CAPE TOWN – South Africa today appears to be lacking in inspirational leadership. A few years ago, a report by the US-based Freedom House on South Africa’s first 20 years of democracy found that South Africans were increasingly losing their faith in their political leaders and institutions.
“Their top leaders are perceived as looking after their own and enriching themselves, rather than helping the communities,” said the report. The seemingly mercenary tenure of Jacob Zuma simply hammered home the disillusionment and scepticism that has become endemic in our country.
With South Africa’s sixth democratic election behind us, all eyes are on President Ramaphosa reflecting the much-needed decisive leadership so desperately lacking in our country in recent years.
Unfortunately, the misconduct is not limited to politicians. We have seen our business leadership falling short in recent times too. A forensic investigation into the collapse of VBS Mutual Bank revealed looting (and cover-ups) to the tune of R2billion.
Poor corporate governance is said to have led to the failure of African Bank Investments Limited. The leadership of companies like KPMG, SAP and McKinsey are said to have turned a blind eye – rather than risk the benefits they were reaping – to the South African state capture. The Steinhoff scandal – perpetrated by its chief executive – has been described as the single biggest act of fraud in South African history.
Perhaps most disturbingly, in its 2018 Corporate Governance Index Report, the Institute of Internal Auditors SA showed that less than half (48%; a drop of 18% since the first report in 2013) of the audit executives surveyed in that report believed that ethics is integral to the corporate workplace in South Africa.
In South Africa, I would argue, we need leadership that is values-based and reminds us of our common bond, and the common struggle we face to make the necessary substantive changes in our country.
Leaders in business need to seek to reconnect the values of the organisation with the values of their employees and strive to create inclusive, ethical and sustainable organisations that grow the economy and opportunities for their people.
Politicians similarly would do well to find ways to forge a common national identity such as former president Nelson Mandela imagined when he delivered his Nobel acceptance address in 1993: “The value of our shared reward will and must be measured by the joyful peace which will triumph, because the common humanity that bonds both black and white into one human race, will have said to each one of us that we shall all live like the children of paradise.”
In practice and in the face of pressures from a balance sheet or election days, this is easier said than done, of course. It takes not just integrity, but also courage and it starts with individual leaders being brave enough to look into the mirror and develop self-awareness and self-mastery. There is plenty of research to suggest that when we see ourselves clearly, we are more confident, make better decisions and build stronger relationships. Critically, it also means that we are less likely to lie, cheat, and steal.
South Africa is rich in potential with many men and women ready to step into leadership roles to take this country and economy forward. We need to find ways to support and enable them to build their capacities – especially emotional intelligence and self-awareness – so that they can inspire and lead, as Ardern has, in difficult times. It is at these times that we need to have leaders who remind us that we all have the potential to be better versions of ourselves.
Paul Maughan is a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town, and convenes the Executive Development Programme of the UCT Graduate School of Business.