We set bar for leadership low

Nomkhitha Mona, chief executive of the Mandela Bay Business Chamber, asked what I believe to be an important question last week.
Who should have done what to avoid the mess that was the last decade of leadership in South Africa?
My words, her sentiments.
The question, as I understood it, was not to reminisce on the Zuma years, or even to pinpoint scapegoats for the deterioration in moral leadership for that matter.
It was an essential question to compel us to draw lessons from our recent past to avoid repeating it.
In response, retired Constitutional Court justice Johann Kriegler rightly cautioned against the temptation to blame former president Jacob Zuma and the Gupta family exclusively for the state in which our nation found itself.The conversation last Tuesday at the Nelson Mandela University Business School was to unpack the concept of responsible leadership.
Mona’s question has stayed with me since.
Perhaps because it is easy to analyse the events of recent years as the work of a political cabal that rose to power and colluded with some dirty business people to rob us blind.
Indeed that happened. And for that we must demand justice.
But our societal responsibility should go even further.
We must question the extent of our own complicity, actively or passively, in creating an environment where rogues rose to power and thrived.
Popular narratives often point to those closest to power as ultimate instruments responsible for delivering the leaders we’ve had.
For example, it is often said that it was people like Julius Malema and Zwelinzima Vavi who unleashed onto us the Zuma presidency.
Indeed their role was significant. But they did not operate in a vacuum.
For a second, put aside our electoral system and how it effectively dictates that you vote for a party rather than individuals.
The truth is that very few give a second thought to the broader social rules of public engagement which, in different ways, give rise to the nature of the political processes through which leaders are elected.
Chief among these, in my view, is that ours is not a society that demands a track record of ethical behaviour as the most basic prerequisite of leadership.
At best we generally choose leaders based on their brand of politics with which we identify.
While this is not wrong, on its own it is an insufficient basis on which to choose a leader.
At worst, we make our choices based on the narrow patronage networks from which we hope to benefit.
For example, here in Mandela Bay, many of the people who have over the years been elected councillors are not men and women prominently known to be virtuous in character.
Nor could they be considered individuals who possess any substantial insights, by experience or acquired knowledge, from which we can draw to build a city.
For some, their ascent to power was about personal survival.
It was a result of a cunning manipulation of political processes and, in some instances, intimidation and violence.
Their politics are not about you, your billing problem or the ever-leaking pipe around the corner from your house.
They are not about helping you build a business and employ others, rather than queuing to be employed.Yet, actively or passively, we have handed to them considerable power, which when used collectively, influence the direction of our city, its development and economic fortunes.
When they abuse such power – as they often do – we either protect them to preserve our own channels to power or we are simply not bothered enough to put in the hard work required to hold them accountable.
Or worse, we look on helplessly, believing that we do not have control over the monsters we have created.
Either way, the bar for leadership is low because we set it there.
Mona’s question last week was relevant for such a time in our country.
It must force us to pause and reflect on the rules of engagement that render us habitual spectators in our social and political construct.
If we are to change course, we must truthfully reflect on our actions (or inactions) that contributed to the leadership abyss which eroded our institutions at all levels of the state.
We must interrogate why we allow instruments of populism rather than sound reasoning to shape the character of conversations that happen in our sectors of influence.
We must reflect on why we often fall for the fallible notion of SA exceptionalism that guarantees our wellbeing regardless of our choices.
Contrary to what we may believe about ourselves, there is nothing exceptional about our democracy. Without principled activism, it is as vulnerable as any other.
- Nwabisa Makunga is deputy editor.

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