly many of our ministers and cadres deployed all over the place, somehow believe they possess super intelligence. This I think, sadly stems from a rising abuse of their position of power that is, as evidenced from the Zondo commission finding, used more to focus on how they can benefit themselves, blanking out all else.

    Unfortunately for us, most of them do not realise how incompetent they are in their jobs and they are above seeking advice, even though their incompetence prevents them from putting that advice into practice, had they bothered to seek it in the first place. One terrible result of this is that the lower ranks employed at provincial and municipal level are following suit, led by the example of these higher ranked ministers and cadres, hence ever increasing corruption we read about on a daily basis (increasingly resulting in the death of people standing in their way).

    As Abraham Lincoln said; “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power”.

  • Hiram C Potts says:

    Good article, thank you. It puts everything into perspective.
    Intelligence, integrity, cognitive ability, competence, and financial literacy are all prerequisites for making informed political and financial decisions, and running a country’s economy.

    Looking at the menagerie of inept, corrupt buffoons that occupy positions of power from the top down in SA’s govt, how can anyone even begin to think that we’re going get out of this shambolic mess anytime soon.

    They’re absolutely clueless, world class infrastructure destroyed by imbeciles.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    Great article with the right perspective. Readers would also be interested that our government is blocking Starlink being brought to our skies. With internet connections being severely disrupted by load shedding and access in rural areas poor, this would have major economic benefits to our country.

  • Dirk Els says:

    The right thing will not be done by the ANC because of their deeply embedded attachment to pursuing race based and ideology based (BEE and cadre deployment and central planning doing by committee) policies.

  • Alan Wassung says:

    One of the best narratives I have read for an awful long time!
    Recognizing that intelligence and leadership are two qualities not exclusive to any single race but, are essential in building a nation that can be sustained through recognition and reward.
    South Africa still has people with these qualities but they are for reasons political, historical and racial, not eligible to participate in rebuilding this mess we find ourselves in.

  • Elmarie Dennis says:

    Good article

  • Richard Bryant says:

    A further comment is needed on the development and innovation SA displayed in the development of our rail network. From narrow gauge rail to super quick locomotives, SA developed the 3rd largest rail network by country area in the world. Which was of absolute strategic importance to the industrialisation of the nation and the enhancement of exports.

    Under the ANC, this network has been totally obliterated in service of the road transport warlords. I see this week a partial passenger service has been restored to Kuils River. This I believe was a regular service from about 1840 (not the time but the year!) which shows how far back SA has regressed under the ANC.

    This sad state of affairs reminds me of the concept described by Tim Butcher in his book Blood River of a nation in the process of undeveloping.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    The nearest opportunity to change direction will be ’24 election, but the vast majority, if recent elections are anything to go by, want no change and are happy with the idiot leadership we have in government. The poorest and most vulnerable keep electing the same leaders to oppress, cheat and steal from them. But hey, that’s a democracy, Viva!

    • Dietmar Horn says:

      When democracy is established in a state for the first time, it takes three to four generations of socio-political education until democratic culture and principles are anchored in the vast majority. The communist-oriented freedom movements never had the establishment of a democratic system in mind. This happened by chance via South Africa, because at that time the Soviet Union was in the process of disintegrating.

  • Richard Bryant says:

    Van der Bijl certainly laid the foundations of the development of SA in the first half of the 20th century.

    However one should also recognise the ingenuity and tenacity of the engineers who literally moved mountains in the development of infrastructure in SA in the 1800s. The book Mega Structures and Masterminds by Tony Murray chronicles a list of amazing feats of engineering from passes to harbours and bridges and dams. For each of these, there was a champion engineer who found the money and political backing from somewhere and created the impossible.

  • Dietmar Horn says:

    Having visions and bringing experts back is one thing. But how do you dismantle a network of corruption and crime that has spread like a cancer to state institutions and state-owned companies?

  • Paul Hatty says:

    The ANC is made up two types of people – those who are incompetent to manage a country and those that are incompetent to know that they are incompetent to manage a country! (Apologies to John Galbraith).

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    In a democratic society leaders do not grow from trees but emerge from the society itself through associations with clear objectives and a vision. Citizens as individuals have an agency role through participation in the political system by being part of organisation or creating organisations to produce a leadership that will speak to the challenges that the country faces. We can have talk shops but without activism these remain just that. We have a lot of people doing the talking and the moaning but we have others who have decided to use their agency to respond to this question of leadership. We have the Rivonia Circle that has its own response to the crisis of leadership and the challenges the country is facing and we have Mashaba and ActionSA and Maimane with Bosa. We have the older parties getting together as opposition to look at the crisis of leadership and the challenges our country is facing. The writer is busy with a thesis whilst Rome is burning. We have even people within the ruling party looking at this crisis of leadership. Outside formal political mobilisation, we can only complain but if we decide to be active citizens, then it is important to encourage others to be active. You need to know who is doing what and how can you help. The leader of ActionSA in the Eastern Cape, Trollip, was shocked that I had no problem with my cousin being active in the DA knowing my background. We fought to free a country not ourselves as some think in the ANC that is my view.

  • Steve Stevens says:

    Agreed – but please remove the Musk narcissist from your list. Unprincipled, unethical, uncaring, unsparing, unstable and generally unhinged. Better that our leaders DON’T approach him… ever.

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