Thursday, January 8, 2009

Innovative leadership or a laager mentality:

Today, January 8, 2009, the ANC turns 97. When it meets to launch it election manifesto in East London on Saturday, it will set the tone for the upcoming elections.
Just three years away from scoring its centenary, this grand movement of Africa can either retreat into a laager mentality or provide the innovative leadership South Africa sorely needs at this testing time.

Indications behind the scenes are that the movement contains elements of both responses. There are some who say that the ANC has made many mistakes but has largely been able to manage the politics of difference. This ability, they say, is the most critical strength needed in a country with so many diverse interests. In the end, it knits together the hopes of the widest cross-section of the South African population and has until recently not been challenged on this front. While COPE challenges this hegemony, this too has been sited as a tribute to the strength of South Africa's democracy led by the ANC. There have been spats and tensions but not to the extent that could spill into full-blown violence with the potential of civil war. They argue that in the past few weeks, all parties have intensified their contact with the people and have found small pockets of intolerance. The greatest possibility for friction lies between the ANC and COPE and it is here that the most work will have to be done to curb hot tempers that could provoke physical clashes.

Those in the ANC who believe the depth of leadership experience within the organisation will not fail the country at this critical time say that the election contest must be based on the appeal of the manifestoes of the different parties. They intend doing all they can to encourage citizens to focus on this and move away from unneccesary belligerence.
There is a response running parallel that provokes great concern. Instead of acknowledging that the political dynamic has changed requiring fresh responses, this view glibly argues that COPE is a counter-revolutionary movement funded by foreign interests. The term counter-revolutionary within the South African liberation context implies that the activities fundamentally oppose all the values fought for and seeks to reverse the gains made in transforming the society into a more egalitarian place. The label is used in much the same way as the United States of America uses the term Islamic Fundamentalism. It is often a shallow way to deal with real criticism and a refusal to recognise the limitations of one's own response. Unfortunately what flows from this approach is that it gives permission to restrict, to crush and ultimately to kill. Within the Soviet context, counter revolutionaries were enemies of the people.

Those in the ANC intent on promoting this view need to consider that they sow the seeds of destruction. They are encouraging an analysis that will further narrow the space for difference. In the past, the challenge has essentially been to manage differences between the political thinking and interests of the old order and the new. This year brings the challenge of handling political difference that has evolved from within the new non-racial democratic order.

This is not to suggest that the democracy is fully in place. While the constitution is in place, the conditions of hunger and inequality remain huge challenges that diminish the dream of a social democracy. Much remains to be done and will still have to be done what ever the political configuration after the elections.

Good leadership and able practitioners are needed in the key sectors of health, education and security. The COPE phenomenon has shown that there are people who can be brought into the political arena who can add fresh skills and talents. While this may inject much needed enthusiasm and healthy competition into the political process, it says little about the strengthening of our crucial institutions essential for the comfort and security of our daily lives.

Irrespective of who leads, the challenge of building proper institutions as firm pillars of a well-functioning country remains. Parliament, the hospitals, the media, schools, the police and others need to fulfil their primary functions. Traffic departments across the country appear to have taken their jobs seriously by halving fatalities this festive season. What was it that changed? We need to look closely at this success story.

The media in particular will have its work cut out. Its primary role is to provide the public with enough information to make informed decisions and give voice to the powerless and marginalised. So far both the electronic and print media have broadly overemphasised the COPE phenomenon to the disadvantage of all other political parties. From a media point of view, this can be excused to some extent since news also tends to focus on what is new. By its very nature, we are trained to move the story forward, looking at all times for new dimensions that sometimes gives greater clarity. We are also operating in an international climate that affirms quick fixes and instant gratification. The emergence of COPE feeds into that hope that something different is happening that can help us find fresh energy to consolidate close to a century of organised effort. Not only does it create the political space for strong effective alternatives but also provides the pressure on the ANC to self-correct instead of drifting into a laager. The media will have to navigate the changing political terrain artfully. Its responses can either encourage the worst inclinations amongst all of us or help to bring out the best. In the interests of building a respected and solid media practice, it will need to be seen as fair conducting itself without fear or favour. Unfairness at this point will go a long way to diminish its important social role. Fortunately, some media outlets have recognised this and are putting mechanisms in place to safeguard against unfairness. The Star, for example, has commissioned the Media Monitoring Project to provide weekly reports on its levels of fairness during the elections. These reports will be published regularly.

While the media continues to express considerable discomfort with a Jacob Zuma presidency, there has to be acknowledgement that a substantial section of the public will vote in favour of him. His popularity cannot be presented as blind support for a man who is an idiot. He brings to the centre stage the interests of communities that have often operated at the margins of urban discourse.
Dismissing him and all he represents as traditionalist is no different from glibly pulling the counter-revolutionary label out of the collective hat.

We are poised on the cusp of a great opportunity that will test our ability to respond with great maturity as never before. If the ANC does not set the tone on Saturday, greater responsibility will fall on the shoulders of other political parties and civil society. We can do well to be spared such expenditure of energy on the political process at a time when all our efforts are needed to sort out and consolidate the functioning of our institutions so that all South Africans are able to enjoy an improved quality of life.