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D B King

South Africans and Africans define leadership too narrowly – that it is why societies on the continent time and time again end up with the most terribly disappointing leaders, William Gumede writes in this week’s Pambazuka News.

In poor countries, competent political leadership is a scarce skill that matters even more than in industrial nations. Industrial nations, where power is dispersed across the society, can tolerate bad leaders better. Better still, bad leaders can generally be outvoted.

Since independence, African leaders usually come to power when their countries are in great crisis – which demands extraordinarily capable leadership. Most African leaders have had to – amidst great expectations from long-suffering citizens – unite ethnically diverse societies, where one group was often advantaged by the departing colonial powers, and equitably transform poor economies. They must also build lasting democracies, through creating new institutions. While doing this, they must steer their countries through hostile global political minefields.

Take the example of South Africa. Our country is stuck in a number of interlocking crises: Broken families, communities and society; an HIV/Aids pandemic that has been neglected; soaring poverty, unemployment and crime; a pervasive air of public corruption; rising racial animosity; battered democratic institutions; rapidly declining public confidence in government’s ability to deliver services; and looming economic problems ahead.

Furthermore, South Africa is struggling with the consequences of broken, one-parent and child-headed families. We need progressive responses to how to foster stable families, how to make gender equality as set out in the constitution real, how to set a progressive example of male identity that confirms with the values of the constitution, and how to involve men in childrearing.

The country must deal with these problems in an increasingly complex, dangerous and economically volatile world.

A national leader should be able to tick most of these boxes – to have a good grasp of most of these complexities. But to deal with these issues will need new ideas, direction and energy. But it also needs leadership that can mobilise diverse talent across the ethnic, ideological and political divide to tackle these problems. With all these problems, the leadership must in all instances act in the widest possible interest of all of South Africa, not only a small component thereof. But we also need honest leaders.

On their own, any of these challenges are difficult enough – combined they are Herculean. All these problems at the same time, demands that African countries secure special leaders that can lead their countries through these multiple crises. The right kind of leader in fractious, ethnical diverse and underdeveloped African countries, can be a rallying force that helps binds them together, and helps unleash the country’s productive energies.

A bad leader, in the context of fragile democratic institutions, ethnic diversity, and underdevelopment, can be terribly destructive – holding back democracy, growth and nation-building. Worse, in African countries bad leaders are difficult to rid of, and remain a drain on the system long after they are eventually gone.

To respond to these challenges, many citizens of African countries rightly demand ‘strong’ leaders. But ‘strong’ leadership is often confused with militancy, tough political rhetoric and silky oratory. Leaders that shone in opposition in the struggle for liberation and independence, where tough rhetoric and militancy were often necessary to counter the brutality of colonial powers or white-minority governments may not be the kind of leaders needed to reconstruct a crisis post-independence African society.

Most African countries cannot get out of a political leadership trap: Members of political movements, citizens and interest groups often want the tough talking kind of leader, even if he (mostly he) has no competency on the majority of the other almost intractable country challenges. The problem in most African countries is that there is a mismatch between the kind of leaders pushed forward by political movements, and the kind of the leaders these countries really need to tackle their enormous challenges.


* This article first appeared in the Sowetan.
* William Gumede is co-editor with Leslie Dikeni of the recently released The Poverty of Ideas, which will be launched in Johannesburg, South Africa on 3 December, at 5.30pm at Exclusive Books, Killarney.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.