What type of leadership do we need to reinforce democracy and build an emancipatory project?

9th June 2015 By: Raymond Suttner

What type of leadership do we need to reinforce democracy and build an emancipatory project?

If many of us are critical of the current political leadership in South Africa what type of leadership do we wish to see?  Obviously the type of leader one wants is conditioned by the organisation one speaks of or needs to build and one’s political outlook.  And that is linked to what one would like to see in South Africa, the type of country one would like it to be, how it ought to be governed.

Put briefly, the type of country that I and possibly many others would like to see is democratic in more than one way. On the one hand it will be a democracy with periodic voting. The leaders will be accountable and it will be the duty, as specified in our constitution, for the legislature to hold the executive accountable for what they do and how they spend public money.  If the legislature or the executive strays from what is legally permissible it is possible to invoke the courts, though it is undesirable that this should be a necessary and regular practice, to have courts involved in matters of politics, albeit as custodians of the constitution.

The principles of ethical governance and accountability should be imbued in leadership.  Regrettably, what we have seen in parliament recently is not purely that President Jacob Zuma has been personally enriched through Nkandla, but that every single ANC parliamentarian has endorsed or been complicit in bypassing the constitution. 

It may be that under a new leader or under new conditions people can recover their commitment to their legally obligatory duties and abide by their oath of office. But at this point in time there is no ANC MP, from top to bottom, who is not part of what has happened in parliament.  It is also true that at lower levels these MPs and other officials are often enmeshed in a range of relationships of patronage and corruption.  At the lowest levels it is reported that astonishing numbers of tenders have been irregularly awarded. 

In this week’s City Press it is reported that the Auditor General found that despite laws forbidding public servants from doing business with the state, 290 municipalities awarded tenders to insiders in 2013/14.  In 73 municipalities, the Auditor General was unable to test whether or not there were irregularities in tenders to the value of R 1.3-billion because, in his words, “the documentation either did not exist or could not be retrieved as a result of poor document management”.

Of the 7 374 tenders, valued at R42.6-billion, that were tested for supply chain management irregularities, R781-million in tenders was awarded to companies belonging to close family members of employees and councillors who did not declare their interests beforehand.  And there are many other irregularities pointing to misuse of powers to award tenders and failure to declare interests, entailing widespread failure to comply with regulations.

So we have a situation where the organisation, through those whom it has deployed, is tainted from top to bottom. 

Twenty odd years ago if someone were to have said that they had spoken to a member of leadership at any level, one would have assumed that it was about a policy issue or some theoretical question. That is why one had famous debates over Joe Slovo’s advancing the “sunset clauses” to break the negotiations deadlock or over the validity or otherwise of the GEAR policy, with many debates within the alliance and between the alliance and members of civil society and academics.

Now when someone speaks to a leader, we have good reason to expect that one of the outcomes of the discussion will be that there will have been a decision that results in financial benefits to one or both parties. 

The ANC’s eThekwini region has repeatedly failed to hold its elective conference. This does not relate to questions of policy or theoretical doctrine.  It is purely personal competition related to who should be the one who has access to positions that can be used for personal benefit or to benefit others who have helped that person rise.  The entire pattern of ANC politics has become one of clientelism, often accompanied by violence and deaths. 

A new leader, an emancipatory leader, a leader who wants to reinvigorate democratic values and practices will have to break with these relationships, will in fact have to eradicate them.

There is nothing wrong with people being part of caucuses or like-minded people discussing issues related to the future of the organisation. But that is not the same as what are called factions today.  These are in fact clientelist relationships that need to go. 

But one wonders what the consequences of their being eradicated would be.  What is the organisation today if one eradicates patronage relationships?  To what extent does the ANC exist as a truly political organisation?

So we may well see a great upheaval if the ANC were to be rebuilt from the inside, or it may be that developments outside the ANC, or likeminded people who have integrity and are committed to clean government, may be the catalyst for a cleaning up of the organisation.

A crucial feature of an emancipatory leadership is that of a connectedness between the leadership and the ground, the membership of an organisation and the grassroots more generally.  If one is able to rebuild the ANC, or alternatively if a broad, united social movement were to emerge (broader than that which appears to be conceived by the NUMSA United Front initiative), then it requires an emancipatory praxis, an emancipatory dialogic relationship between members and leaders; one in which they listen and learn from one another and through that interaction grow wiser so that the organisation benefits.

Good leaders listen.  If one looks at the giants of South African liberation history they were all distinguished by their willingness to listen.  It is said that Chief Albert Luthuli would listen for hours whether at national meetings or as an elected chief in Groutville. He would only offer advice once he understood precisely what the problem was, not purely from his own observation but from hearing it from the mouth of the person who had the problem. 

This is a very important distinction, that a democratic leader understands that no matter how wise s/he may be that is insufficient for understanding a problem in the terms understood by those who experience it.  One may have a clear description of what the problem is and a clear idea of how it needs to be solved. But those burdened by the problem often see issues in ways that go beyond what lawyers call the “facts in issue”, and resolving the problem to the satisfaction of all the parties may involve a wider range of questions.  If they are to be satisfied it is important that the question is addressed not only in the most efficient way professionally, but also in the terms in which they experience and understand it. Or if that is not possible they must be able to see that the process through which the solution is arrived at incorporates or takes significant cognisance of their own understandings. 

Nelson Mandela, when he was a lawyer, is reported to have spent hours listening to his clients, hearing precisely what their grievances were, trying to understand not only narrow legal issues but also what it meant to be evicted from the land or other forms of oppression.  That quality, despite his legendary stubbornness, later imbued his political leadership.

In reality we cannot separate the question of democratic and effective leadership from the type of organisation that is built.  I am not sure what the future holds for the ANC, whether it can revive and fulfil the hopes that many vested in it.  Even if that were possible we need to look at politics not only in terms of electing political parties.  We need to encourage the development of a range of organisations, not only political parties that contest elections.  This is how ordinary people can realise themselves in direct action on a daily basis. 

By reference to such social movement one is not necessarily referring to establishing organisations that are oppositional.  These social movements could well make an input from the sectors from where they emerge that can assist whoever leads the country as a whole. It is important to re-establish the notion that politics happens not only in chambers of parliament but in a range of places where people are located. We also need to recognise that there are diverse interests, which require representation in a range of ways in a range of fora. That may be the route along which we need to move if we wish to recover the promise of 1994 and embark on a truly emancipatory path.

Raymond Suttner is a professor attached to Rhodes University and UNISA.  He is a former underground operative and political prisoner. He writes contributions and is interviewed regularly on Creamer Media’s website polity.org.za.  He has recently published Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana).  His twitter handle is: @raymondsuttner.