The Herald (South Africa)

Let us control the leaders we have elected, not wait for saints

- Steven Friedman Steven Friedman is research professor with the humanities faculty of the University of Johannesbu­rg. This article first appeared on BDLIVE.

IT doesn’t take much to get the folks who pontificat­e in public to talk about “leadership”.

So it is no surprise that the Jacob Zuma presidency saga has the “l” word on all their lips again.

The “l” talk focuses, of course, on Cyril Ramaphosa. Is he a weak or strong leader? Does he have the qualities to save us? Will he take us back to the days when the ANC and the country had wonderful leaders, until they evaporated and were replaced by the shoddy bunch we have now?

So common is this talk – globally as well as here – that no one stops to think about what fretting about leadership means.

It makes difficult problems go away by ducking them, not solving them, since it is not our job to fix them, it is the leader’s.

If our problem is that we had great leaders and don’t now, why is this?

Could it be because the country has changed?

Because the selfless leaders who risk jail or worse to fight an evil system are not the sorts of people who take up leadership positions when they offer not danger, but fame and fortune?

Should we not adjust to this instead of constantly hoping for the return of a time that has gone forever?

Is it not more important to work out how to control leaders who are in it for themselves than to wait for the return of saints who are never coming back?

Leaders do not appear out of thin air.

They are products of the politics of their societies.

Working out what produces one type of leader rather than another is at least as important as fretting over the personal qualities of the people our current reality propels into leadership posts.

This would also tell us what we can realistica­lly expect and how we might achieve it.

It is far more useful than holding thumbs and hoping that the people who occupy office get it right.

The leadership fetish also hollows out democracy by reducing most citizens to spectators who can choose who leads them every few years.

What happens depends not on what we do, but on what the leaders we (in theory) choose do.

And so we do not discuss what we can do in this new reality.

It all depends on whether the leader knows what to do and how to do it.

The democracy for which people fought is not meant to be a system in which we choose who decides for us.

It is supposed to be one in which we decide ourselves.

Our politics has yet to adjust to this and so citizens who have the power to influence decisions let minority government­s in local councils who could be forced to do what most citizens want them to do, do what they like as if they held a two-thirds majority.

Yes, leaders matter but not nearly as much as our obsession with them assumes.

Who holds power in society, how they use it and who challenges them is at least as important if we want to know where we are headed and where else we could go.

And what we do about our reality is as important as what people in leadership positions do.

The fixation on leadership is often a cry for help.

It says that our problems are difficult and so we hope some great individual will save us.

But we do not move forward by ducking responsibi­lity.

We make progress when we worry less about leaders and more about working out what shapes how we live and how we might change it.

 ??  ?? ANC TEAM: ANC leaders then and now, from the left, Cyril Ramaphosa, Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma at the Codesa talks in Johannesbu­rg
ANC TEAM: ANC leaders then and now, from the left, Cyril Ramaphosa, Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma at the Codesa talks in Johannesbu­rg
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