Scrutinise the first citizen
What do we do to make sure they're worthy of the job?
THERE are many told and untold stories about US President Barack Obama's tortuous road to become the world's most powerful politician.
Law enforcement agencies in the United States subjected him and his family to all manner of checks.
Every needle-like detail about his personal conduct, citizenship, religion and academic background was investigated.
Wherever they smelt hidden skeletons in Obama's proverbial cupboard, the media and state agencies would rush to seek to verify their existence.
Every little insignificant detail about alleged misdemeanours were painstakingly probed.
They went to Kenya, the birthplace of his father, to verify his origins.
Some went to search for his university essays. They pored through journal articles he had written or edited while a law academic.
The conservative media and cartoonists had a field day, depicting him in a manner that would make Americans shun him.
If he wasn't a Muslim fundamentalist, he was a socialist - the types that go against America's predominant values. On the face of it, the actions of all these people and institutions meant they were hell-bent on finding something they could use to block Obama's rise to power.
And, of course, some of it was racist. Some of it was motivated by the fear of the unknown: What would the first black president do for a declining superpower now being challenged by what the Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria described as the "rise of the rest"?
Regardless of the motives of the media and the investigative agencies, and whatever they did in their attempt to scrutinise Obama, it was ultimately in the national interest of the US.
The election of a flawed individual could embarrass the proud American nation. A serious candidate should be someone who would pursue America's national interests, whatever these interests are to Americans.
These background checks are normal practice in the US to ensure the first citizen is not one whose persona is a contradiction of American values.
Admittedly, they were more stringent on Obama than with other presidents. They wanted to make sure that other than different approaches to his Democratic Party challenger and the ideological gulf between his party and the Republicans, he wasn't a "strange breed" who would "hollow out" America's liberal constitution.
But such background checks are not foolproof. Richard Nixon was forced to quit the White House after Watergate. Bill Clinton dented the image of the office with the Monica Lewinsky affair. And George W Bush, a warmonger, left America's finances bleeding with his cowboy war strategies.
But these setbacks wouldn't have been foreseen and do not negate the significance of leadership scrutiny.
In South Africa what do we do to ensure our first citizen is worthy of the top job, aside from being the favourite of the powerful faction of the ruling party (not necessarily of the public)?.
How do we ensure that which is publicly known about our presidential candidates is used to make a judgment call?
Much is done in South Africa to vet civil servants. The level of vetting by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) depends on the level of the position they are applying for or hold.
The higher the post the more intense and personal the vetting. If you have bad credit records or have had a brush with the law, chances are that you may not be eligible for certain positions. In some cases chief directors, deputy directors and directors-general are subjected to polygraph tests.
There are questions about the number of girlfriends or boyfriends you have and your credit records.
All of these are meant to protect public office from abuse by dishonest people.
Some of the more adverse findings are tolerated, though they help supervisors of the candidate concerned to be on the watch for blind spots. It helps departments to understand the risk profiles of civil servants.
If done properly, vetting could block many crooks from accessing public money.
Is it not possible to extract the best practices from the civil service and apply it to our top political leaders?
The powers vested in the president by the Constitution are far-reaching.
They include protecting and advancing the Constitution, declaring war, signing bills into law, appointing ministers, judges and other leaders of state institutions and representing the country abroad.
Should we accept that not everyone who happens to be supported by a bigger faction of a ruling party can exercise such powers with the necessary diligence and care?
Shouldn't we develop criteria of what makes the best leader who would add value to the presidency and the country?
Elements of these criteria are contained in some of the ANC documents.
For example, the importance of academic qualification (Organisational renewal document, 2012); exemplary conduct (Strategy and tactics document, 2007) and moral rectitude (Through the eye of the needle, 2001).
That criterion could be the basis of a thorough vetting process undertaken by all South African citizens who stand to be governed by the prospective presidential candidates.
We won't produce a perfect leader, but we would be saying something about the type of a person who should govern us.
Such a serious issue cannot wait for ANC Youth League factional interests. As the present political crisis shows, these interests were narrow and short-term.