[The full version (PDF) is published in the Albert Luthuli Centre for Responsible Leadership’s newsletter Reflect.]
Politics and reality television: not so different. (Image source: Washington Post)
Politics are like reality television, where a group of good-for-nothings denounce one another – most often in an attempt to curry favour with the audience (i.e. voters). I’m simply too embarrassed to listen to politicians, or their bronzed and air-headed counterparts.
For reasons I still don’t fully understand I was asked to write an editorial about responsible leadership in the political domain, which may be the grandest oxymoron I have ever encountered. As a rule I avoid reading or writing about anything political. This means I need to begin from first principles in the hope of uncovering a grain of integrity hidden beneath a mountain of slush funds and dodgy lobbyists. I apologise in advance for my naivety.
First things first: we live in a democracy, which is a vast improvement over apartheid, ruthless colonialism, laissez-faire corporate anarchy (I’m looking at you, Cecil Rhodes), terrorism and war. Unfortunately democracy is largely defined by its flaws, rather than its redeeming features. Right now South Africa is not particularly democratic, nor are its rulers very effective – mostly likely due to a lack of a cohesive opposition. The lack of accountability in the present government is a problem.
Autocrats inevitably begin to take liberties with their citizens. (Image source: mwebantu.com)
Leaders in a ruling majority invariably start to take certain ‘liberties’ with its citizens, and there is every indication that something similar is happening in South Africa. We citizens are like secretaries subjected to the occasional paternal pat on the rump every time the boss wobbles by on his way to another six-hour luncheon. Such naughty behaviour may seem relatively harmless at first but can easily escalate into a full-scale assault on our collective chastity. Ruling parties can grow dangerously paranoid and quickly ossify into tyrants as the citizenry are increasingly forgotten or oppressed. Just ask Uncle Rob M up north.
A more immediate concern is that South African leaders appear to suffer from ‘entitlement syndrome’, where the act of achieving a position of leadership is seen as the equivalent to being a leader. A perfectly random example may involve a politician who commissions a R200m taxpayer-funded ‘homestead’ for having achieved a position of leadership – and not much else. A case of such monumental hubris may actually be visible from space.
Is this presidential ‘homestead’ visible from space? (Image source: constitutionallyspeaking.co.za/)
But we need to be careful, as it’s all too easy to criticise el presidente and his minions. Politicians are flawed individuals like the rest of us. Like us, some are arrogant, short-sighted, occasionally even stupid. A handful of them do work hard and with the best intentions, that is until their luck runs out. Politicians often need to make deeply unpopular decisions sooner or later. All we can hope for is that they consistently make the least undesirable of choices on our behalf. That said, their labours are conducted within an overwhelmingly corrupt administrative and party-political superstructure. Idealists often fail through slow asphyxiation of their principles.
My point is that politics are a mirror of society at large: a bedlam of fragmented souls, confusion, contradiction and lethargy – so there is little sense in us complaining about their general ineptness, unless we’re willing to criticise ourselves in turn. Until that happens we simply cannot expect a host of diligent saints to ease us into the future.
However, there is no harm in searching for a benchmark – some default level of competency that can help us determine whether our dear leaders are of any use to us. Here’s one: above all, our politicians should do what they’re supposed to do. Decent leaders don’t need to be charismatic, driven, or even particularly intelligent. What’s important is that they do what they are supposed to do. Everything else is secondary.
But this raises the question of what we should expect of our politicians in the first place. A knee-jerk answer may be ‘to govern’, but such a response already hints at trouble. To govern implies domination, subjugation, even ownership.
Thomas Jefferson, looking determined. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)
Let’s go back to basics: we often forget that democratically elected leaders are intended to be our representatives. Voting somebody into office is not the same as having them represent us. Quite simply, if our leaders do not represent us then we should not expect any help from them, as Thomas Jefferson pointed out: ‘When the people fear the government there is tyranny. When the government fears the people there is liberty.’
Jefferson was right, but I think we can do better. Let us rather state that when the people serve the government there is tyranny. When the government serves the people there is liberty – which suggests that politicians should be caretakers who do as they’re told, rather than overlords who do as they please.
But we’re not out of the woods yet, because the whims of the average voter may easily be misguided, naïve or just plain wrong. The mob can be as vicious as any dictator who displays an unsettling fondness for firing squads. So, should a leader simply be an unthinking automaton who does the bidding of the voter? No. We need responsible politicians who will leave behind a legacy of enlightenment and education. A great leader will set an example and help us make the difficult decisions. Such a leader will not only do what they are supposed to do; they will also be remembered for changing us – hopefully for the better.
Anybody come to mind? There was one man, not so long ago. But he’s gone now.