Big Shoes and Little Feet: Leadership in South Africa


Jacob Zuma and Dramani Mahama
South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, left, with Ghana President Dramani Mahama. Among sub-Saharan African nations, says Robert Rotberg, South Africa has the strongest institutions except for Botswana and Ghana, but the power behind those structures in bottled up at the top of the ANC party.

Speaking to Ghana’s parliament in 2009, Barack Obama received a round of applause when he told those assembled, “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” The idea was consistent throughout his remarks, in which he repeatedly stressed the importance of honorable and respected institutions in advancing the continent’s economies and its hopes.

Robert I. Rotberg, the international relations professor who wrote the book When States Fail and who was instrumental in creating the Index of African Governance, quotes Obama in a new article on South Africa’s need for strengthened political leadership. But he doesn’t start there. Instead, he starts with a talk by another politician, also his nation’s first black president also decrying the rise of any putative strongmen. Nelson Mandela, speaking at a 1993 rally for his political party in Katlehong, called for the same spirit of reconciliation he’d trumpeted between black and white South Africans in seeking peace between his African National Congress (ANC) and the Inkatha Freedom Party.

Annals March 2014_opt“More demagogic, populist, irresponsible leaders might have raised their fist, chanted fight songs, and otherwise egged on their supporters,” Rotberg writes in a recent special issue of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, which looks at the twinned issues of South Africa’s future and Mandela’s outsize legacy. “But Mandela knew how to meet not the needs of the moment but the requirements of the future.”

And Mandela, Rotberg argues, was the man not of the moment, but for the moment. The political-prisoner-turned-president was a “transformative” leader, Rotberg says, echoing his own book from 2012, Transformative Political Leadership. And when Mandela left office, his stature increased by comparison with the short men who followed him.

(Of course, it’s arguable that when Mandela left office, because he hadn’t created durable structures his prodigal successors—all clearly lesser leaders—had the unhindered ability to squander their inheritance.)

Rotberg is traveling in South Africa and Zimbabwe now, his first visit since the Annals article came out and the first since the ANC’s unexpectedly solid victory in national elections, a May 7 vote that returned Jacob Zuma to the presidency. For his part Rotberg, in conversation with Social Science Space, admitted he was a little surprised at how many South Africans voted for ANC, thinking that the electorate might have grown jaded with the party that has run the country since it emerged from white-only rule. “Having said in print Zuma has lost moral authority, I think 60 percent is pretty good.”

His trip to South Africa isn’t for a round of congratulations. “We’re critical of the leadership capabilities of Jacob Zuma and of [his predecessor] Thabo Mbeki, neither of whom measure up to Mandela — although that’s not very fair,” he added. (Lawrence Hamilton, a political theorist at the University of Johannesburg, dubbed Zuma’s tenure “a catastrophic presidency.”) And while the academic isn’t hunting for strongmen, he is on a quest for strong leaders.

For example, Cyril Ramaphosa – the trade-union leader was named deputy president on May 25 – who Rotberg awaits reaching the top seat before any sort of South African renaissance could occur. (Officially, Ramaphosa isn’t intending to rise further; being president of his golf and fly-fishing clubs is the “sum total of my ambitions,” he told Business Day.)

Although he’s personally acquainted with them, Rotberg doesn’t expect to meet with Zuma, Mbeki or Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe with the messages of better government printed in the Annals special issue or his 2013 book, Africa Emerges. He will meet with NGOs and fellow academics, and he expects that he won’t be treated as a meddling outsider by those who do listen. “Certainly I’m a foreigner,” the American-born Rotberg said, “but I’ve been in and out of South Africa for 50 years, and well known critic of apartheid, and banned by anti-apartheid government for seven years.”

South Africa—as opposed to a “stunted” Zimbabwe—isn’t broken. It is still a very important country thanks to the Mandela moment, its advantages of large population and a regionally high GDP (but not a high Gini coeffieicnt, suggesting a big divide between rich and poor). It also has its problems – increasing corruption and an education system that has gone backward since Mandela left office (“from mediocre to terrible,” in Rotberg’s estimation).

“It’s not a basket case,” Rotberg says, “but the feeling even among old Marxixts is that Zuma and the ANC are underwhelming.” Hence the high hopes – and not just among Rotberg– that Ramaphosa is the best current hope to both unite the party and the country.  He’s younger than the rest of the ANC leadership, and is generally seen as sharper, but he’s also from a minority tribe.

That Rotberg puts so much stock in personalities is no accident. While in the Western world there are established institutions that in effect tower above the leaders, in a developing country those institutions are at best weak and at worst non-existent. “In South Africa the institutions are becoming weaker. I preach that leadership really matters in the developing world — and really matters in Africa.”

As he wrote in the Annals, citing work that echoes his findings:

Those studies show that leaders do ‘have a substantial impact on performance.’ Those who have examined the role of leadership particularly in the foreign policy realm conclude that individual agency matters. Leaders (not necessarily situations or structures by themselves) largely create peace and war. Leaders even help signally to guide their people into or out of poverty.

And then for South Africa specifically:

Outcomes for the citizens of the developing world, and for South Africa, depend greatly on the actions and determinations of political leaders and on critical political leadership decisions. Nothing else—not contingency, not structure—may be so important in determining a nation’s success.

Rotberg’s sermon is reminiscent of Thomas Carlyle’s “great man theory” of history, except it lies in a in a world inherited by Herbert “Before he can remake his society, his society must make him” Spencer.

While he doesn’t namecheck Carlyle or Spencer in his Annals article, Rotberg of course understands the direction of the prevailing winds. “This appraisal tends to fly in the face of conventional wisdom—and tilts against traditional scholarly emphases on the primary salience of structures and institutions. It also appears to contradict older research suggesting that little variance in performance could be attributed to individuals and individual differences. It may even unwittingly differ from those who prefer to emphasize structure and contingency rather than the importance of individual agency in the conduct of human affairs.”

(President Obama’s own remarks suggest he favored a known transactionalist to an unknown tranformationalist: “This progress may lack the drama of 20th century liberation struggles, but make no mistake: It will ultimately be more significant. For just as it is important to emerge from the control of other nations, it is even more important to build one’s own nation.”)

Rotberg stresses in many ways that there is nothing inevitable about transformative leaders. Looking just at South Africa, and drawing from its pantheon of the revered, he asks the rhetorical question, “If a person such as a Govan Mbeki, a Walter Sisulu, or an Oliver Tambo (all distinct personalities, with different ideological profiles and personal trajectories)—not Nelson Mandela—had grasped the leadership of South Africa after the demise of apartheid, would independent South Africa have avoided a revanchist race war or have been so peacefully, even magisterially, launched?”

That the little men who stepped into Mandela’s big shoes recognize either their shortcomings of his heft is broadly observable, especially as the ANC’s less-than-grandees wrap themselves in the cloak of the fallen Mandela.

He also shows that good leaders (as opposed to power wielders) are not as rare as it might seem, although the recipe that results in a great leader remains elusive. Looking just at some products of one colonial power’s tutelage, Rotberg offers a gallery, rogue and otherwise, of world leaders whose (generally) post-colonial careers were notable.

British rule, sometimes thought more benign, spawned Robert Mugabe, Idi Amin in Uganda, Hastings Banda in Malawi, a series of Nigerian tyrants, and many others. It also gave us excellent leaders such as Seretse Khama and his successors, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam of Mauritius and his successors, and Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, among others. Britain’s much vaunted representative institutions only last where leaders embraced them and made them work.


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