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.