Thursday, 11 December 2008

Give me hope Obama: comparing the leadership of Obama and Mandela

Can Obama's leadership be compared to that of Mandela? Well, it has - and there seems to be merit in reviewing the former's achievements and standing in the world through a comparison with Nelson Mandela, the esteemed former liberation fighter and South African ex-president.

This blog piece (comparing Obama as a leader with Madiba) was sparked by a cellphone text message I received on the day of Obama's election. A friend advised me that Obama was "the new Mandela".
At first I thought any such comparison - comparing Mandela's leadership style as well as his leadership prowess - was far fetched, something to be discussed in jest or a notion that relied far too much on the colour similarities of the protagonists.

I thought: how can we compare the two? Although we rave at his electoral achievements and applaud his immense potential to effect global change, Obama’s leadership capabilities have not yet been deployed and tested to the hilt. Given my location on Africa’s tip, I at least am not aware of major leadership exploits on his part outside of presidential campaigning. Obama's leadership abilities are similarly not yet known to the many who revere him around the world.

Mandela on the hand has led solidly, with integrity and in a principled manner over a substantial period of time; he has been the dignified and powerful focal point of a historically significant process of change. He has done the time – laying down tracks and pathways that facilitate hope and progressive change in the present and all the way into the future.

His leadership style and greatness has also been forged in the fires of racist repression and enormous personal sacrifice, with himself enduring jail for 27 years. How can Obama be measured against the greatness of Mandela, one may well ask.

But, on further reflection, I realise that a review of their respective leadership approaches can be useful. Though not always a fair and meaningful exercise - and in many ways a discussion of each one's leadership style in relation to the other rather than a comparison of two people – such an exercise can be used to trigger debate and deeper thinking on leadership.

It is worth discussing two interesting views that I have come across in recent months.

According to another close friend, Obama's main appeal – and here similarities with the Mandela phenomenon are very strong – is that he is a peddler of hope. Millions of people in the world project their hopes onto him. In this friend's view, it matters less what Obama is and what he is able to do. What matters is that people who see and hear him have their hopes rekindled and their faith in the future restored. Just as it happened with Mandela, Obama emerges as a leader against a backdrop of worldwide pessimism, worry and fears about the future; at a time when millions wonder whether a better world will be achieved, if armed conflict can be reduced, poverty eradicated and major environmental challenges overcome. Untold millions across the globe are desperate for leadership and a powerful message that can propel us into joint action against the threats we face.

This view – that Obama appeal is linked to the state of the world and to a widespread yearning for a politics of hope – correlates with the view that leaders are (largely) products of their context, and that great leaders often emerge in times of great adversity and uncertainty. In such situations, a leader with a bold vision and a clear message can become larger than life.

Another comment to consider is one made by persons such as Fons van der Velden and Harry Boyle (the latter an academic involved with the Obama campaign). Their view is that Obama's leadership style is distinctive in that he constantly affirms the 'agency' of ordinary people and explicitly eschews the notion of the leader as saviour. (Clearly this view is to some extent in tension with Obama fever in which he as leader is seen as the embodiment of hope). Their view is supported by the narrative that Obama spins. His famous chant is 'Yes we can' rather than 'Yes I can'. At his post-victory speech he announced: "I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to. It belongs to you (meaning the volunteers, organisers and active supporters)". Van der Velden and Boyle see Obama's mode of operation as a reflection of what they term citizen-driven democracy, where the knowledge of experts and the leader's hunches never take precedence over the importance of ensuring citizens have the space to express themselves, make choices and take action.
In comparing Mandela and Obama (as I do below) I see important similarities. Both fare exceedingly well (or so far seems to, in the case of Obama) in terms of core leadership capabilities: framing reality, offering vision, communicating vision, strategic direction, integrity, enthusing people, enrolling others, building teams, developing leaders, guiding action, organisation-building, managing change, building bridges, dealing with setbacks, etc.

But I also see differences. Differences arise from differences in their personal attributes, in their backgrounds, in the challenges they face(d) and in the contexts from which they emerge. Although both operate(d) in the global domain, they address(ed) the world from different platforms and particular vantage points. These differences ensure variation in the patterns of their leadership style – desite great similarity in the underlying fibres, patterns and colour of the raw material. I consider aspects of their leadership profiles below:
Shaped by specific historical circumstancesShaped by specific historical circumstances
Beat the odds: it was unlikely that a black person would be president of the United States. Beat the odds: unlikely that he would be president in his lifetime.
Personally articulates specific policy solutionsBacked by strong party on major policy questions. Less 'hands-on' - greater contribution in the area of vision and high-level objectives.
Bridging leader – brought people together against backdrop of deep-set dividesBridging leader – brought people together against backdrop of deep-set divides
Through moral leadership and expression of powerful vision, communicates an appeal that extends far beyond the party support baseThrough moral leadership and expression of powerful vision, communicates an appeal that extends far beyond the party support base
Ardent democrat &, explicitly, a stalwart of participatory democracy Ardent democrat
Position on imperialism unclear – wants to 'rebuild' the greatness of the US 'block by block' an ensure the US's beacon burns brightAnti-imperialist
(Main focus: to restore pride in the US and to 'reclaim' the American dream)Clear vision to change Africa's position in the world
A source of inspiration and hope; advances the 'politics of possibility' which asserts that change is always possibleA source of inspiration and hope; advanced the 'politics of possibility' which asserts that change is possible
Massive global expectations to use US leadership to being positive change in the world on economic, social and environmental frontsExpectations that he would help shift global power relations and positively change the position of African and developing countries in world affairs
Realistic about what he can do as a leader. Eschews the role of 'saviour' and rejects being cast as a superior being raised into power by The Divine. Has stated: "There will be setbacks and false starts … (b)ut I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face."Realistic about what he alone as leader can accomplish. Eschews the role of 'saviour' and rejects being cast as a superior being raised into power by The Divine. Strove to constantly acknowledge the contribution of others, despite the blind adulation of 'groupies' and past blunders in this regard by bodies such as the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Humble enough to voluntarily step down as South Africa's president after his first term in office
Listens to people; develops campaign strategy and party processes in a manner that facilitates and enables listening to 'the people'Listens to people
Engages ordinary people and constantly advises them on relatively specific and active roles in bringing about change Engages powerfully with ordinary people

What is your view? Do you agree that Obama is, as it were, the younger version of Mandela (as my friend informed me in his cellphone text message)? Or do you share my view that there are important similarities but that these men not only operate(d) in different contexts, but their contributions to the world differ in important ways according to the respective challenges each faced? Please share your view.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Motlana’s legacy has a powerful message for us

Dr Nthato Motlana, who died recently, leaves a legacy that speaks volumes about where South Africa has been and what it is striving to become. In terms of his political role, Motlana's life speaks of humanitarian opposition to injustice and of a leadership approach that places the stress on its substance rather than the trappings of the leadership role.

Although he had been active in politics before, Motlana shot onto the national stage in 1976. He stepped up as a founder member of the Soweto Committee of Ten to coordinate a wider response and an effective follow-up to the Soweto uprising. He brought links to the broader anti-apartheid struggle; he enhanced those turbulent developments through his stature and focus; his clear, consistent and persuasive communication was a welcome complement to the anger and fervour on the ground.

Motlana paid a stiff price for taking on that leadership role. The state tried and convicted him, detained him without trial, banned him and denied him a passport for over 30 years.

The good doctor ranks among the most admirable and more exemplary nationalist leaders. His involvement was not informed by a desire for political power. He never interacted with others in a superior or domineering manner, was free of airs and graces, and when asked to speak at events – although he expected proper organisation – took part without putting forward a list of VIP-related requirements.

Motlana's passion for education was unquenchable; it pained him that the new South Africa had, by and large, not yet succeeded in bringing quality education to poor and black households. In a sense, he remained dissapointed and concerned that the education struggle he embraced so fervently had not been resolved. Quality education remained stubbornly inaccessible to all - a few got the strawberries and cream of private school education; a bigger number get the bread and cheese of former model C government schooling, but the mass of scholars - multiplied millions - get a type of schooling that includes a glut of poorly trained teachers, broken and absent facilities, budget shortfalls and consistently 'badly performing' schools.

Motlana worked exceptionally well in creating broad fronts – he instinctively understood how educational organisations, community organisation and faith-based organisations could and should work together around a common agenda. His easygoing and inclusive nature meant that – mercifully – he never added to the ego problems one sometimes encounters in multi-stakeholder collaborations. Although no socialist, he worked particularly well with trade union leaders. He could see the common ground, and the possibilities of building a force for change with them.

Long live Motlana's legacy!

Thursday, 4 December 2008

DA recruitment of parliamentarians steams ahead

With all eyes focused on the ANC and its breakaway child, we sometimes forget to track moves within interesting other parties such as the Democratic Alliance.

Some months back the DA startled everyone by advertising for potential parliamentarians – a first for Mzansi. In an advert that was bold and (at least for other parties) provocative, it called for dynamic people who identified with the DA to apply to be considered to become parliamentarians.

Many sloggers and some stalwarts in the party resisted the step (I believe), but Zille stared them down and insisted it was the way to go. Her approach - it seems - is that, if previous attempts to woo voters and people of substance from the black community through the usual membership drives were largely a flop, the party should try new ways.

The recruitment of parliamentarians through an open competitive process combines the following:

  • For 'dynamic' young black people who are partial to public service, a powerful incentive to get involved with the party.
  • Shortening the path to meaningful and leadership roles in the party for talented black professionals.
  • The prospect of immediate rather than long tem change in the party's profile.

That process has now steamed ahead. With applications closed, the DA has apparently netted a bountiful harvest of would-be parliamentarians.

The candidates have been shunted through an assessment process involving interviews, psychometric tests and other 'checks'. This assessment, and I imagine the production of the short list, was conducted by consulting firm Deloitte. In the interviews, candidates were scrutinised regarding their identification with DA free market philosophy and approach to democracy. They were also grilled regarding relevant skills and abilities.

My information is that the DA is extremely chuffed at the haul. They are crowing about the numbers of sharp, talented and potentially high-impact black professionals that have come on board for the process.

Of course, the party that I've supported for yonks, the ANC, is highly aggrieved about the DA move. They believe advertising for parliamentarians is a regrettable development in politics. They accuse the DA of underhand tactics and of unfairly exploiting the unemployment crisis.

The DA initiative does bring to the fore the tension (and the question of balance) in politics between skills and depth of loyalty. The DA seems to be emphasizing the former. Just as in an arranged marriage the idea is to find someone with good qualities and possibly the right genes (and bank on the fact that they can learn to love you), so the DA believes that deeper emotional bonding between party and talented potential leader can come later.

Although the ANC would state that its expectations of representatives include leadership, policymaking and oversight capabilities, the ANC appears in practice to emphasize depth of loyalty.

It is true that, in the old days, when the ANC used the term 'tried and tested' to describe a leader, it referred both to devotion to the party, as well as to effective and tireless service, organising ability, sound understanding of strategy and an ability to enrol new members.

But there is no evidence that this high standard of leadership was not applied when filling the many spaces in national and provincial parliaments. In all likelihood, it would have been too high a benchmark for that purpose.

While many leaders came from the ranks of 'tried and tested' cadres, some got into parliament iprimarily on the basis of inclusiveness, floor crossings manoeuvres, the give-and-take of local list processes and the war games of poaching leaders from other parties.

The ANC shies away from assessing performance of parliamentarians – a step that would foreground the importance of skill and capability, and would create a platform for more focused and result-orientated skills enhancement. However, indications are that such an assessment is far too sensitive. Barely concealing their resistance, many politicians who might be the target of any proposed performance assessment will ask: Who will undertake it, (even if outsourced) who is likely to exploit the findings, how will data be managed and secured and who has the credibility to lead such a process.

And so the question is left hanging: how can the capabilities of parliamentarians be improved so that (a) they have the neccesssary skills to complement their commitment to a political party and (b) they serve democracy and the public interest better?

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Makeba and Mphahlele: icons and pioneers in the creation of democracy

The passing of Miriam Makeba (this week) and Es'kia Mphahlele (in October 2008) is a major loss to SA – and a painful reminder that we have failed to properly acknowledge artists' role in the gestation and birth of democracy in Mzansi.

Mphahlele and Makeba are beacons for creative expression and for the contribution of artists to wider society. They are icons and pioneers. They have been powerfully inspirational; thanks to how they found and served a higher human purpose, their inspiration is at a different level as compared to the somewhat more populist but often more transient aura of power-holding politicians or famous entertainment stars.

Makeba became a key voice of resistance, her songs an elegant and evocative soundtrack to the struggle, conveying the dignity and quiet strength of the many ordinary people that demanded an end to apartheid during the darkest years of racial oppression.

She presented the struggle as stemming from a people who understood how fighting an oppressor was linked to a commitment to a larger common humanity. Her music conveyed that the struggle was – simultaneously – about confrontation and care, about pushback and embracing with love, about angry resistance and songs of love. The songs combined the grittiness of the then current reality ('the truth' as Makeba was wont to say) with an implicit and joyful hope in the future.

In those dark years, her music and personal commitment to freedom represented by her life story buoyed us. For activists absorbed in long nights of work in those times (work that included intense discussions, strategising, detailed 'event planning', production of media, etc) her music gave us strength to sustain our efforts for change.

Overseas, Makeba gave her listeners a distinctive and compelling window on Africa. Her songs communicated the spirit of a continent (its moods, registers, modes of expression and the stubborn humanism underpinning so much of what we do in the continent).

Makeba's life was not easy. Although she clearly thrived on flexing her singing talent and her beats and melodies convey joy and an invigorated outlook on life, she suffered vindictive government action against her, the travails of exile (including being unable to travel to her mother's funeral in SA) and a rollercoaster of failed marriages (to persons such as Hugh Masekela and Stokely Carmichael). She bore this suffering with remarkable dignity.

Mphahlele's terrain of operation was different and, occupying the intellectual stage, his immense contribution to society was/is disseminated in a different way (compared to Makeba). His enormous impact ripples out from the world of literature, academia and the arts.

Numerous writers were influenced by Mphahlele. Emerging as a writer in the 50's, through his work and ideas he established himself as a giant in the decades to follow. However, despite his standing in literature and academia, Es'kia Mphahlele's contribution to South Africa has been woefully under-recognised in democratic South Africa.

Mphahlele is an outstanding representative of the Drum generation of writers (a group which included leading lights such as Can Themba, Nat Nakasa, Lewis Nkosi, Casey Motsisi, Arthur Maimane, Todd Matshikiza and Bloke Modisane and Henry Nxumalo).

His memoir, Down Second Avenue (1959), was a milestone, a turning point and a major marker of directions, themes, dexterity and moods in emergent black writing. This text is required reading wherever the development and history of indigenous literature is studied and qualifies as an important text beyond.

Throughout his life, Mphahlele remained committed to teaching (literature and writing) and to guiding young writers. Backed up by an impressive body of creative writing, he made contributions through teaching at university, involvement in writer's organisations, essay-writing and by granting access to young writers.

Life was also not a breeze for Mphahlele. Apart from a tough boyhood in racist South Africa as conveyed through his memoir, he endured life in exile (he wrote and taught in Nigeria, France, Kenya, Zambia and the US). He never bowed to the pressures (including the dislocation a writer faces in having to ply his craft in exile); he remained focused and strong, and avoided the self-destruction of several other writers of his generation.

A tireless warrior in the battle of ideas, Mphahlele wrote continually and skilfully to propagate a respectful and informed view of African culture and to advance his conception of African humanism. These ideas are likely to be taken forward by the Es'kia Institute that he founded in 2002.

With the passing of Makeba and Mphahlele the truth again hits home: democratic South Africa has failed to adequately acknowledge the contribution of artists – their role in freeing our ideas, in fuelling hope and an in entrenching key values (social cohesion, humanity, a life in dignity) that we have enshrined in the constitution and strive to realise in our daily lives.

They have not been given their due, neither symbolically nor via creation of dynamic institutions on culture and society nor by significant opportunities and channels for supporting young talent. Government and other role players need to act urgently to correct this shameful neglect and, through such action, live up to the legacy of stalwart such as Makeba and Mphahlele.

Finally, invoking Mahalia Jackson and her classic song (written by Dick Holler), we may well lament:

Has anybody here, seen our old friend uMama and Es'kia?

Can you tell us where they've gone?

They freed a lot of people, but it seems the good die young

We looked around and they were gone ….

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Open letter to Mantashe and Duarte

Open letter to Gwede (Mantashe) and Jessie (Duarte):

What is the lengths to which 'mainstream ANC' will go in countering Lekota's breakaway initiatives?

I address this and other questions as some-one who hails from Kwazulu Natal, and who as a UDF member saw at close range the horrible consequences of political violence. In violence of that kind, both sides lose, even the one that thinks it gained from violence. The latter will face loss or adverse consequences in the longer term.

In violence, people are maimed and die unnecessarily. In addition, the country loses materially and otherwise; destruction is visited on communities and households, and efforts to tackle poverty are set back. Negativity and bitterness – and even the shadows of revenge - are buried deep in the psychological ground. Although many work through it, trauma - spoken and unspoken - dogs communities, activists and leaders; it clouds perspectives and makes some people unable to ever function to their full potential again.

Although the freedom struggle has used non-violent mass action as a primary force, violence also features. Militarism is part of the lived experience of a good number of leaders/activists in the ANC. In addition, as argued before in these blog pages, Fanon's influence hangs over many liberation struggles (although the saga of overthrows, rebel movements and coups at certain points and in some parts of Africa and some other developing countries raises questions about the long term effects of violence). However, strong, principled, visionary and values-based leadership in the ANC has helped to curtail the use of violence in our liberation struggle. They strove to limit violent attacks to installations and physical structures and to prevent it from becoming the main element. In the view of these veteran leaders, violence would be used as retaliation against the repressive violence of the state but would never be lionised and worshipped.

In the current situation of tension between mainstream ANC and dissident groups it is clear there is a great deal of anger and irritation. The question is: How far is the ANC prepared to go in countering the Shikota initiative? This question, since we know the ANC policies and principles, has less to do with whether the party has formally initiated or approved coercive and violent actions. The questions are (a) whether the party will be ambiguous or unambiguous about condemning violence (b) whether the party will claim violence is justified because it was provoked (c) whether the party will look on and say something like 'it's not our business, we can't do anything since it represents local groups reacting to developments as they see fit'.

It is not good enough to blame the other side, and hence to argue that preventing violence is the responsibility of Terror Lekota. Such a response smacks of poor leadership. The ANC should be providing leadership and seizing the moral high ground. We expect nothing less.

Surely, in a case of tension between progressive forces, it is an ideal time to promote non-violence as way of engaging – and as the principle way of building Mzansi. The ANC has made a call to its activists to strongly resist what it calls the ‘renegades’ and to aggressively counter the Lekota’s key messages. It is within its rights to do so.

But we and it should also bear in mind that community members need to work together in future to deal with community issues, advance development and implement programmes to address poverty. Violence, coercion and intimidation, apart from the real danger of loss of life and destabilization, will break the trust that a governing ANC will need to draw on after the election to ensure effective community development. Violence will cause fear in communities and drive ordinary folk away from voting and involvement in political processes – feeding into trends of depoliticisation underway since 1994.

I therefore ask you: Speak out strongly and ambiguously against violence. It is the right thing to do. Through it, you will gain the moral high ground. You will be creating conditions for political participation at community level, and for active citizenship able to assume responsibility and call for accountability. You will be realizing – and affirming – the link between non-violence and development. You will be recognizing the link between local community action based on trust, co-operation and local democratic practice and the achievement of the longer term goal of a better life for all.

Do you agree with the points made in this open letter? What do you think - please comment.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

ANC: There is no crisis as far as we are concerned

South Africa's ANC really dislikes the word "crisis". Whether it is the new team in power at party HQ or the old and recently sidelined group, they cannot abide the word.

The party's spokespersons get extremely wound up (and many of the 'troops' too) if there is any reference to crisis, either in relation to internal party issues or with respect to the national political situation.

Of course, while a part of this is excusable as the instinctive reaction of a (or any) political party, one must ask whether the phobia for the word 'crisis' as of way of describing events can be taken to extremes. And when it is taken to such lengths, I must add, it becomes highly humorous. Cartoonists and radio hosts who imagine themselves to be satirists really have a good time.

And so, in the last year, party hacks have expended tremendous energy in hitting back at any suggestion of a 'crisis', in attacking the use of the word and lashing out at those who dare use the term. In hotly disputing the idea of a crisis, party spokespersons often insist that:

  • there are 'no divisions'
  • the country's constitution has not been violated and is not under any threat
    all actions taken were permissible and within the legal remit of the particular authority figure taking it
  • vicious conflict is alternately denied, natural, minor or 'blown out of all proportion'
  • all pertinent raised issues are internal matters that should never have been publicly aired in the first place

The most popular line these days is that unless there is a major constitutional issue at stake, there can be no crisis. Put another way: the official definition of a crisis is that the country's highly regarded constitution was being violated or is under threat. Narrowing the definition in this way may start off as 'spin doctoring', but it soon becomes an entrenched way of seeing and analysing developments.

For me, of course, the reality is that there is a leadership crisis in the country. We have not been properly or adequately led for the past year. There is a lack of focus, little sense of direction and "at the top," no one is seizing the initiative on key issues. Seizing the initiative would mean zooming in in a proactive way on an area of major concern to the public, demonstrating listening and engagement, framing the issue from the leadership point of view, giving clear pointers of action (and expected roles in action) and clear motivational calls for sustained unity in responding.

In this regard, the political hubbub post Polokwane, the sharpening of battle axes, the numerous leaks about infighting, the actual internal conflicts, the rumour mill, the provocative noises of certain youth leaders have all taken their toll. Mental bandwidth (at the political level) for critical socio-economic issues appears to severely limited.

Instead, as everyone knows, much attention is on the jostling over (or an intensive process of clarifying) which sub-group or leadership configuration will have dominant influence over the course of events in the country. But the official line has always been that there is no crisis.

Some definitions of crisis emphasise danger and possible catastrophe: they refer to "situations of extreme danger" or an incident that might involve death or injury to people or a tipping point that – if not managed well – leads to catastrophe. There are also less dramatic definitions: those that refer to "a crucial stage" or "turning point" or "an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending" and a "threat to the ability to carry out mission". JF Kennedy said that "(w)hen written in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity".

For my purpose, the real (and only) question is whether there are major problems, issues and dynamics at the national level that require urgent, focused and highest-level attention. Although the word crisis is ordinarily used as a signifier of such, the recognition of such issues and challenges is more important than the semantic games as such.

What we are witnessing is a tussle over language and the use of words. The battle is about who can control the discourse – the media, the opposition party, the commentators, the leaders and/or strategists of key social movements. Whether explicitly or subliminally, these protagonists are keenly aware that she or he who controls the discourse controls the direction of events.

But denial of a crisis or of crises (like the crises that many say we have in the education and health arena) also means denying ourselves the opportunity of galvanising people and building unity. Such unity and popular mobilisation can lead to an effective response that exploits new possibilities or, at the least, to deft management of the crisis.

Those who flatly and automatically deny the existence of crises do not realise that there is no shame in conceding a crisis, just as there is no humiliation in admitting conflict. Crises and conflict represent contestation and contradictions that are necessary to propel a project or process to a new level of thinking. Looked at positively, crisis and conflict can lead to growth as well as to new capacities and knowledge. In South Africa's context, crises and conflict potentially lead to renewed national solidarity, focus, determination and joint resolve among key interest groups to work together to protect our fledgling democracy.

Crisis is a catalyst. Even though it's not advisable to wait to change, a crisis can jolt us into making changes and can prompt us into new ways of functioning in the world.

What is your view? Please add your comment …

Thursday, 18 September 2008

New progressive political practice needed

Progressive politics at the moment is a cauldron of uncertainty, change and disarray. The dynamics raise fundamental questions about politics. They also raise as deep questions about progressive politics and its capacity and methods for bringing into being a just world.

The Mbeki / Zuma clash forms a vibrant, dynamic and - to many - ominous backdrop. Interestingly, Polokwane raised the questions of the nature of politics and their implications for democratic change into the future. Polokwane and the antecedent debates broached the matter of: what kind of political party - utilizing what kind of internal political practices and external political priorities - would play the vangaurd role in sustaining the gains of liberation?

Worryingly though, Polokwane and post-Polokwane has been unable to provide answers to the questions it raised.

How we resolve our challenges in Mzansi will inform progressive politics much more widely (in the developing world). Who leads (who is the motive force for change), how such leadership is to be given to society and how any leading role is integrated into broader democratic politics - these are questions core to the sustainability of progressive politics.

We need a new praxis - the old has run into contradictions and fundamental problems. For me, there are three pointers as discussion and debate unfolds (or should unfold) regarding the renewal and reengineering of progressive politics.

Pointer 1: The first is the work of Ari Sitas (still to be published) around what he terms neo-Ghandi-ism. For Sitas, this family of ideas (which includes Frere-ism, Nyerere-ism and the key ideas in Ghandi’s political practice) revolves around voluntarism, co-operatives and non-violent popular action. He notes that historically and in anti-colonial struggles, neo-Ghandiism was trumped by Fanonism (informing a praxis dominated by violent overthrow and militarism). Many victories followed, but the gains made by the latter praxis now appear to be very short term.

Pointer 2. The second pointer is Joe Slovo's paper: Has Socialism Failed? The paper deals with the serious (fatal) ailments of communism as practiced in the Soviet Union; but it also refers to the role of democratic and left parties in driving society-wide change. Slovo raised pithy questions about how a party should behave internally and towards wider questions of democracy in society if it wanted to sustain transformation to a new society. Although debated in the Communist Party, this paper was largely ignored by the African National Congress. The lessons it put forward were not disputed nor rejected by progressive forces; they were simply neglected and not internalised. This paper ought to play a role in any refashioning of progressive politics.

Pointer 3: Here I refer to the range of issues, focuses and principles I have harped on about in my blogs and other writing. I believe this combination of ideas of ideas could be seen/used as an input to shaping a new politics. This blog is no a place for detail but the focuses and principles are:
- participation, and a leadership which responds well to broad and substantive partipation in policymaking processes.
- inclusiveness; in a world torn about by divisions, progressive parties should embrace inclusiveness and work towards social cohesion between estranged groups.
- a poverty focus; in this regard, progressive parties should lead in the fight against poverty. Furthermore, in addition to strategies focusing on the economy, they should use methods that prioritise involvement and participation of the poor.
- intellectual engagement; following the best traditions, progressive parties should encourage debate, should demand that leading activists engage with ideas and data and should subscribe to evidence-based policymaking when in government. Political practice and engagement, especially during election time, should be about real issues as opposed to mud-slinging and expediency associated with factionalism. Rationality should be encouraged, blind followership discouraged and debate valued.

South Africa is seen the world over as playing a leading role in building a world that is peaceful, where social justice prevails, where freedom and democracy replaces authoritarianism and where a dynamic citizenship is encouraged. Internally, however, we are at a major crossroads. This question has surfaced powerfully: what are the means to sustain our democracy? We have this year learnt bitterly that a new and "best of breed" constitution is not on its own the answer. Leadership, good politics and a progressive praxis - all these are vitally neccssary to sustain us on the path of transformation towards a winning nation.

What are your views? What kind of political practice is needed during the reign of Jacob Zuma to ensure progressive politics moves beyond crisis and continues to deepen democratic social change? Please add your views by leaving a comment.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Xenophobia and urban poverty a highly flammable mix

This week, I have published a piece which argues that xenophobia and urban poverty combine to create an explosive mix. The article looks at the central place of urban informal settlements in the strife.

I also point out that the conflict is a struggle between poor and poor (it easier for those mobilizing to lash out at those closest to them and easiest to attack) and anger turned inward.

The article argues, furthermore, that the conflict has its roots in:
- deep-seated identity issues that are linked to conflict flashpoints occurring at various points in our history.
- a clash of expectations where locals are aspirational (they want a better life and good jobs now) whereas many poor immigrants are relatively happy to grab the crumbs that fall off the economic table.
- different approaches to entrepreneurialism (and notes that researchers suggest that immigrants are better hawkers and small traders than locals).

See the complete piece at, a website of the South African Civil Society Information Service. The article is in the right hand column of the landing page.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Varied reflections on the xenophobic violence

This week I provide a range of reflections, thoughts and varied comments on the xenophobic attacks sweeping Gauteng and rippling out to other parts of South Africa.

Participants in the mobs that have launched attacks on black foreigners in our townships have given several reasons why they want to drive immigrants from the rest of Africa out of their settlements. The following points need to be made in response to comments made/views about immigrants:

Allegation: Immigrants are taking our jobs: Many immigrants take jobs that others do not want. As I have argued elsewhere, there is a clash of expectations between locals and foreigners. The locals have aspirations for good jobs and a decent life now. They compare their lot with their advancement made by various layers of South Africans, and contrast their situation with the comforts of those who have benefited from economic growth. The immigrants, on the other hand, are bottom feeders; they will take crumbs that fall from the economic table. Immigrants also have certain rights to jobs in South Africa. Their countries' economies are so linked to our country and our economy; many of the goods sold and consumed in their countries are produced here. It is only logical that people do not want to sit in their own countries (confined to a role as consumers) and instead to relocate to where they can be involved in production. If globalisation permits/ thrives on /escalates the movement of money and goods, it is illogical to expect people to stay put within tightly controlled borders.

Allegation: They are taking housing that should be allocated to locals: It is South Africans that rent out their shacks and RDP houses to foreigners. This is in some ways a natural phenomenon – using one’s assets to add to household income; it is even what the capitalist system expects of smart people in the property market. Furthermore, if it is true that foreigners are getting state housing – ahead of locals whose names have been languishing on waiting lists – then housing and home affairs officials who are bending the rules should take the blame. These officials, their palms ‘greased’, are prepared to issue ID books or allocate houses to foreign nationals in violation of laws and regulations.

Allegation: They are taking our women: This is backward thinking. Such thinking is sexist and undermines the Constitution. It also ranks with the kind of perverse thinking that informed the Mixed Marriages Act under apartheid. Women have the right to choose their partners; they do not belong to a nation, and their choices about who to marry is not circumscribed by national interest. Surely those who make this allegation – and one must assume it is men – should be able to initiate romance and marriage with partners without expecting the government to implement a protectionism system to ensure an adequate supply of potential partners for them. Surely, sir/brother/mfowethu, you can win the affection of a potential partner without help from government or a violent mob. Women and feminists should be outraged at the shameless paternalism being shown towards women.

Crime has also been mentioned as an issue in the disturbances and attacks, though not always. It is argued that immigrants and immigration contribute to crime. Those punting this view find it much harder to sustain this argument, especially since South Africans are as involved in crime. Those making the allegation also don’t spell out whether they are referring to petty crime or (something which may have more merit, subject to evidence) the fact that – due to patterns of crime and international connections involved – members from certain groups may be disproportionately involved in certain types of sophisticated or organised crimes. Of course, if anyone has information of groups made up predominantly of either South Africans, Russians or Nigerians, etc., the targets of action (including co-operating with the relevant police units) should be specific persons and the specific sites from which such crimes are organized and perpetrated.

The South Africans that are swept up in the attacks appear to be old and young, women and men as well as ordinary community members (many of whom until now have been exemplary neighbours and engaged in community building). They are generally part of poor communities, but participants in the mob enjoy wider support: undefined numbers of people in the rest of society not directly involved in the attacks.

This support is rooted in fearful and negative attitudes towards immigrants, which attitudes are widespread. The pervasiveness of such attitudes is apparent from the following findings cited by Fact-a-Day (which draws on information from Future Fact 2006 and 2007):
• 69% of urban South Africans agree with the statement 'Immigrants are a threat to jobs for South Africans, they should not be allowed into the country.'
• 81% of urban South Africans agree with the statement 'South Africa should severely limit immigration into the country from troubled African countries.' (FutureFact 2007)

It is incredible how quickly prejudice can switch over from rhetoric and a largely passive outlook into a campaign of violent attacks. It’s amazing (and dangerous) how people lose their shyness for expressing perverse ideas – for example, that it is okay and even justifiable to violently attack foreigners – and how quickly such ideas spread.

Those who engage in racially-based attacks against people (as opposed to militant actions against systems and targeting physical objects owned by government or corporations) often see themselves as superior or better, or (in our case) even more worthy of human rights than their ‘prey’. But through their behaviour they manifest a deep deficiency. By wanton killing, they take part in and forge an alliance with evil and injustice. They are equally vulnerable, they have fears (and fears cloud understanding and perspective), and they are often not sufficiently aware of the (further) dehumanizing and brutalizing effect of violence on themselves. They also fail to understand how their actions will come back to haunt them when future generations in their immediate vicinity continue to address problems through destructive violence and the taking of lives.

Clearly the combined effect of poverty and worsening economic conditions for the poorest of the poor is the crucible for the wave of attacks. (I will deal with social and economic issues in a later piece). Protest action and a militant response to such conditions are understandable and warranted. However, there are choices in how we respond to circumstances - and in how we aim and deploy militant action; and the more we build community power and influence over developments in society, the more conscious we are of the choices open to us. Through organizing and debating prior to action, aggrieved groups widen possibilities regarding actions and for actions that can lead to sustainable and more fundamental social changes. And conversely, I am leery of social actions that are not based on internal democracy and controlled through democracy.

From a different angle, friends involved in esoteric work adopt different emphases in their understanding of the unfolding events. They zoom in on issues of dignity and self-esteem, and the way these are decimated in certain contexts of deprivation.

A highly regarded esoteric leader (who I won’t name because I don’t have permission to) argues that those who lack control over their lives undertake violence as a way of feeling more in control. In this regard, anger turns to violence; and dehumanization (erosion of the divine within) plays out in violent attacks on other people. Violence then (as the feminists have repeatedly pointed out) is about power and the exertion of power over others. The guru wonders at the extent of dehumanization and marginalization that exists in informal settlements, and which has now bred such viciousness and brutality.

Another argues that the problem is that “poor, hungry and desperate people” in informal settlements are “not seen” or have become invisible. She notes that when such people become invisible they can “stoop so low as to inflict torture on their fellow neighbours”. This translates, for her, into a need to reach out and show care (probably valid as an immediate response, I would argue) and recognizing the humanity (more valuable provided such recognition can lead to change in social structures and processes) of marginalized people.

I conclude by noting: In society, the attackers are not better than foreigners or immigrants, nor are we onlookers to the rampage better than the attackers (even as we express outrage at the attacks). We are all embroiled and so need to work together to deploy understanding, democratic solutions and decisive action to unravel the deep-seated tensions and conflicts.

Dear blog reader, what are your views? Please add your comments.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

New united Black Consciousness political body to launch soon

The united or unified Black Consciousness Movement is set to launch soon, possibly in next month.

The core of the story is not new; it has been a long and winding road towards unity for Azapo, the Socialist Party of Azania (Sopa) and the Black People’s Convention (BPC). The intent was expressed as far back as 2000, and there have been previous announcements indicating that progress has been made.

But now, and with Ishmael Mkhabela facilitating, the process has apparently moved past the point of no return. And with the launch, the main leaders – like PAC leaders when it launched in 1959 – will feel the pressure to perform and deliver.

The launch is a major achievement given the many differences that lay like potholes and snares along the path. Past hurts, angry divisions, the bitterness of jilted partnerships, prima donna-ism, clashes over what needs to be done – these were all there.

The parties are in some ways splinters off the same block; and apart from needing to sort out a common vision and a shared strategic view of SA, had to overcome (or at least manage) significant personality tensions during the talks.

I will be watching the launch with a hawk’s eye. I am less interested in who the leaders will be, the name of the new animal (both contentious issues during the talks, I am told) and where funding will come from. I am far more interested in what niches the new body will seek to occupy and what programmes are to be implemented.

Leaders involved in the talks have pointed to tensions and divisions in the ANC and the ANC’s tripartite alliance, and emphasize that now is a good time to form a strong, credible left-of-centre opposition. They even point to events unfolding in Zimbabwe – and have declared that a new force such as BCM would be ready to harvest the tons of disillusioned voters that the ANC would be shedding when a similar fracturing of the ruling party happens here. Regarding the next elections, some BC voices say: “Many former ANC supporters will be looking for a party to vote for in the next elections, and we’ll be there,” while others say, “I fear the unification has come too late to make an impact on the next election.”

However – as a strategy – capitalizing on the weakness of another party is insufficient. You also have to be clear about what you are “for”.

Thus, as the launch date approaches, one might ask:
- Will the main focus for the new entity be formal politics and fighting elections? (Indications are that the new formation will definitely take part in the next elections).
Will it, alternately, place more emphasis on an identity as a cultural-political movement, working primarily in the realm of ideas, education, consciousness, etc?
- Will the new player adopt a primary focus area and if so, what choice will be made between focus areas such as service delivery to the poor; justice and human rights issues and the challenge of ensuring access to justice for all, and; effective government institutions (and accountability in these terms)?
- Will it take part in government, if given the opportunity to do so, and as a key black consciousness figure, Mosibudi Mangena, a minister in Mbeki’s Cabinet is doing?.
Will it regularly take part in or initiate social mobilization, or will it eschew mass action in favour of using national parliament as a platform?
- Will leaders continue to throw around terms such as 'Scientific Socialism' as a key reference, as some did in early stages of the talks? And if so, how will they translate such a term so that it has practical relevance in the light of the day-to-day struggles of the marginalised? Does adherence to such an ideology mean, for example, that BCM will prioritise alliances with trade unions and privilege labour issues?
- What does black consciousness mean (BC) today? [In its hey day, BC played a key role (See my blog entitled Finding the ‘fit’ between Biko’s ideas and the Tambo path to freedom, 19/09/07). Together with worker and trade union action, it ignited resistance in highly repressive times when the struggle was at its lowest ebb. What will be its key message today? Now almost everyone can be ‘black conscious’; anyone can make a fist – even companies (that want to reach the mass market), mainstream radio stations, clothing brands, advertisers, fly-by-night colleges, funeral parlours, and so on].

The various parts of the BC movement are already scarred by their past encounters with such questions. Misreading the mood of the people, Azapo boycotted the first election - and arguably lost ground among the electorate. By the time they joined the electoral system, they could only muster enough support to win one seat in parliament.

Around 1994, Azapo was the main flag bearer for black consciousness. Then Lybon Mabaso, citing differences, broke away to form the Sopa in 1996. The party split further when some opposed (and Mosibudi Mangena accepted) an offer to participate in Mbeki’s government after the 1999 elections. Those unhappy with Mangena’s strategic stance formed BPC.

All the protagonists have since kissed and made up; but the new leaders will have to do more than hug each other and smile for the cameras on launch day and after. They will need to speak with one voice on strategic issues, display respect for a collective and shared leadership, and consistently demonstrate healthy ways of debating and reaching agreement when major differences arise.

As always, I ask: What do readers think? Will the new body make a major difference to the political scene in Mzansi? Please add your comment.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Government stirs the pot at launch of report on democracy at local government level

Things are not good at local government level. That is, when measured against the requirements of good governance, according to a recently released report.

A network of NGOs, the Good Governance Learning Network (GGLN), launched its report yesterday in Johannesburg. The report follows eighteen months of research and is entitled ‘Local Democracy in Action: A civil society perspective of local governance in action’.

Based on the interplay of inputs from the presenter’s table, the launch was odd. This was so in the main because government caused a stir when it assumed the moral high ground and slammed the report for not being critical and provocative enough.

The presenter of the report, Terence Smith (who is also co-ordinator of the GGLN), made a number of key points arising from a substantial report that referred several times to the existence of a “crisis” at local government level.

Discussing democracy and participation, Smith noted that in many cases, participation (the obligation for community participation in local governance) was observed in the breach. The ward committee system – a key structure for citizen participation – was weak with these bodies lacking focus and meaningful decisionmaking power. Ward committees allow municipalities to meet formal obligations but “crowd out” more effective forms of participation, he noted. The Integrated Development Plans, although somewhat improved and lately “more credible”, remained a problematic area. According to Smith, the report asked whether IDPs had become too complex, and were a barrier to rather than an appropriate tool for community participation.

He referred to implementation of municipalities' indigent policy, observing that far too many deserving people are insufficiently aware of the benefits due to them. He stated further that local governments were generally doing poorly on local economic development, and that gains seemed to be generally confined to tourism-related initiatives.

Speaking as respondent, Idasa’s Steven Friedman, noted that reviews could either take a consultancy approach (“tweaking existing policies or approaches”) or a critical stance. He charged that the CGLN report was a good example of the consultancy orientation; it merely provided “helpful hints on how to tweak things”. However, he argued, the consultancy approach was ill-advised in a context where the existing policies were the cause of the governance problems and the crisis of confidence at local level. Friedman argued that NGOs should be far more critical and ought to be making full use of the relatively greater open political ‘space’ in South Africa today. Friedman criticised various aspects in the report: indigent policies (coupled with targeting and the means test) were demeaning and further marginalised the poorest; capacity building was not the answer to municipalities' skills problems - local goverment should simply do less; more effective citizen partipation will lead to better technical solutions.

Then government, through the Department of Provincial and Local Government Director-General, Ms Lindiwe Msengana-Ndlela, raised eyebrows when it questioned various aspects of the report. The director-general:
- observed that critical thought, coupled with alternative proposals, was necessary in debates about policy and practice.
- complained that the report did not highlight “best practice”.
- bemoaned that this report did not state “what should be discontinued”.
- said the report erred in devoting a major section to ‘service delivery’; this was a term government used -- NGOs should rather be talking more holistically about “development”.
- said she detected aspects of unfavourable agendas e.g. neo-liberalism and certain ideas from the past, and this caused her to scrawl “No, no” in pages in her copy of the report.
- lamented that the report was weighted in favour of “known issues”; she wanted a report that provide more new information.

There was limited discussion following the speakers’ presentation; it was, after all, a launch. But, over drinks, delegates mulled over the more provocative or, in the speakers’ own words, “impolite” comments that were left hanging in the air.

The government’s line at the launch was interesting. As one delegate to the launch noted: “It was if the government was saying: ‘These problems have nothing to do with us. Unless you can bring us a different report, a better or more critical report, we cannot even begin to consider or discuss what you think ought to be done by those in power’. In those terms, it was the neatest of tricks.

The launch featured a most unusual input by a government spokespersons at a function of partners and – even in the truncated discussion from the floor that followed – a remarkable avoidance of the pertinent issues at stake. Participants were left none the wiser about what is to be done about the report's stark judgement: that aside from local government elections, there is little by way of effective accountability, community participation and active citizen involvement in local governance taking place.

The launch was held at the Centre for Policy Studies. Participants in the network include CPS and various NGOs active in the field of local government issues.

The network’s criteria for good governance are:
- Democracy
- Responsibility
- Accountability
- Equitable service delivery and poverty reduction.

The GGLN receives backing from Mott Foundation, Ford Foundation and GTZ.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Great opportunity for intellectuals to play a bolder role

It is a time of change and renewal – or, at the very least, a time of upheaval - in the continent and the country.

These are times when intellectuals – however defined – need to take stock of the role they will play. Their role in change processes is not an exclusive role – there are other forces at play, including class forces, popular forces, economic factors and shifts in global power relations. But given their role in mobilising new ideas – organizing interests, mobilizing consensus and, as Edward Said put it, changing minds and expanding markets – their potentially have a substantial part to play in moving things in positive and hopeful directions.

Intellectuals are active on many fronts, and operate extensively beyond the ‘traditional’ spheres of intellectual activity. They are used and deployed by all kinds of interests – in roles as consultants, journalists, professionals, policy advisors, marketers, makers of cultural products, and so on – and it is high time they reviewed what it means to be an intellectual and what responsibility necessarily accompanies this function.

From the progressive viewpoint, intellectuals should side with what is right, should be part of making a better world and should strive, as Said has noted, to combat prejudice, to advance justice and to be free of double standards as regards their attitudes to treatment of human beings.

Various voices have commented on the role of intellectuals in South Africa during its complicated transition process. President Thabo Mbeki has lamented that intellectuals are not playing their role and wept, so to speak, for black intellectuals. Xolela Mangcu hit back, arguing that the ruling party muzzled intellectuals, and has used its powers to restrict intellectual activity. Mangcu rails against (to lift from a chapter title in his recent book) "Mbeki's assault on black intellectuals". The dispute aside, there is agreement that, going forward, the country needs more vibrant debate, more open discussion of options and alternatives and more evidence-based engagement around burning issues.

There is now much more open space for discussion and debate in South Africa. This is so for various reasons. There has been a dramatic change in leadership at the ANC’s Polokwane conference last December – and it seems that since then, we regularly witness divergent positions emanating from within the ruling party on key policy matters. Leading up to Polokwane, a surge of grassroots pressure has thrown wide open the debate about the pace and the methods of social change.

Furthermore, the winds of change battering Zimbabwe seems to be good for the democratic climate in other regional countries. We in South Africa must face up to the possibility of a second transformation in recently-liberated countries; and we must discuss under what conditions that may occur (or should occur), and what the political goals of such a change should be. Also in the present period, various societal issues – resurgence of racism, service delivery crises – are coming to the boil and a range of governance issues demand attention – the role of parastatals; the relationship between parliament(s) and the executive.

It is a good time for intellectuals. They can be in the fray as South Africa’s precious democracy – so robust in many ways and yet so fragile in parts – gets reengineered.

They can play a much more prominent role. They can be much more vocal, they can, to a greater extent, stand up for generally recognized human rights, eschew narrow interests, transgress when blind compliance is required; they can debate and ask questions, speak with/for the marginalized and – most of all – encourage democratic debate.

Intellectuals can play a dynamic role in fanning the democratic participation that seems to be a prerequisite for the economically vibrant, well-functioning, just and winning society we are building.

For intellectuals, the moment is ripe to be in the forefront of generating ideas and options to sustain/improve our democracy and to vastly improve service-delivery to the poorest. To contribute to getting better policies, to ensuring better policy implementation, to strengthening accountability systems and to expansion of effective leadership in government departments.

Speaking as a progressive (and admitting my bias), intellectuals have the opportunity – more than ever – to be clear about supporting our democratic transformation as it strives to eradicate the pain and division of the past and build a prosperous and just future for all.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Leadership lessons: finding meaning in the regional crises

There are major leadership issues in Southern Africa. This is exemplified in events in Zimbabwe, at Eskom and the recent positions taken by SADC on the Zimbabwean crisis. All these flashpoints illustrate that when leaders and leadership fail, the public gets the short end of the stick (and endure additional and unnecessary pressure, burdens and suffering).

In Zimbabwe, the main political leaders have taken advantage of the population for many years; at the same time, these leaders in the ruling party have managed to get vast numbers of Zimbabweans to continue to vote for them in successive elections. At present, the ruling party, Zanu-PF, with its controlling tentacles in all state institutions, has stifled release of election results and has for many weeks blocked the ascension of a new government into power. In the April elections, Zimbabweans have at last exercised their vote to remove Zanu-PF from office; however, ordinary Zimbabweans, by and large, still shy away from using non-violent means to restore proper functioning of democratic institutions and an to end to repression.

At Eskom, with electricity blackouts arising from a lack of planning and poor strategic management, the leadership has failed to assume responsibility in any substantial sense. The Eskom debacle raises the following: Are institutions accountable to anyone; do they subscribe to any sense of minimum performance requirements for such a strategic entity; do they subscribe to a formerly adopted notion of leadership? If they were and did, how can the organization simply concede failure without any actions – a suspension, a firing, a withholding of bonuses or (at the most limpwristed) a pro forma rebuke of a person or committee – to indicate that the parastatal subscribes to high leadership standards.

The SADC fails to take bold leadership action when a more courageous position is required in the interests of regional justice and regional stability. It would appear a kind of “club” loyalty, and sometimes a historical solidarity between heads of state, takes precedence. Certainly, we can see that regional leaders and heads of state would want to be polite and “chommie-chommie” with each other, but should they protect each other at all costs? Should they avoid speaking up during a regional crisis or in the face of a member state’s systematic viciousness against its citizens? The people of the region have expectations of SADC. These expectations will never be fulfilled if the SADC does not see itself as a body that must provide bold leadership, if it does not set membership ground rules and if the collective does not require that members be in good standing in terms of such rules.

When leaders go off the rails, especially national leaders, it is often not just leaders that are failing; in many cases it is in fact a failure of the entire leadership system.

In situations of such failure - depending on how followers react - a big question mark often hangs over followers. A good leadership culture requires followers that are active, on their toes and alert about what they are entitled to. Whether we like it or not, we as followers get the quality of leadership we deserve/ are prepared to work for/ are prepared to struggle for. We get the leadership systems that we are prepared to build and sustain. A failure of leadership may also suggest that an erosion of leadership and of leadership culture in political parties and other influential organizations. In such formations, systems of accountability and succession planning may not be functioning properly and are most likely not working to replace moribund leaders who are out of touch with the current context.

Finally, the collapse of leadership culture may mean that formal institutions are failing; institutions set norms and boundaries for what leaders may or may not do. When leadership problems take the form of excesses – attacks on human rights, corruption, misuse of powers, failure to fulfill a legal duty to act – institutions measures should kick in and ensure corrective action is taken. However, if perverse and destructive leadership hangs around for years or decades, their hands firmly on the reins of power, then key institutions urgently need rebuilding or rejuvenation.

Leadership as discussed here includes but is broader than the skills, behaviors and performance of individual leaders. Leadership should be seen as:
a system;
a set of relationships; or
a culture (in the sense of agreed norms and practices).

In this regard, leadership can be seen as the expectations we have, the consequences which follow poor leadership and the demand for good leadership.

It is necessary to refer to expectations as they refer to the standards that prevail in the community or in companies regarding leadership. However, “expectations” are still relatively passive - necessary but insufficient. Just having them says nothing about what happens when leadership expectations are disappointed. If “consequences” (e.g. that you be stripped of your leadership position in certain circumstances) as well as the “demand” for good quality leadership are part of the process, it would speak of a more vibrant leadership culture.

From this, one can see how important followership is. What are the things that make up good followership? I suggest these aspects are important: A sense that you are entitled to good leadership, being alert and critical, voting in an intelligent manner, calling on leaders to provide information and reportback, mutual accountability between leaders and followers, and openly expressing views on issues so leaders know what followers feel and think.

I hope these reflections contribute in a small way to an agenda for change in Southern Africa. To a process that moves us beyond crises and towards fulfilling the potential of the region. If we can draw out critical lessons about governance in the region, then maybe – just maybe – there will be some meaning in the crises we are experiencing.

As usual, readers comments and replies are welcomed!

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Let's keep tackling racism - taking the medicine is necessary

On racism, South Africa is a bit like the TB patient who, because the medicine has started to kick in, presumes he is cured, celebrates early and stops taking his medicine. Just because so many things were better, many of us somehow imagined that centuries of racism was no longer a problem in Mzansi (South Africa).

But in recent times – at long last – there has been a ringing wake up call. The UFS incident – the racist and sadistic form of the loutish student behavior at that university – has shocked the nation. And it has revealed how racism, like the eggs and infant offspring of Godzille, is alive and seething below the urbane surface of South Africa. This weekend, apart from additional racist attacks (such as the skinhead-type attack on a DA leader and his wife), Afrikaner writers confirm the existence and vibrancy of racism (see below).

There seemed to be little appetite to discuss race and racial issues in the last 10 to 13 years. Those who tried to foreground the issue often walked a gauntlet of abuse – including accusations that they themselves were being racist.

Thus, in the post 1994 period:
a)The Democratic Alliance equated any discussion of racism and racist attitudes with the playing of “the race card”. Their stance was matched by responses from certain volk artists and some Afrikaner rightwing parties who believed the real issue was the marginalization of Afrikaners and their language in the new SA. How pathetic can (some) former oppressors be? As Max du Preez says: “Meneer en mevrou, haal ten minste die witbrood (of sale ek eerder se die BMW en vakansiehuis) onder jou arm uit voordat jy jou lot so bitterlik bekla …” Despite crime which affects us all, he tells Afrikaners in effect to “get a life”: “(D)ie verlies aan mag is die onafwendbare gevolg van die einde van wit oorheersing” (Beeld, 12/04/08).

b) There was skepticism, irate reaction and lack of appreciation when President Thabo Mbeki raised the issue of race in Parliament in 2004 and at other times. It is interesting to note that – since the UFS debacle – the President has maintained silence on the matter. Maybe he believes that he has done his bit; in earlier times, his efforts were rewarded with media accusations that he was unceremoniously dumping Nelson Mandela's reconciliation vision. The rest of the public, including the general black community, remained silent. A senior figure in the HRC commented to me then that, since it was the country's President raising the issue, people probably felt too intimidated to pick up the discussion and openly express themselves on the issue. He noted that it would be better if discussion on racism was initiated from another quarter.

c) The Human Rights Commission has recoiled from substantial, sustained and proactive work around race and anti-racism in the last decade or more. For South Africa, having a Constitution that is non-racist and non-racial is a great achievement. However, institutional mechanisms (programmes, budgets and responsible people) are needed to convert what the Constitution envisages into reality. These “operational” elements are important in a situation where state-supported racial oppression has ruled the roost for centuries. The Human Rights Commission and the Justice Department should be carrying out the developmental and change management work necessary for building non-racialism. Words like education, awareness and “good practice” guidelines come to mind; so do words such as research and dialogue.

d) Indications are that many top black people, the high achievers, themselves wanted to be shot of talk of race and racism. They wanted to shut it out. It was a bad experience that they wished to put behind them. They would rather talk of poverty and disadvantaged people than racism or racial discrimination. They feel uncomfortable when race issues are mentioned and, as it were, they have to take a position which might be controversial. They would rather focus on making money than getting into controversial discussions with other people – colleagues or superiors on the other side of the fence – who have so much real and residual power. For these high flyers, discussing race sidetracks from their achievements, from their individual abilities and from their desire to be accepted as top performing and value adding individuals in the capitalist world.

e) For the media generally, discussion of racism was not sexy. Each story of racially based abuse (for example, violent attacks on defenceless farmworkers by white bosses) was treated as an isolated incident. Probing the family and community attitudes that informed or condoned such attacks was apparently uninteresting or un-newsworthy. Much of the media went further: any discussion of race was condemned as a ploy. In terms of that stance, much too simplistically, anyone wanting to stimulate discussion of racism was really attempting to avoid investigation of corruption or plotting to muzzle the free press.

f) Most foreign donors wanted to savour the SA miracle. They did not want discussion of continued racial oppression to disturb this (rare) taste of nirvana. Working for decades, investing millions in programmes that show limited success in life's bigger scheme, they wanted and needed a success story. For them, the time had come to focus on development issues (as distinct from political issues [such as race] that would need explaining to Foreign Affairs back home). Focusing on continued racist practice on farms, on the experience of black children at university, on the racial implications of the school system in South Africa, just did not fit with the dominant picture. And so, funding for NGOs dealing with racism and promoting diversity and pluralism dried up. And so such NGOs declined or went to the wall.

g) A whole rainbow industry emerged. This included the advertising industry, do-gooders and well-meaners and the highly paid image makers/branders in our society. In this context, there would be no social responsibility funds – either from parastatals and corporations - to address racist attitudes and practices. In other words, it was expected that racial ideology would somehow simply fade away, all on its own, without assistance from any quarter. What the marketers and newsouthafrica spin-doctors do not realize is this: we can hug the vision of the rainbow nation and at the same time continue to be alert to how racism might continue to live below the surface (in our homes and in institutions), influencing our behaviour and attitudes.

Just to conform that racism is not just a figment of in the minds of some spoilsports or confined to the University of Free State incident, this past weekend
• The Sunday Times carried a story about young white Afrikaners using the World Wide Web (Facebook) to propagate racist views and their opposition to democratic SA. So strident is language (bordering on hate speech) and racist rhetoric on the forums concerned that other Afrikaners are lobbying to have them shut down.
• The Sunday Times editor, Mondli Makhanya, alleged that a former columnist – one hailed as a blue eyed boy by tens of thousands of white readers – maintained the controversial view “essentially that black people are indolent savages”.
• In Beeld, Johann Rossouw, in an article trying to understand root causes, confirms the increasing racism among young Afrikaners (“die toenemende rassisme wat .. vandag onder [jonger] Afrikaners voorkom”.)
• In the same edition of Beeld, Max du Preez (who anticipated he would get tons of abusive mail from fellow-Afrikaners for his views) notes that “black South Africans are all too aware of the extent to which white people regard them as inferior”.
(Of course, the latter views show that there are no solid monolithic blocs for and against racism and, although racism is widespread, there is enormous potential for South Africans from different background to unite against the scourge).

In all of this, the upside is that more of us are rubbing the sleep from our eyes and seeing again the reality of racism plus the need for concrete programmes and initiatives to combat racism.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

A website that blows the cobwebs off research papers

The webside is such a good idea: it takes research work produced as part of studies (usually subsidised by public sector funds) and makes it more widely available.

Okay, access is not completely gratis: after accessing a certain number of free pages, you are encouraged to buy the full text. But it does make visible/available knowledge and analysis that would otherwise gather dust on the shelves or in the archives of universities.

I have consequently placed the research piece from my Masters degree on this site. Although a little dated now, it deals with issues of poverty in the urban area, survival strategies of the poor and prospects for vibrant city economies in Africa. It is entitled: Informalisation as a Strength. Community Survival Systems and Economic Development in the African City.

Check it out. Location:

Or you might simply want to visit to see what other thinking work is available there.

Let's err on the side of giving FBJ the space to mobilise

I usually agree with Jody Kollapen, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission; he usually has a particularly good take on the SA set up. And his articulation of issues often promotes deeper understanding of the aspects involved.

But I differ with his finding on whether the Forum of Black Journalists has a right to organize on the basis of black solidarity.

Kollapen was today reporting back on an investigation into this matter following a complaint by white journalists at Radio 702 regarding a “blacks only” FBJ launch event held recently. Kollapen reported that the HRC saw no problem with limiting attendance at an event to members only. It took issue, more fundamentally, with the (blacks only) membership policy of the FBJ. Such a policy position was unconstitutional, Kollapen argued.

The HRC findings are technically correct and well argued. The findings are also strongly consistent with the “ideal” – and with the desired end state of positive social engagement and interaction in South Africa.

But the findings overlook the following:
• The fact that SA is in transition and that, in key areas, that transition is painfully slow, as Kollapen himself argued recently.
• The historical context, including the fact that in the past there was general acceptance and respect for the decision of certain liberation organizations to use racial exclusion in their membership policies.
• That the Constitution emphases socio-economic rights and dignity as much as it does non-racialism; are we also prepared to declare policies that promote inequality, such as privatization of the provision of basic services, “unconstitutional”?
• That black and white people rarely come together in common forums to forge common objectives, often seem ignorant of the fact they are working towards the same objectives; rarely engage each other in open debate to debunk/challenge assumptions, stereotypes and preconceptions.
• That, in this context, many may feel that the best way to focus energies advance objectives is to unite those who are affected in the same way about an issue.
• The implications of the finding for women’s organizations; there are many instances where – even though the HRC may interpret the country’s Constitution in the same way for them – women may feel they can marshal their energies better if they do not have to deal with the dynamics unleashed by the participation of men.

The findings are thus hard-edged (at a time when we are just starting to open the space for debate on “race”) and bordering on the coercive (in a situation where strong pointers, recommendations and a developmental finding might work better). We cannot get non-racial practice by decree – not when social cohesion and inter-group interaction remains severely limited (and certainly not while there is such a paucity of interventions to promote anti-racism, discussion of race in society and social cohesion).

I believe that - especially if the ultimate aims are outcomes like non-racialism and justice - people should as far as possible/reasonable, be permitted to organize in ways that are relevant for them.

I can see what the HRC wants to do: it wants to drive the society towards non-racialism. I can see the implications for its ruling for political and non-political organisations, clubs that would want to exclude people simply on the basis of race. But, with an eye to the historical development of political organisations of the disadvantaged and given the imperatives of free expression and association, I believe there should be a sunset provision. I believe that organisations - including particularly those bodies whose target group is people who have been specifically affected by oppressive racial legislation - should be given a period of, say, a year to 18 months to make the required changes to membership policy. Such a period of transition should run from case by case complaints or - provided the HRC rolls out a general public engagement and information-dissemination process beforehand - a general HRC ruling or pronouncement.

That is my contradictory position: I say Jody has got it wrong; at the same time, I laud him as a leader and a key thinker on issues of justice.

Do you agree with my views as expressed here? Please feel free to post your reply.