The South African trade-off: Liberators for leaders

08 May 2019 - 11:52
By Jamil F. Khan
The writer says South Africans have repeatedly elected what is essentially really a large friendship and family circle which operates on a members-only system.
Image: PHILLIP NOTHNAGEL The writer says South Africans have repeatedly elected what is essentially really a large friendship and family circle which operates on a members-only system.

South Africans have enjoyed the right to choose their leadership for a relatively short time in relation to history.

Democracy is a fairly new concept here and for many figuring out what it really means is an ongoing process of reflection, contestation and questioning.

With the excitement of the first democratic election season, a mix of jubilation and apprehension characterised most of society.

Jubilation at the prospect of realising hard-earned freedom, but apprehension under suspicion of looming backlash from oppressors.

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When the result finally confirmed an ANC win which represented that very freedom in its entirety, unbridled elation engulfed South Africa.

Many who suffered the brutality and violation of apartheid believed paradise was certain under democratic ANC rule.

The party leaders were indeed revered for representing the fight for equality and democracy, but soon lost their way.

During 25 years of democracy, forked-tongue politics has become increasingly more normalised.

Always speaking of and for the people, our current incumbents have managed to usurp and dictate the will of the people they claim to be governed by.

Perhaps predictably, our beloved liberation movement fell prey to the fate of so many before it, believing themselves to be liberators and hence entitled to rule in the lap of luxury.

Differently put, it seems as if we owe them the luxury afforded by occupation of political office as payment for their selfless struggles and sacrifices.

This was recently articulated by a statement to a journalist referencing the “freedom you did not fight for”.

It is clear that our current office bearers fashion themselves liberators entitled to their day in the sun.

Nobody predicted this about turn, but perhaps in retrospect we should have realised that the function of a liberatory movement lapses once liberation of its time is achieved.

The fall of legislated apartheid and the transition to democracy was the goal for which the ANC had been sharpening its tools all the while.

Achievement of that goal warranted its transition to a guiding consultative body which was to guard the democracy it fought for, not to own and manage it.

We were enamoured of political figures whose suffering was recounted and put on display in ways akin to Jesus Christ, so that we internalised the very same gospel turned rhetoric that they suffered for us to be worthy of freedom and, 25 years later, we are reminded at every turn.

What we needed, as a part of the transition, was the space for new visionaries who were divorced from the political elite to collaborate and lead on new ways forward.

There were many who brought fresh revolutionary perspectives to the democratic project, not attached to the idea of ruling a country, but growing it.

Those people can today sport a feather in their cap for contributing to our democracy, but they should have destabilised what became the ruling elite.

In some ways, the idea of ruling a country has been the most harmful positioning of political leadership in democratic South Africa although those in power have made sure to placate us with talks of service. We needed leaders, not liberators.

Leaders understand that their roles are limited and dependent on circumstance. Leaders occupy a seat for as long as the problem they are meant to address persists. Sometimes leaders solve the problem they set out for and other times they bring the collective a few steps closer.

Either way, leaders know when their time is up and understand that flux is key to the longevity of good leadership.

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The constant change and relay of leadership is what makes it healthy, not the prolonged performance review that keeps elected officials promising to do better if given just one more chance.

It has been correctly noted that the ruling party has been democratically elected for 25 years and therefore is what the people want, despite their many protests.

It is worth wondering how fair that process is when the pool of leaders simply rotate within the same “rich family” dynamic.

Joining the structure now, without connections or social capital, will see you reach significant leadership in 20 years to never.

We are repeatedly electing what is essentially really a large friendship and family circle which operates on a members-only system. So, are we really electing them?

South Africa needs dynamic, responsive leadership that knows when to let go and fortify the next generation of leaders, not megalomaniacs and self-proclaimed liberators. How do we elect that?

*Khan is a PhD Critical Diversity Studies candidate.