Twitter storm over Miss SA shows need to redefine leader qualities
It was interesting— and occasionally disheartening — to watch the social media reaction to our reigning Miss SA’s modest but determined declaration on Twitter this week that she wants to be president of SA.
Shudufhadzo Musida’s tweet was immediately followed by the usual casual social media misogyny which, it seems, must be endured by every woman who has the temerity to declare publicly that she has political ambitions of any kind. In Musida’s case, the sexist commentary mostly took the form of doubts expressed that anybody so beautiful could possibly be intelligent enough to occupy the country’s top job.
Disgusted as I was, what most piqued my interest was the repeated claim by some that she was not “qualified” for the job. This accusation was almost always followed by rebuttals from others citing her university degrees — Musida holds a bachelor of social science degree, with majors in politics, philosophy and economics from the University of Pretoria, and she is pursuing her honours degree in international relations at Wits University — as evidence that she is, in fact, more than qualified for the job.
What struck me about this online exchange was how it demonstrated the extent to which the party list electoral system in SA has utterly deprived its people of the opportunity to develop a sophisticated discourse around what voters believe are the qualities and characteristics that are both necessary and desirable for someone to qualify for election to public office.
For 27 years political parties have held an unchallenged monopoly on selecting candidates for head of state as well as for parliament, the provincial legislatures and the vast majority of the council seats in local government. They have enjoyed unfettered freedom to invent and develop their criteria for selecting candidates to these critical public institutions using whatever metric — or price, or family relationship or factional interest — suits them. Once selected, these candidates have then been presented to the electorate as fait accompli, with no recourse for or accountability to those they are meant to serve.
In addition, few voters know what the actual day-to-day responsibilities of a member of parliament or city council member or mayor are because our indirect electoral system incentivises them to be accountable only to the political parties which place them in favourable party list positions, rather than to the voters who elect them. Without this critical information it is very difficult for any voter to make an evidence-based assessment — beyond a gut feel — of which individuals (as opposed to political parties) are most suitable for the leadership of these critical institutions.
Since the Constitutional Court ruling of June 2020, however, the party-political monopoly on candidate selection has, rightly, been broken. When the nation’s apex court vindicated the right of all South Africans — regardless of whether or not they have political party affiliation — to run for direct election to parliament and the provincial legislatures, it placed a new and important burden on voters: to define for themselves what is suitable leadership for the country and its provinces.
Crucially, the court’s ruling has also placed the burden of leadership itself on a far larger swathe of South Africans, as anybody over the age of 18 is now a potential candidate for public office at every level. Not only do our people have a duty to think critically about who embodies the best qualities necessary to be effective public leaders, they must now also consider whether, to paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, the time has come to be the change they wish to see in the country.
The truth is that the only meaningful “qualification” for leadership in a representative democracy is a mandate — the ability to marshal the support of a constituency or community large enough to secure a majority in any election.
Of course, simply commanding a majority does not confer moral authority on any aspirant political leader. I’m sure we can all identify — even if only in the abstract — the qualities we would most like to see in our political leaders: they should possess an ethical and moral compass; they should be intelligent but not arrogant — able to take advice, but also to lead when the time comes to make critical decisions; they should remain always connected and accountable to the people who elected them and those they serve; and they should be able to articulate a clear, ambitious, but realistic vision for government.
There is no degree in being a member of provincial legislature; no diploma in city council governance. Representative democracy requires that we select from among the best of us and delegate to them the authority to govern while holding them to the highest standards of transparency and accountability.
As a 24-year-old woman who is clearly passionate about her country and whose public advocacy on mental health issues in partnership with the South African Depression and Anxiety Group demonstrates, Musida has the courage to tackle even the most stubborn public policy challenges in our society. She is an example of exactly the kind of young South African who should be stepping up to the plate to form part of a new generation of leaders in our nascent democracy.
Shudufhadzo for president!