Making way for a new generation of leaders

| September 6, 2010
By Julie Cunningham and Steuart Pennington

In late July, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu announced his intention to retire from public life in October when he turns 79.

Madiba announced his retirement several years ago, in 2004 at the age of 86. We would say that the best farewell present from working South Africans would be to raise a
generation of leaders worthy of succeeding both Madiba and Tutu.

Three generations of leadership

We have, since 1994, been through three generations of leadership. The first was that of Madiba himself, with an electorate and a global audience concerned primarily with the challenge of moral leadership, where reconciliation and forgiveness were uppermost. The second was characterised by Mbeki and his cabinet, mostly staffed by ‘exiles’, with the primary challenge of economic and political stability as a means of enabling (and affording) social delivery. The third is Zuma and his cabinet, mostly staffed by Robben Islanders, closer to people on the ground, with the primary challenge of social delivery as a means to ensuring social stability. All three have had very
different leadership styles.

Right now, our current political leaders are described by media with the words ‘cleptocrats’ and ‘tenderpreneurs’. Many of us long for the moral leadership
that represented those of Mandela’s and Tutu’s calibre. But they were leaders at a time when peace in our land was paramount.

When President Mbeki arrived on the scene, a different character of leadership was required – delivery was the big issue and he achieved considerable success in many respects. But his detached style, his disconnectedness within the tripartite alliance, and his reluctance to listen to advice undermined much of the good work he did in transforming the economy, building the African renaissance, and in combating Aids, poverty, unemployment, sexism and racism.

Mr Zuma has received a number of bricks and bouquets from his critics for his leadership style – almost in equal quantity – and the jury is still out on his performance. But his challenges are in many respects different; government performance, cronyism and corruption, an increasingly marginalised youth, rural development and social stability are the critical areas of focus. Time will tell.

We have made strides

While we have lots to say about the shortcomings of our three generations of leadership, South Africa is in a place unimaginable 16 years ago. We have exceeded expectations on many important indicators and events. Most recently, we staged ‘the best World Cup ever’; no-one thought it possible just six months ago.

After Zuma, what then?

Nevertheless, two big questions on leadership remain: Will Mr Zuma serve a second term, and who will succeed him? Will it be another generation of Robben Islanders, or will we begin to see a generation of ‘free borns’ emerge – those who are not encumbered by the shackles of ‘struggle’ credentials, but who have enjoyed the benefits of a postapartheid society and who see our political, economic and social challenges in the context of a changing global order rather than through the lens of apartheid?

And what will become of opposition leadership? It is often said that the people ‘get the government the opposition allows’. Sustainable, good leadership will never exist with weak opposition leadership, so we have to work at both. That is our – the people’s – challenge going forward. It is how we can contribute to our future leadership requirements.

The ‘good news’ is we have the gift of a constitutional democracy and we have the vote, we have (for now) a free media and the right to criticise, and we have the ability to make ourselves heard. In tribute to the example of Madiba and the ‘Arch’ as they enjoy their retirement, that’s the least we can do. If we fail in these responsibilities, we will damage their legacy, and we will only have ourselves to blame.

This is an edited version of a piece that appeared on on 28 July 2010.


Category: Spring 2010 Edition

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