The ANC post-Polokwane: A Case Study in Leadership Failure

Do you remember Kanye West’s other infamous unscripted mic rush? The one where he (some would argue rightly) said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”. Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest in US history, had laid waste to a large portion of the Gulf Coast but despite the unfolding humanitarian crisis, help was slow to come. Kanye laid the blame for the sluggish and disjointed response by federal, state and local government squarely on President George Bush. He was outraged and justifiably so, despite his own tendency to outrage. While levees broke, homes flooded and desperate people were driven to looting, Bush and his aides ignored the warnings of how the disaster would unfold and instead monitored the situation from a distance.

After returning from a three-day trip to China, President Jacob Zuma busied himself on Tuesday with a visit to Orania, an exclusively (and excludingly) Afrikaans town whose residents see no future for themselves in post-apartheid South Africa. This visit was, of course, exceedingly important because everything was going swimmingly in the real South Africa and Zuma’s presidency was otherwise flawless except for this one final niggling matter of these 760 people who persist with their refusal to sign onto the rainbow nation ideal.

There really should be a sarcasm font.

A man with one wife spends a lot of time at the office. A man with three wives and another on the way spends a lot of time out of the country.” – Me (cheap shot, I know and somewhat masturbatory for one to quote oneself and for one to call oneself, er, one.)

Fact is that since the high of the soccer world cup, it has been going anything but swimmingly in the real South Africa. While the president was in China, the public health and education systems came to a halt as government representatives and unions representing striking workers failed to come to a wage deal that satisfied both sides. This protracted strike was something the flagging public education system and inadequate healthcare system could ill afford.

According to the 2010/11 Global Competitiveness Report released this last week by the World Economic Forum, South Africa ranks in the bottom 10% on health and primary education – the fourth pillar of competitiveness. The Department of Basic Education’s own statistics show that just under 20% of students who completed high school in 2009 passed with grades that met the minimum standard to enter university. This was an improvement from previous years, however, 2010 is expected to be worse. If university entrance is the objective of basic education, this effectively means that (very) roughly 440 000 students fall through the cracks each year. On healthcare, the ANC’s tripartite alliance partner, Cosatu, this week elucidated the crisis facing the sector in this statistic: the life expectancy of a South African is now 48 years and was 62 in 1992.

The economic and social implications of all of this are nothing short of epic and give context to the other challenges faced by South Africa.

Kanye had the sentiment if not the facts right. The buck on cascade of leadership failures that exacerbated the hurricane Katrina disaster stopped with Bush as president. He failed to anticipate and failed to act, and was again detached from his country’s suffering. He seemed not to care.

President Jacob Zuma and Orania founder Carel Boshoff (from http://www.mg.co.za)

For his own and very different reasons, Jacob Zuma, a supposed man of the people, seems to be just as detached from the suffering of the very people who stood by him through thick and thin. The government he is supposed to be in charge of appears to be more concerned with hiding its failings by gagging the media. He on the other hand appears to have lost his appetite for the whole president thing, preferring instead to spend time out of the country and tending to relatively obscure matters. Zuma’s supposed collaborative leadership style notwithstanding, he should be leading the discussion on transforming the economy and making it more equitable. He should take ultimate ownership of reforming the public education system and righting the future of the learners it leaves on the lurch each year. And he should be the one to say what is or is not his own party’s policies. These conversations, however, seem to happen at a level beyond his sphere of influence.

And with all of these things unfolding on the home front, we were left this week with the puzzling image of Jacob Zuma walking hand-in-hand with Orania founder Carel Boshoff.

This isn’t about the enormity or complexity of the problems faced. Heck, it isn’t even about differing leadership styles. The ANC (and South Africa’s fourth democratic government along with it) is fast becoming a case study in leadership failure. A stronger leader, one with conviction and courage, could guide South Africa through this precarious time. Part of me, the optimist that won’t shut up, still hopes that Zuma could yet be that man. But if he does not emerge from the ANC’s national general council next week as that strong leader, I would have the sentiment if not the facts correct if I were to say that Jacob Zuma does not care about South Africans.

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