committed to its common good
Professor of management and entrepreneurship
ESSEC Business School, FRANCE
I am a North African scholar who grew up hearing negative comment about South Africa almost every day, for years, and who rejoiced when the country embarked on an unprecedented experiment.
I have visited South Africa three times, talked to many fellow South Africans and read a good deal of media coverage and ANC policy documents. My research on the role of transgressive leadership in times of deep crisis and the insights gained from readings and conversations about South Africa lead me to contend that the country, and the ANC in particular, need a new breed of ethically strong leaders willing to and capable of transgressing foundational myths to better serve the common good of the country and of Africa.
Reading the official document prepared by the ANC for the 4th National Policy Conference in June 2012 enlightened the malaise I sense in discussions with South African friends and colleagues across the rainbow. I am worried for the future of South Africa if the leaders of the democratically elected majority continue to subscribe to myths that prevent, or worse exempt, them from embracing the real strengths of South Africa and addressing the real challenges facing the “beloved country”.
The policy document abounds with scary ideas and language. Claiming that “the transition in the current South African context refers to a single and ongoing transition from Apartheid colonialism to a National Democratic Society” strikes me as utterly simplistic. It is not hard, even for someone like me who has spent little time in South Africa, to enumerate a series of other far reaching, and equally challenging, transitions unfolding at the national and the international levels.
It is shocking to read that “The Commission also noted that the South African population is constituted by 52% women, 74% youth and children below the age of 35, and 79.5% Africans”. What does this mean about the other 20.5%? Why does the ANC leadership feel a need to suggest so openly that they are not African?
Similarly, I cannot understand why the authors of the policy platform wrote “The Commission also expressed concern about the current individualism paradigm permeating society as well as the domination of English as a medium of communication”. Why should individualism and English coexist in the same sentence? Isn’t individualism intrinsic to life in a free society? Why should the wide diffusion of English be a problem for South Africa? How would the translation of “all pieces of legislation and public policies…into all official and indigenous languages” enable equitable development of and in South Africa? Personally, I would see the so called ‘domination’ as a strong asset in an increasingly global village where English it is the common medium of communication. This does not mean that other languages, including Afrikaans, should be forgotten but I am not able to see the value of treating more than ten languages as official. I am writing this from the perspective of someone who had to pay a high price for learning French and then English to communicate with and work in the world. South African leaders should feel blessed that their fellow citizens are comfortable with Shakespeare’s language.
The “Land Reform Policy Discussion Document” also released in June 2012 compounded my anxieties. It is full of tortured language about the ‘need’ to redistribute land and, at the same time, preserving South Africa’s remarkable agricultural output. The meandering language suggests that the ANC leadership is stuck in another foundational myth which has to be ditched urgently for the sake of the common good of South Africa. Committing a new injustice in the name of repairing a historical one does not make good policy. Twentieth century history shows us that government driven land redistribution was always fatal to productivity.
South Africa needs leaders who are proud of all South Africans, regardless of where their ancestors came from. The country needs leaders who can heal the wounds of the past instead of exacerbating them. The ANC needs transgressive leaders who have the will and strength to update the party’s software.
If recent North African history can be of any help, there is a lot that can be learned from Algeria where a liberation movement became a huge liability, where the majority is struggling to make ends meet in a country endowed with huge natural resources, where food is imported instead of being exported when the country was under French rule, where “arabization” has produced a generation of poorly educated people who precipitated Algeria in a civil war in the name of a narrow understanding of what Arabic civilization and Islam mean.
It is time that all South Africans look for leaders who have the guts to do the unthinkable. What a better gift could they make to Frederick de Klerk and Nelson Mandela as we approach the twentieth anniversary of the courageous gesture they made for the common good of all South Africans.