Raymond Suttner: Citizens need to claim ethical leadership (English version Beeld article)

[Extract from Recovering Democracy, translated and printed in today’s Beeld, below]

In modern democracies most people accept that there must be leadership. But the meaning of leadership and the quality of leaders are issues with which most societies grapple. Leadership is a relational concept: unlike during the time of slavery or feudalism, leaders today do not have ‘permanent followers’. Leaders are not unchangeable. They occupy their positions through a relationship with those whom they are elected to represent. Leaders can be removed, and followers can become leaders.
The original meaning of democracy, which has some resonance in South Africa, referred to direct democracy. This did not involve the mediation of representatives, but direct action by the populace. For many there still remains a desire not only for leaders to perform on their behalf, carrying out their mandate, but also for all the people of the country to be involved in politics, to be heard and to play a role in driving democratic development.
This was recognised in the notion of leadership articulated by the ANC at the time of the 1994 elections as ‘people-driven’ and ‘people-centred’. The citizens of the country were not meant to be passive observers or mere recipients of ‘services’. That is not to say that addressing their hardships was not central to the ANC’s vision. ‘People-centred’ meant that the needs of those oppressed under apartheid were to be the primary focus of government. This expectation was also specified in the Constitution adopted in 1996, which laid down the obligation of government to meet ‘basic needs’.
In this context, a leader needs to have integrity. He or she needs to earn the trust of those who are led. Where trust is broken, and where leaders prove unreliable, even if they continue to hold their positions by virtue of election, this does not necessarily mean that they have in fact carried out the function of leadership in the real sense of the concept.
When Nelson Mandela was president, he was clearly trusted. He embodied in his own life, both as a freedom fighter and as president, the values that he espoused. He did not declare himself in favour of certain values without living them out in his own practices. Mandela sought nothing for himself. He retired from the presidency after only one term. He did not amass a fortune, and whatever he acquired was entirely above board. In short, his life set the example of a leader abiding by the values of democracy and the provisions of the Constitution. He continually demonstrated that he shared the pain of the people he represented and sought to alleviate it.
Mandela also understood, long before he became president, even when he was a young lawyer, that it was important to listen carefully and not simply assume the hardships of others. Much of his life before prison, in prison and after prison was spent listening to others. When he took action to remedy what hurt them, he did so with an intimate knowledge of what they experienced, not on the basis of some shorthand or abstract version. When Mandela saw people who suffered loss or experienced indignity, it was clear that he embraced their pain.
Clearly, there is a problem of trust that lies at the root of the current disquiet about South Africa’s leadership. People do not believe in the integrity of their leaders. There is considerable evidence to show that leaders at all levels do not operate in good faith to better the lives of the poorest of the poor. In fact, the auditor-general’s report on local government showed not only overwhelming evidence of misspending in local government but that very few people were held accountable for the diversion of funding meant for the poor.
There is no need to rehearse the various irregularities that characterise the current presidency. What is clear is that President Jacob Zuma demonstrates no intention to abide by his constitutional obligations where these interfere with what is personally beneficial. He defies his obligation to respond to the findings of the public protector that he was personally enriched as a result of state-funded improvements to his private estate. He has chosen to have recourse to separate investigations, which cannot be treated constitutionally as an alternative to addressing or abiding by the public protector’s findings.
The example set at the top is followed by the leadership as a whole. Through their consent, the constitutional state, the guarantee of our freedom, is being undermined by patronage, corruption, violence and various other attacks on democratic life.
When the time comes for replacing Zuma, we cannot breathe a sigh of relief unless we have identified the frameworks and relationships that have made pillage of the state possible from top to bottom. We cannot rely on simply using the words ‘ethical governance’ or ‘zero tolerance’ of wrongdoing. We need to recognise that legality has been attacked and must be restored. The current parliament, including the opposition parties, has not demonstrated the will to defend and restore constitutional government. Citizens themselves need to unite to reclaim their hard-won democratic rights, which are now being squandered.

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