The great leadership challenge of our time is to make the correct decisions, and implement them, in a world that is increasingly failing to recognise that the destiny of all humanity is as tightly interwoven as a seamless cloth.
One of the extreme ironies of the so-called connected generation is just how fractious it has become. The tools available for uninterrupted communication have been weaponised to attack and distract, with little regard for facts or the dignity of others. Even those in positions of authority fail to fully recognise the destructive power of spreading half-truths and vitriol. The net effect is the creation of new laagers – encampments in which prejudice and populism are allowed to flourish. Trade-offs are neither acknowledged nor accepted.
It’s a global scourge from which South Africa is far from immune. Indeed, few even bat an eyelid when, in one forum, union leaders insist on no power tariff increases, while demanding above-inflation wage increases in another. There’s hardly even a shoulder shrug when the governing party bemoans as shocking high levels of corruption, but then proceeds to appoint a man with a criminal record to head its working group on crime and corruption. Only one or two fatigued eyebrows are raised when the national chairperson of a party that claims to be vehemently opposed to corruption takes up the defence of a man at the very centre of State-capture allegations. Then, there are the maddening examples where people cleaning up a mess are blamed rather than those responsible for creating it in the first place.
The commemoration of Nelson Mandela’s centenary this month offers an opportunity for South Africans to reflect on the type of leadership we need and want. In doing so, it will soon become clear that the current global model of leadership is neither the only template nor one to which we should be aspiring.
A number of peacetime revolutionaries may pour scorn on the compromises made under Mandela. However, these criticisms typically ignore the context in which those trade-offs were made. Instead a distinctly different reality is casually superimposed on Mandela’s postapartheid legacy. A fair reading of history will highlight that the compromises were accepted neither for short-term expediency nor for grubby financial gain. They were agonisingly negotiated in a hostile setting where the balance of forces was not determined by moral authority or numerical advantage alone.
In pursuing the common good in a highly damaged environment, Mandela was acutely aware of the power of words and symbols. He was sensitive to the fact that these could either reinforce dignity and encourage transformation, or amplify division and discourage cooperation. It’s a lesson that seems to be lost on many leaders today.
Most importantly, though, Mandela was always able to view South Africa and the world as a seamless garment. By word and deed, he sought to mend areas, domestically and internationally, where the strands had loosened or the fabric had frayed. He did not rip at it further and then expect the garment to keep him and others warm at night.
South Africans would do well to rediscover Mandela’s spirit of interconnectedness as we move to confront some of our most intractable contemporary problems.