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South Africa needs strategic leadership to weather its storms

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South Africa is in a state of crisis. Its current reality is necessarily determined by historical events, most notably the results of the political settlement process that led to the end of apartheid in 1994.

Unlike other southern African countries, where political independence came after gruesome liberation wars, leaders of the African National Congress (ANC), which led the liberation struggle and has been the ruling party since 1994, along with other political and social movements, managed to negotiate a transition to democracy. There were many “victories”, including assent to the election of a majority-led government and the enactment of policies that would ensure broad-based economic transformation.

This transition can be seen as a point in history when the nation experienced one of its greatest crises. But his current leadership faces multiple challenges. These range from extreme poverty and high unemployment to the serious weakening of democratic institutions through corruption and state capture.

These “wicked problems” are so difficult and complex that there is no single magic answer. There is only a range of clumsy solutions, all of which are imperfect. The policymaking puzzle, therefore, is as much about recognizing the nature of the problem as it is about trying to mitigate the risks.

Our new book, The Presidents: From Mandela to Ramaphosa, Leadership in an Age of Crisis, assessed the leadership of South Africa’s five post-apartheid presidents: Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe, Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa. We wanted to see what lessons can be learned, especially in relation to your strategic skills. Strategy is one of the critical leadership attributes needed to weather the strong headwinds leaders often face.

We conclude that there has been a dearth of truly strategic leadership in South Africa in this period, with a few exceptions. Thus, the country has not been able to address the underlying structural problems that are the root cause of its socioeconomic precariousness.

Strategic thinking

What do we understand by “strategy”? Here we are referring to former UK Member of Parliament and now Times (UK) columnist Matthew Parris. He says, although the meaning has been diluted due to promiscuous and often inappropriate use… strategy is still the best word we have to express attempts to think about actions in advance, in light of our goals and capabilities. .

Many leaders, governments and organizations confuse planning with strategy. So this is a wise consideration to take into account: have the post-1994 South African presidents addressed the fundamental question of what is wrong with society and its economy, strategically?

This is how the country’s five post-apartheid presidents have fared in strategy.

five different styles

Mandela, the first president of a democratic South Africa, made great strategic decisions, not necessarily the right ones, but the right ones for the times.

Mandela faced a primary strategy choice at the very advent of the democratic era. He opted for national reconciliation as a political motive. He was strategic in the sense that the alternative was to push a strong transformation agenda without seeking to unite the powerful and privileged white minority.

Simply put, he could have opted for redemption and even revenge, instead of reconciliation.

This was accompanied by a deep personal commitment to the rule of law and constitutionalism. He used his presidential power to push that message and execute that strategy, leaving the detail of running politics and government to his number two, Thabo Mbeki.

The transition from his government’s Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) to the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) macroeconomic strategy is another debatable example.

The RDP was the flagship program of the future ANC government for socio-economic transformation. It was a quintessentially Keynesian plan focused on public investment to improve public services like housing, health care, and electricity for the black majority. The change to GEAR was highly questioned. Center-left commentators and actors within the broader ANC-led alliance saw it as a neoliberal approach to fiscal and monetary policy that would limit the government’s ability to further redistribution of wealth and opportunity.

When it came to his turn as president (1999-2008), Mbeki strove to live up to the strategic standards Mandela had set. His vision of Africa, in which Africans would take control of their destiny, was strategic. So was his determination to confront the problem of the “two nations”: one prosperous and white, the other poor and black.

The switch to GEAR was executed with strategic intent and an iron fist. There were negative consequences, especially in the long term. But few, if any, major strategic decisions can be win-win; there will invariably be a downside. The question is whether the leader understands and then confronts the dilemma, and in doing so is able to articulate the silver lining and recognize its intrinsic value, which justifies the silver lining.

Mbeki was a flawed visionary. His legacy is marked by his inexplicable lack of judgment on HIV/AIDS and his stubborn refusal to accept his government providing antiretroviral treatment.

Motlanthe, who succeeded him, in his modest way, also recognized the strategic imperative of his brief interim term as president (September 25, 2008 to May 9, 2009): to consolidate authority in democratic government and stabilize an unstable body politic. in the context of the palace coup that had taken place within the ANC.

Even Zuma, his successor, in his own mendacious and deviously selfish way, had a strategic intent: to capture the state for corrupt personal gain. He executed it with a ruthless sense of purpose.

The current president Cyril Ramaphosa seems to be the least strategic of all. His inability to grasp strategic nettles inhibits his presidency. On issues like the coal transition, government involvement in state-owned companies or the need for a basic income subsidy, Ramaphosa has vacillated, trying to wait until a sufficient consensus is formed, or setting in motion cumbersome consultation processes, before reach an agreement. clear decision.

He does things; he gets there at the end, but his design and use of his process is that of a master tactician, not a strategist. He has not reached the heights of leadership that the gravity of the historical moment demands. This requires leadership that frees the government from the sympathetic embrace of the ruling ANC and its fractious factions. A leader who would rise above the everyday crowd to inspire ordinary citizens with a compelling narrative of hope and change, backed by a steely determination to make courageous decisions and execute on them with a sense of purpose and urgency.

circling the problem

The crises faced by these five presidents have been very different, with different levels of intensity and composition. Each has faced great challenges, which inevitably could not be solved by his executive office alone. Without a doubt, part of strategic and visionary leadership is the ability to identify existing and potential allies who are willing to invest what is required to advance a transformative agenda.

Everyone has responded to “what went wrong”. But, due to the limitations of their strategic leadership, neither has fully risen to the challenge of facing “what is wrong” head-on. Your ability to address the question of “what’s wrong” has been limited by the very real demands to put out fires and keep the ship afloat without regard to the navigation system. And where they have focused on navigating rough seas to reach the destination of a more equal and inclusive South Africa, government ships mandated to manage these transitions have not always delivered.

Mandela, Mbeki and now Ramaphosa have turned around the problem (while Zuma weakened the capacity of the state). But perhaps because it is such a wicked problem and the structural difficulties are so deep, they have failed to chart a strategic course that confronts the underlying structural conditions, condemning South Africa to an uncertain and worrisome future.

This is an edited excerpt from the authors’ new book The Presidents: From Mandela to Ramaphosa, Leadership in an Age of Crisis.

Richard Calland, Associate Professor of Public Law, University of Cape Town and Mabel Dzinouya Sithole, Program Officer – Building Bridges, University of Cape Town

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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