Financial Mail


The po­ten­tial fu­ture lead­ers of SA are likely to re­flect the mood of the coun­try in their de­ci­sions and ac­tion, rather than dis­play a bold pur­pose and fresh vi­sion that sets them apart

- Gareth van Onse­len

Which came first: Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma or the en­vi­ron­ment that pro­duced him? One could ask that ques­tion about for­mer pres­i­dent Thabo Mbeki, DA head Mmusi Maimane or EFF leader Julius Malema. To what de­gree did they just hap­pen to per­son­ify the ideals and be­liefs that de­fined the SA zeit­geist? Or, to what de­gree did their per­sonal traits de­fine it?

It is a co­nun­drum worth con­sid­er­ing, be­cause our zeit­geist is now as com­plex as it has ever been — and big lead­er­ship ques­tions loom large.

Zeit­geist is, in one sense, a syn­onym for “the na­tional mood”. On a per­sonal level, moods are fluid and their ef­fect on pri­or­i­ties is in­con­sis­tent and of­ten dis­pro­por­tion­ate.

Of those var­i­ous con­cerns that to­gether form our col­lec­tive id and super­ego — our base in­stincts and moral code — it would seem aware­ness of cor­rup­tion is pre-em­i­nent to­day. It is per­haps the pri­mary lens through which we an­a­lyse cur­rent af­fairs and eval­u­ate lead­er­ship.

Race is in the mix, as it al­ways has been. And so too, it would seem, are var­i­ous el­e­ments of what is best de­scribed as a “rev­o­lu­tion­ary men­tal­ity” — the no­tion that we are still suf­fer­ing the ef­fects of a great in­jus­tice, that the sta­tus quo is un­sat­is­fy­ing in its at­tempts to ad­dress this, and thus that pro­found and fun­da­men­tal change is needed.

Emo­tion­ally, there is much anger, de­spair and a sense of de­pri­va­tion. This is aug­mented by ram­pant low self-es­teem, which has man­i­fested as a de­sire for dig­nity and re­spect. Peo­ple who have or­gan­ised into myr­iad dif­fer­ent spe­cial-in­ter­est groups want to be un­der­stood and have their choices af­firmed. Those are some, if not all, of the more uni­ver­sal SA im­pulses right now.

But one can use the idea of zeit­geist

in a more spe­cific way. The ANC, for ex­am­ple, oc­cu­pies a uni­verse with its own par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter­is­tics. At present, unity is a defin­ing fea­ture of its par­tic­u­lar zeit­geist. For the DA, it is power and iden­tity. For the EFF, racial in­jus­tice — and re­sent­ment about that fact.

The SA zeit­geist has changed over time. There was a pe­riod, af­ter 1994 and with the name “Man­dela” as the ul­ti­mate metonym for it, that op­ti­mism held sway. But, via Mbeki — dur­ing whose time the zeit­geist of the ANC and that of SA seemed to over­lap, so im­mense was the ANC’S hege­monic grip — ab­stract ideas around na­tion­al­is­tic pride (the “African re­nais­sance”) in­versely com­ple­mented a highly tech­no­cratic era.

Zuma has done as much to di­vide as to unify. Cer­tainly he has frac­tured the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the ANC’S iden­tity and that of in­di­vid­ual South Africans. The pa­ter­nal na­ture of the ANC post 1994, with Man­dela as fa­ther fig­ure and Mbeki as the prac­ti­cal ste­ward of his legacy, now stands as a point of com­par­i­son.

To­day, Zuma has evoked a uni­ver­sal dis­dain for cor­rup­tion, nepo­tism and mis­man­age­ment. That the ANC is at the heart of it is an ironic byprod­uct of his ten­ure.

Zuma’s rise to power pro­vides a clas­sic il­lus­tra­tion of how the zeit­geist can be used to gen­er­ate enor­mous po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal — and, like­wise, of how dan­ger­ous that is when the in­di­vid­ual in­volved is a fun­da­men­tal­ist, or malev­o­lent.

In 2007 the ANC mis­took a man of the peo­ple for a man at odds with the peo­ple. This was mainly be­cause his own rise to power, and the things he seemed to ex­em­plify, hap­pened to co­in­cide with a se­ries of more gen­eral sen­ti­ments about the coun­try.

The idea of unity now rep­re­sents the last rem­nants of ANC hege­mony. So it is un­der­stand­able why the lead­ing can­di­dates for the party’s pres­i­dency have all put the idea front and cen­tre. ANC trea­surer-gen­eral Zweli Mkhize’s en­tire of­fer would seem to re­volve around a com­pro­mise or unity can­di­date. That the idea res­onates at all is mirac­u­lous. But the ques­tion of whether any can­di­date is ac­tu­ally able to cap­i­talise on it is the key.

It is the zeit­geist, with re­gard to both the ANC and SA more gen­er­ally, that seems to have pro­duced the cur­rent crop of ANC pre­tenders to the throne.

Zuma has done his part to shape and in­flu­ence the pa­ram­e­ters, but the point is this: what we see now is lead­er­ship as a prod­uct of the en­vi­ron­ment. To­day’s lead­ers can’t be com­pared with Man­dela or Mbeki, who im­posed them­selves on cir­cum­stance. Rather, cir­cum­stance has pro­duced them.

There is a price to pay for this, and it can be a high one. Lead­ers who mir­ror so­ci­ety back to it­self are in­her­ently weak. And, of course, there is the risk that, like Zuma, this per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of the na­tional mood is no more than a tem­po­rary co­in­ci­dence.

It is telling that, al­most across the board, no ANC pres­i­den­tial can­di­date has pre­sented a pol­icy plat­form or vi­sion that is dis­tinct or de­tailed in a par­tic­u­lar way, and that sets him or her apart. The pri­mary aim is to re­flect back to the ANC and SA the be­liefs and ideals that hold sway.

Ev­ery politi­cian does this to some de­gree — but here it is the be­gin­ning and end of all cam­paign­ing. Here, as with Zuma be­fore, we have an elec­tion by gen­u­flec­tion. Only it is unity (and cor­rup­tion) rather than so­cial­ist pop­ulism that is the im­age in the mir­ror.

It is a prob­lem not par­tic­u­lar to the ANC. Maimane, the DA’S “first black leader”, is a prod­uct of the same in­cli­na­tion. He is the in­evitable man­i­fes­ta­tion of a nar­ra­tive that far pre­cedes him. And so, like all lead­ers elected in this fash­ion, he lacks the grav­i­tas and con­vic­tion of, say, Malema, a per­son­al­ity im­bued with far more nat­u­ral charis­matic pur­pose. If Malema is a leader, Maimane is a fol­lower. And the ANC is in the process of elect­ing a fol­lower of its own, who­ever wins.

This is ironic be­cause part of the zeit­geist is the yearn­ing for real lead­er­ship. It is why we trans­form the medi­ocre into he­roes. We long for a re­turn to the past. But it seems that out­side of Malema (by some dis­tance the most nat­u­ral of SA’S po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, what­ever you make of his prin­ci­ples), the trend is more to­wards com­pro­mise than con­vic­tion.

The next ANC leader will be one of any num­ber of things. But he or she won’t be a true leader. The per­son will have been elected, for five years, on the back of a con­tem­po­rary cri­sis. Per­haps the new leader will be able to solve it; per­haps not. But be­yond that, he or she will have lit­tle else to of­fer.

It is the zeit­geist that rules our democ­racy — a volatile mix of des­per­a­tion and re­sent­ment. And, be­cause it is in charge, it will get what it wants: a tem­po­ral politi­cian, born of the mo­ment and for­ever trapped in it.

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