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