What Citizens Expect from Political Leaders

The dawn of democracy in South Africa brought about hope for the nation. But that hope was certainly not accidental.

It was nurtured and articulated by a leadership collective that had a vision and wanted to alter the course of history in our country for the better. In recent times, many commentators and ordinary citizens have decried what they perceive as lack of leadership. Former President Kgalema Motlanthe went as far as to suggest that the country was on auto-pilot. Rivonia veterans, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni and Dennis Goldberg have also been scathing, adding their voices to the groundswell call for the current leadership to step down. It seems like there is a deficit between what the citizens expect and what those that are charged with the running of the country are offering – a phenomenon oft described as a leadership deficit.
Citizens of any country expect political leaders to ensure a climate of peace, security and prosperity. They expect work and shelter, water and electricity, social and economic infrastructure like hospitals and roads, welfare, human rights and the rule of law, caring government, good governance and social development as well as prudent management of scarce resources. What they do not expect though, is for their leaders to enrich themselves at the expense of the nation.
But what exactly is leadership and how does it manifest itself?
Leadership is about the capacity to establish direction and influence others towards a common goal, motivating and committing them to action and making them responsible for their performance. Looking at this concept from a theoretical perspective, we are guided by seminal contributions by two Harvard University luminaries, namely Abraham Zaleznik and John P. Kotter. Both looked at the question of leadership in comparison to management. Zaleznik’s 1977 paper titled: “Managers and Leaders: Are they Different?” offered that leaders were driven by insight, wished to alter human relationships, create new concepts, inspire people and want results.
In 1990, Kotter expanded and deepened Zaleznik’s work in a paper titled: “What Leaders Really Do”. He concluded that leadership and management are two different concepts which complement each other. However, too much management does not translate into leadership. He argued that leadership was an inductive process aimed at positive change. Practically, leadership is exercised through setting direction, alignment, coaching and motivation. In a nutshell, a function of leadership is to provide vision and strategy, foster a common sense of purpose, promote ownership of the vision and reward excellence and achievement.
In 1987, Kouzes and Posner argued in The Leadership Challenge that leadership is about honesty, truthfulness and integrity. They postured that good leaders are also effective and efficient. They are visionary and foresighted and give direction to their organisations. Good leaders are inspiring and are also positive about the future.
It is true however, that different leaders may share the same vision. But we also know that no two leaders are the same.
A visionary leader is inspirational and often achieves the desired results. Some leaders are known for being good listeners and are more of coaches. These type of leaders also usually easily achieve desired results. Afilliative leaders are good in conflict resolution. The same applies to democratic leaders, who are good team builders. On the other hand, a pacesetting leader is usually impatient and struggles to get the team to perform optimally. This also applies to a commanding, dictatorial leader.
Whilst the Great Man leadership Theory suggests that leaders are born, the Trait Theory argues that leadership can be natured, taught and acquired. The Behaviourist Theory on the other hand maintains that leaders are chosen on the basis of their conduct. That leaders should be exemplary. The Situational and Contingency Theories suggest that there are leaders for different situations and epochs and that a leader might be good for a particular situation only to be found wanting if the situation on the ground changes. The Transformational Theory is based on vision and change for the better.
Let us look at our political leaders, past and present, according to the globally accepted criterion described by Zaleznik and Kotter. And perhaps we can focus on the period of democratic governance in South Africa, beginning with Nelson Mandela, through Thabo Mbeki to the current leadership.
Nelson Mandela took over the leadership of the African National Congress from Oliver Tambo in 1991 to lead negotiations between the ANC and the apartheid regime. He persuaded the ANC to abandon the armed struggle to give peace a chance. Although the regime continued to try and destabilise the ANC, he stood firm – tactically withdrawing from negotiations when necessary. He carried the nation along with him until democracy was achieved. He possessed unparalleled honesty and integrity. He had foresight and vision. His leadership collective gave the country hope of a better future. Mandela was a global statesman and icon, admired as such at home and across the world.
Thabo Mbeki and his team put the interest of the country and the continent first. He sought to grow the economy and create jobs. He set the direction and assembled a collective that had a common vision and sense of purpose. He was also honest and had integrity. Mbeki is an African intellectual, recognised by the global community for his contribution. He had the national interest at heart. He inspired confidence.
Jacob Zuma is, rightfully or wrongfully, seen by many as a shameless factionalist. He has been found on the wrong side of the law, not once but a few times. The Constitutional Court found that he has failed to uphold and protect the constitution. A cloud of corruption is still hanging over his head. His relationship with the Gupta family has severely compromised him. He has faced too many motions of no confidence in parliament, and one within his own party; although he has survived all of them.
He has also reshuffled his cabinet many times, and many argue, to advance factional goals. And he threatens reshuffle at the slightest provocation. Generally, many have argued, his leadership collective does not inspire much confidence.
Whilst his predecessors adequately met the global benchmark for good leadership, it cannot be argued that Zuma has even remotely matched up to that standard. His vision is not clear and his honesty and integrity is seen as suspect. He falls short of the criteria described by Zaleznik and Kotter. There is a clear trust deficit between his leadership collective and ordinary citizens. In addition, many see the Zuma Presidency as outright embarrassing.
These unsavoury sentiments are not figment of the author’s fertile imagination. They are expressed by ordinary people on a daily basis – at funerals and weddings, in taxis and shebeens and everywhere where people gather and meet on a daily basis.
Do we have a leadership challenge in South Africa? Does the nation feel inspired by our leaders? Do our leaders instil national pride? Do people just hate president Zuma? Or, are calls for the president and his collective to step aside unjustified?
You be the judge.
However, as we conclude, leadership is about vision and the future. It is about breaking new ground and transforming the situation for the better. It is about holding the nation together; promoting a common sense of purpose. It is also about creating a sense of hope and ownership in the country or organisation. It is about inspiring ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

Pule G. Selepe

Selepe is a Student of Governance and

Social Change. He writes in his personal capacity.

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