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What would it take to restore public trust in leadership?

What would it take to restore public trust in leadership?

The Irish political scientist Benedict Anderson talks about nations as “imagined communities”. Such collective imagination imbues nations with animating myths and a healthy dose of pride that fuels social and economic progress. Stirring collective imaginations and energies towards a positive end is one of the defining features of great leaders.

What enables leaders to do this is their ability to cultivate connectedness based on trust and shared interests between them and those they lead. Citizens can only trust leaders when they feel a sense of proximity, real or imagined, with them. When societies perceive a divergence between their interests and the leader’s, confidence erodes, and a chasm of mistrust opens up between the leaders and the public.

Since the democratic change in South Africa, and especially at the end of the Mandela era, we have endured a series of leadership disappointments in ways that cut deep and scar our collective self-concept. In its over 25 years of existence as a democracy, South Africa has had only fleeting moments of superb leadership: the kind of leadership that elevates the public spirit, enriches the ethical quality of society, and flickers the hope of economic progress.

Such moments were evident during the embrace of the constitutional order and nation-building during President Nelson Mandela’s era, the period of high economic growth and the African Renaissance project under President Thabo Mbeki, and when President Cyril Ramaphosa stopped President Jacob Zuma’s state capture project on its track and pulled the country back from the brink.

Across those different phases, when we saw a light of hope, there were also intractable tendencies that contained seeds of institutional decay. These tendencies included the arms deals corruption that began under the watch of Mandela’s presidency and haunted the Mbeki presidency, an unfinished business since some of the politically powerful perpetrators are yet to be prosecuted.

The Zuma era of state capture was particularly corrosive as it set a new – and much lower – standard of what is acceptable in public leadership and ethical conduct. At the end of Zuma’s tenure, the only credential for leadership was simply to be slightly better than Zuma, a dismally low bar for leadership.  As long as you are not stealing from the public coffers, you are considered fit and proper for leadership, according to this fallen standard. This erosion of standards has also filtered into the bureaucracy at various levels of government.

At this rate, it will be much harder to establish a new framework of ethical leadership in government, as many who, under normal circumstances, would judge themselves not qualified for leadership will now be convinced that they are worthy giants. Leadership is now a stampede of the average. This debasement of leadership virtue counts among the worst legacies the previous administration has left us with since the onset of democracy.

But we have new challenges to leadership, such as the recent events of criminality on President Ramaphosa’s farm and their implications for ethics and leadership in the country. It has now been widely reported that there was a theft in the President’s property that the public did not know about for two years, which has raised a dizzying amount of speculation.

There are unanswered questions about the source of the foreign currency stolen from the property and whether this was declared under the South African Reserve Bank regulations; a possibility that various individuals may have used the President’s property as an avenue for laundering their money; and that tax laws could have been breached either by the sellers or punters in the game industry or both. All of these are matters under investigation by law enforcement agencies, and the law can grind slowly as fragments of leads and evidence are painstakingly pieced together.

Aside from what the law enforcement authorities may conclude, the President has a social contract with the citizens. The public has a certain expectation of how he ought to conduct himself. They want to know that they can trust him. If the President has erred, they want him to be candid so they can find it in themselves to reconcile with him and have proper closure rather than tarry in suspense. The cloud of smoke and silence is not helping to rebuild trust and may instead risk creating an unnecessary blot on the legacy of the President.

There is a level of esteem with which Ramaphosa is held in society even outside the political office. Most people know that he was a businessman when he took office and that he is wealthy because of his commercial enterprises that are not entangled in the state. Very few people consider the unlikely possibility that the money on the President’s property is a result of proceeds from corruption.

It is not about the theft of public money that disturbs those who trust him and who are genuinely asking tough questions. Rather, what is of great concern is the ethics of his dual role as a businessman and President at the same time and his perceived lack of transparency and accountability on the more specific questions that the public has rightly raised about events that took place immediately after his money was stolen. These incidents and how the President eventually responds to them – and not what the law enforcement agents find – will be one of the country’s significant tests of leadership and ethics.

He must choose whether he wants to be remembered by history as a cattle auctioneer or as one of the finest leaders who not only turned the country from the brink but set it on a path to prosperity. If the latter, he may need to engage all his energies to run the country, especially given the challenging economic times it is going through, and work on honing his legacy. He must close the door to private auctions until the end of his term.

Where to from here? In search of new pathways to renewing leadership and values, we must hold onto radical pragmatism, that is, not shirk our responsibility to squeeze the President hard for accountability and transparency by appealing to his conscience but stopping short of taking the pressure to its logical conclusion, namely, to call for him to step down, precisely because we are facing a precipice as a country and many of those baying for his blood are vultures in the garb of radical economic transformation.

Further, those implicated in state capture activities will be keen to weaken Ramaphosa or force him out prematurely. If they succeed, they will set the ground to further erode independent institutions in the same manner they did after the recall of Mbeki in 2007. These revelations about the theft that took place on the President’s farm have come conveniently at the time when the governing party is gearing itself up for its elective conference and the Zondo Commission is releasing its explosive reports.

When leaders avoid public scrutiny, their actions negatively shape public ethics and conceptions of leadership. The President must rebuild public trust in his leadership. The best way to do so is by being candid about the events that took place on his farm two years ago.

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