SA's problem is not a lack of leadership

Paul Whelan says the media is confusing a symptom with a cause

You cannot fail to have noticed how the media keep going on about leaders or the lack of them. South Africa, editors and commentators constantly complain, needs leadership and President Zuma is not providing it.

They forget that when President Mbeki was very definitely providing it - on Aids and on Zimbabwe, to take just two examples - SA supposedly did not like it at all. Or could it be most South Africans are realistic enough to know they have in fact little say or influence on how their leaders tackle issues anyway?

To throw some light on the subject, David Bullard recently asked on this site if it matters who leads the ANC, which gave everyone a chance to pitch for their personal favourite. Mr Bullard could have spared himself the abuse and his readers the trouble.

In his book 'Eight days in September', Frank Chikane, who worked one way or another with all the presidents between 1995 and 2009 and should therefore know what he is talking about, admits:

'Polokwane did not radically change the policies of the ANC ... it was more about the removal of Mbeki.' And he goes on to add: 'Those who were thinking .. it would be easy to change policies .. failed to take account of the fact that the party's policies could not be changed without the approval of a national (party) conference.'

In short, SA's problem (or if you prefer 'challenge' - we all seem more comfortable with that word these days) is little or nothing to do with the quality of our leadership. It is due to the fact that SA is not the 'democracy' it is said to be, but rather a monocracy or party-state.

In a democratic state, the function of political opposition is not 'to keep the ruling party on its toes'. That would not be enough even if it happened, and in SA it plainly does not happen. The expression is a coinage of commentators who do not wish to explore SA's political situation more fully and expose how it works against both governors and governed. Here are some of the points usually glossed over:

1] Opposition is failing if it is merely a cosmetic to present the state as a multi-party democracy: it must be a reality that presents the people with an alternative national government. In the same way, the vote must amount to more than the freedom to vote or to abstain. To have any force, it must imply the electorate is able to change the government at the polls.

2] Both conditions are missing in SA. Presently around two-thirds of voters do not see existing opposition as an alternative government. As a result, citizens as a body do not play (or, if you prefer, do not choose to play) their assigned social role of agents of change.

3] With two essential democratic institutions - opposition and the electorate - 'non-performing', SA is not a democracy but a monocracy. Political power is largely unchecked and the outcome is cronyism, widespread corruption and periodic moves or attempted moves on basic democratic freedoms that threaten the elite. Patronage replaces merit as the social bond and cadre deployment keeps the system going. Cadre deployment is not the cause of SA's democratic deficit, as commentators regularly suggest. It is one more result of it.

4] However, it is not only unjust but seriously mistaken to see these problems in terms of the ANC's general moral decline, as if the party's entire membership all of a sudden lacks the virtues of politicians everywhere else. We will not find solutions if we insist on looking in the wrong place.

Under democracy, political parties do not maintain discipline either by recruiting saints or by sermonizing about morality. They remind members that any obvious lack of integrity reflects on the whole party and puts it at risk at the next election. Shape up or ship out.

As we see with the drawn-out drama of Julius Malema, the ANC leans over backwards to avoid a hard line. It does not follow that the current leadership is weak. Thabo Mbeki may be lamented in some quarters as a lost strong leader, but in office he had much less to say about corruption than President Zuma has.

The truth is no ANC leader can go to war over the issue of members' conduct; it would almost certainly be the finish of him as leader and of his already divided party. But it would be a different matter altogether if ill-discipline and misconduct placed the ANC at risk of losing the next election. We will see leadership soon enough, and see it on a whole range of issues, the day SA has an alternative government waiting in the wings.

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