The case for dis­rup­tive lead­er­ship

A brand-new vi­sion ar­tic­u­lated by fear­less voices is re­quired to shake the coun­try out of its tor­por, writes

CityPress - - Voices -

South Africa en­ters 2016 suf­fer­ing from the ba­nal­ity of the or­di­nary. In­formed opin­ion ev­ery­where re­duces my coun­try to the ex­ec­u­tive ex­cess, in­com­pe­tence and de­cep­tion of Pres­i­dent Jacob Zuma, a per­son who, with a lit­tle help from his friends, de­stroyed the brand that Nel­son Man­dela be­queathed our na­tion.

What hap­pened to Project South Africa, one of the 20th cen­tury’s great nar­ra­tives? Ours is a story of a peo­ple who, with­out for­eign in­ter­ven­tion, took on the world’s most or­gan­ised sys­tem of racial seg­re­ga­tion. We seized free­dom, re­stored dig­nity and em­braced the com­mon good for all in a deeply di­vided coun­try.

Many in­di­vid­u­als were in­volved in what seemed an unattain­able free­dom project. One of them, Fred­erik van Zyl Slab­bert, was a break-out politi­cian who dis­rupted the nor­mal flow of pol­i­tics and smoothed the way from apartheid to democ­racy.

A the­ol­ogy stu­dent and so­ci­ol­o­gist, he rose in po­lit­i­cal rank to be­come leader of the Pro­gres­sive Fed­eral Party, the of­fi­cial op­po­si­tion, in 1979.

In 1986 Van Zyl Slab­bert and his col­league Alex Bo­raine had walked out of Par­lia­ment in protest against its ex­clu­sion of the black ma­jor­ity pop­u­la­tion. Both were crit­i­cised for what they did.

In his book Exit, Choice and Loy­alty, Al­bert Hirschman wrote that in­di­vid­u­als oc­cu­py­ing re­spon­si­ble po­si­tions in fail­ing en­ter­prises had to choose be­tween three op­tions: Exit and quit the en­ter­prise; Speak out pub­licly for change of direc­tion; or Stay on the job and give sup­port to con­tin­ued fail­ure. Hirschman ob­served that peo­ple tended to choose loy­alty. Very few chose to speak out. Those who ex­ited only had a small ef­fect on the en­ter­prise. If gross in­jus­tices are to be cor­rected, he said, one’s voice must be fear­less and fierce, loud enough to be heard.

The exit by Van Zyl Slab­bert and Bo­raine served to in­crease their voice and grow their in­flu­ence. They formed the In­sti­tute for a Demo­cratic Al­ter­na­tive for SA (Idasa), a na­tional plat­form to sup­port so­lu­tion-seek­ing pub­lic rea­son­ing. At the time, the Soviet Union, the ANC’s ma­jor back­ers, still ex­isted and the Cold War, mod­u­lated by Mikhail Gor­bachev’s per­e­stroika and glas­nost, still de­fined the main axis of global pol­i­tics.

Idasa de­ter­mined the Soviet taste for a ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ment, with Van Zyl Slab­bert de­liv­er­ing a mes­sage of ne­go­ti­a­tion and peace to au­di­ences at Soviet uni­ver­si­ties.

Idasa hosted a bold meet­ing in Dakar, Sene­gal, in July 1987. It in­volved 47 South Africans drawn largely from the Afrikaner elite to meet with 16 ANC lead­ers in ex­ile, in­clud­ing Thabo Mbeki. When the del­e­gates re­turned home, they were mocked as “use­ful idiots” on a “jour­ney to nowhere”.

But Dakar was a dis­rup­tive lead­er­ship event that changed the course of his­tory. Key opin­ion lead­ers were per­suaded that the ANC was not a gang of com­mu­nist sym­pa­this­ers itch­ing to drive whites into the sea.

Then, in one of his­tory’s con­tin­gen­cies, the Berlin Wall came down and, with it, the Soviet Union. South Africa’s then pres­i­dent, FW de Klerk, saw the op­por­tu­nity and went on to de­crim­i­nalise banned or­gan­i­sa­tions, an­nounce the un­con­di­tional re­lease of Man­dela and other po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers, and pur­sue a ne­go­ti­ated so­lu­tion.

Idasa went on to or­gan­ise trust­build­ing meet­ings be­tween the con­flict­ing sides. Two ma­jor con­fer­ences on eco­nomic pol­icy – strad­dling pro-cap­i­tal­ist and proso­cial­ist ap­proaches – were held: the first in Lev­erkusen, Ger­many, in 1988; the sec­ond in Paris.

Idasa cre­ated ne­go­ti­a­tion plat­forms, dis­closed apartheid-era atroc­i­ties and cre­ated the In­de­pen­dent Fo­rum for Elec­toral Ed­u­ca­tion. Bo­raine held meet­ings on how South Africa should deal with its past, helped draft the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion leg­is­la­tion and served as deputy chair­per­son to Arch­bishop Des­mond Tutu, who chaired it.

When I be­came the leader of Idasa in 1994, we ran a se­ries of work­shops on con­sti­tu­tion­al­ism and demo­cratic gov­er­nance in coloured com­mu­ni­ties, a mi­nor­ity pop­u­la­tion ner­vous about the meaning of ma­jor­ity rule. Man­dela wanted to re­name his Cape res­i­dence in hon­our of the coloured com­mu­ni­ties. We rec­om­mended Ge­naden­dal (meaning Val­ley of Mercy – it was the first mis­sion sta­tion to give free­hold ten­ure to for­mer slaves).

Idasa cre­ated the Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Cen­tre (PIC) and hired Mam­phela Ram­phele to run it. Un­der her lead­er­ship, the PIC made the bud­get, Par­lia­ment and gov­ern­ment more trans­par­ent.

A large part of the Pro­mo­tion of Ac­cess to In­for­ma­tion Act was drafted by Idasa.

The Refugee Pro­tec­tion Act came out of the green pa­per on in­ter­na­tional mi­gra­tion that I co-wrote with es­teemed ge­og­ra­pher Jonathan Crush of Canada.

Where are we af­ter all th­ese ef­forts at democ­ra­cy­build­ing? To­day we can­not sup­ply elec­tric­ity to a grow­ing econ­omy. Our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is among the worst in the world. Cit­i­zens are not safe. State graft is en­demic. Our uni­ver­si­ties are in tur­moil. Our party po­lit­i­cal scene is in grid­lock.

To change the flow of pol­i­tics re­quires break-out politi­cians like Van Zyl Slab­bert. To­day we do not have to leave Par­lia­ment to change it.

What we re­quire are pub­lic rep­re­sen­ta­tives with in­tegrity who can stand on prin­ci­ple and fear­lessly raise their voices to change the direc­tion of our his­tory. Be­cause the ANC is in charge, the voice of courage must come from within its ranks.

James is a DA MP and a for­mer ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Idasa. This is an edited ex­tract of a lec­ture first given at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity’s In­sti­tute of Pol­i­tics

on Oc­to­ber 20 2015

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