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Opinion: DUT Vice-chancellor, Principal Professor Thandwa Mthembu Talks About The Kind Of Leadership Required To Reform The Country

PROFESSOR THANDWA MTHEMBU

I have been asked to share some reflections on the topic: What kind of leadership is required to reform our country? At this juncture of South Africa’s trajectory, I am not sure whether the objective should be reforming or transforming the country, rather. I will steer clear of seductive words like ‘radical’ or ‘revolution’ given the destructive connotations they carry in this country.

Let’s talk briefly about reform versus transform. Reform suggests minor improvements that are likely to leave the form, nature and appearance intact.

Although this word’s meaning has been bastardised, to transform is to: ‘make a marked change in the form, nature or appearance of’ somethingSo, I think unadulterated transformation is what this country needs.

Literature on leadership is replete with many theories and approaches that categorise leadership styles; as if the world out there were one dimensional. Literature also presents individuals who are identified as exemplars of ideal leadership; ass if world problems were on a dart board ready to be pierced out of existence by such a leadership dart.

Sadly, literature sometimes de-emphasises what I think are the most important constitutive elements: the right multi-dimensional and multi-disciplinary leadership, fit for the right environment, and performing its role right.

More appropriately, we should ask: Leadership for what?

To expatiate on this question through some sub-questions: what is the problem or the challenge we face and seek to tackle; what is the history thereof; what is the current environment within which we have to solve the problem; what is the ultimate agenda or objective of the country; and, how fit for the purpose the desired leadership is?

Once we have some answers to these questions, it is only then that we could discuss innovations and solutions that are appropriate, including getting answers to: who has the skillset and track record to lead all and sundry to tackle our challenges and problems?

Many of have us have been aware of the trends in South Africa since at least about 2005-2007. The dominant feature/practice/culture has been replacement of reason, facts and substance with unreason, fallacy and populism. This has resulted in major calamities in our body politic and in our socio-economy. We will reel under debilitating consequences for many years to come.

Some social policy scholars suggest South Africa is in political, economic and social chaos. As early as 2002, some suggested that we were at a crossroads. Recent data on unemployment, in part exacerbated by Covid-19, have some suggest we are headed towards becoming a failed state. Indeed, there will not be consensus on these analyses. Be that as it may, we have a sense of what has been happening; not least, through following some shocking revelations coming out at the Zondo Commission.

With these minimal observations, I think it is our responsibility, especially that of our young people to determine if South Africa, and perhaps the world, needs reform or transformation. Sadly, the older generation has, through convoluted values and principles, brazen ideology and policies that defy pragmatism hollowed out all value and capital our country had and could potentially have, and bequeathed to our young people and those yet unborn a shadow of a once promising country.

We have been a fully democratic country for 26 years. Nothing that once worked seems to work. Public schools, even those in the rural areas that produced me, are not functioning. Clinics, once lodestars of our primary healthcare, are failing. Hospitals are a mess. Municipalities are known more for corruption and dysfunctionality than delivery of basic services. The annual reports of the Auditor General paint an institutionalised picture of a lack of accountability at all levels. Once shining examples of the world, our parastatals  – ESKOM, SAA, Transnet, SAA, Denel, etc – are now examples of bad governance and are badly deformed shadows of their former selves.

These painful experiences suggest our country needs a total overhaul, ptransformation of our political, economic and social make-up? Why is it that democracies in Africa tend to be meaningless in as far as lifting the wellbeing of our citizens? There is, thus, a need for a complete transformation, a revolution even, on all aspects of our lives as South Africans.

I think I have in a way suggested an answer to my first question: leadership for what and even some of the sub-questions.

We have a sense of how we allowed the country to slide into an abyss. We edited efficiency out of our lexicon. We cared less about sustainability, defined by World Bank as the ability to meet development “needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

My sense is that our country lacks strategic, frugal and future-oriented management of our collective resources. We think and act in the interests of the here and the now. We are a consumptive, a retrogressive and a degenerative lot. We are not generative. We do not spend time finding ways of building capital; but consuming the little we have; sharing crumbs that are themselves crumbling to dust. Be it in electricity generation. Be it in water resources. Be it in our social services. Be it in capital formation. Be it in relation to economic growth.

The governance of public entities collapsed mainly because of ideology, politics, deployment of whoever is in next rung of the political ladder to eat at the trough. This has led to unbridled corruption in that some assumed those positions to eat at the trough, in the first place. In these entities and many others, we need systems and processes that ensure that we appoint knowledgeable, skilled, qualified, experienced into positions of responsibility. Anything other than these prerequisites is fronting, or is what an old friend of mine calls promoting competent people into incompetence. There is no need for day to day political interference in spaces where things must be run professionally and profitably, too.

Firstly, we must rekindle our values, principles and general ethics in our society. There are instances where well-qualified and competent people are appointed, but they are found wanting on values, principles and ethics. This explains the preponderance of corruption in both the public and the private sectors.

Secondly, we must change all the hackneyed ideologies that led to paradigms and frameworks that have made us a mediocre country, a country in chaos, and, arguably, a failing state. We must keep in mind that a number of successful economies in the world, including China, have not been built purely on ideology; but, on a variety of pragmatic approaches drawn even from erstwhile enemies, and oppressors, even.

Thirdly, we must focus on generating capital and resources instead of consuming the little crumbs we have that are now turning into dust because we are trying to divide them up among ourselves over and over.

Fourthly, we need to think ‘sustainable development’ at all times and in pragmatic ways. What shall we bequeath to generations to come; even to those yet unborn?

Fifthly, and all in all, we must realise it is people who are behind all the problems I have highlighted. But, more importantly, it is also people who will make things right. At DUT, borrowing from Jim Collins, we say: it is not just people who will make things right; but, the Right people, in their Right seats, playing their roles Right.

These are the one who know what it takes to innovate solutions that will put our country into its deserved development trajectory. At DUT we also draw heavily on Pascal Finette who correctly propounds that people are not a resource as we often say in HR terms; as if they are inanimate and actually part of the machinery. For him, people are the source of everything that is humanly possible in the world.

I believe there is a leader out there ready to rekindle our values, principles and ethics; a leader ready to ditch those old and hackneyed ideologies that are not taking us anywhere; one who will wake up, smell the coffee and be pragmatic; a leader ready to shun consumptive approaches and policies, and rather focus unwaveringly on generating value and capital for the country and its people; the one who will not feed us the crumbs that are now turning into dust and nothingness; a leader whose unstinting focus will be on our country’s ‘sustainable development’ in a way that assures future generations – the yet unborn – that they will meet their needs, too; a leader who will focus on well-qualified and experienced people: the right people, in the right seats, playing their roles right; the one who will not interfere with well-managed and professional spaces they know very little about, if anything.

That’s the leader who will not reform this country; but transform it to realise its coveted destiny in the world.

As I end, on the occasion of my inauguration as DUT’s Vice-Chancellor and Principal, I said the following, which I think is relevant especially to our young leaders:

“It’s time our young people find a new legacy. That legacy should not just be a shadow of past legacies of struggle, past chants, past songs, past dances. It should be a fresh and bright new light that shines on all of South Africa. This legacy should be like a ripened fruit for all of us to enjoy. It should not be like a wormed fruit that will make us spit and puke. Neither should that legacy be akin to birds pooping on South Africa and its democracy whilst South Africa expects a comfortable shade under the tree; a shade that our young people should really be to South Africa.

It’s time, without apportioning blame and without being degenerative and retrogressive, our young people focus hawk-like on how to extricate this socio-economy from the doldrums it is in. It’s not about who sunk our socio-economy that will make us prosper; but, who lifted it up from the doldrums. That would be a better legacy.

So, I hope, although our young people may be enraged, they will also remain engaged with change and remain enthralled in building this new legacy of advancing our dear nation socio-economically and otherwise.”

(VICE-CHANCELLOR AND PRINCIPAL PROFESSOR THANDWA MTHEMBU WAS SPEAKING AT THE WORLDWIDE INSTITUTE OF LEADERSHIP AND DEVELOPMENT)

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