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18/01/2018 12:29 SAST | Updated 23/01/2018 15:21 SAST

SA's Toxic Leadership And The 'False Prophets'

Emphasis on ‘leadership character’ and what exactly this means, is a necessity if South Africa is to return from its decline and fulfil its potential.

President Jacob Zuma (L), gestures next to deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa during the party's 104th-anniversary celebrations in Rustenburg. January 9, 2016.
Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
President Jacob Zuma (L), gestures next to deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa during the party's 104th-anniversary celebrations in Rustenburg. January 9, 2016.

Leadership character: more than just leadership

John C Maxwell, renowned leadership expert, takes a strong position on the importance of leadership and its impact. For Maxwell, "everything rises and falls on leadership".

The impact of leadership becomes more significant in the context of national political leadership. The actions of one political leader – or the collective action undertaken by a group of politicians with a national platform – can affect an entire society and its future generations, long after the leaders in question have moved on. Consider apartheid.

Leadership becomes synonymous with power when defined as the ability to influence others. Leadership character, on the other hand, involves the ability to influence others or to use power in a manner characterised by a number of mutually reinforcing attributes: vision, responsibility, accountability, ethics/morality, transparency, empathy, humility, self-discipline, inclusivity, and the intent to serve others (this requires self-sacrifice).

South Africans who value and prioritise leadership character in their support of political leaders (this includes the casting of votes during national elections) do so, whether knowingly or not, because of their appreciation for the significance and impact of leadership. South Africa's recent political history suggests one of two things, however.

Either citizens who prioritise leadership character in their political decisions are overwhelmingly in the minority, or those voters who do give consideration to leadership character possess a notion of "good leadership" that falls short of or fails to reflect the attributes noted above.

Either way, it would seem that a greater emphasis on "leadership character" and what exactly this means is a necessity, if South Africa is to return from its decline and fulfil its potential.

Toxic leadership

In her book, "The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians – and How We Can Survive Them", Jean Lipman-Blumen claims that people often support toxic leaders. She questions why this is so.

Zuma's leadership character was already compromised prior to occupying South Africa's highest political office in 2009.

Lipman-Blumen defines toxic leaders as "leaders who engage in numerous destructive behaviours and who exhibit certain dysfunctional personal characteristics. To count as toxic, these behaviours and qualities of character must inflict some reasonably serious and enduring harm on their followers and their organisations". She distinguishes as "seriously toxic" those leaders who intend "to harm others or to enhance the self at the expense of others".

Toxic leaders fail to embrace and reflect the qualities that make for leadership character. Leaders who do embrace these qualities are more likely to contribute towards the development and well-being of their followers or subordinates, rather than inflicting harm on them.

Jacob Zuma and the ANC

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
President of South Africa Jacob Zuma speaks at the 54th National Conference of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) at the Nasrec Expo Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa December 16, 2017. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

A multitude of media reports, opinion pieces and books give an account of how the toxic leadership defined by Limpan-Blumen finds reflection in the character of Jacob Zuma and his political party, the ANC.

Zuma's leadership character was already compromised prior to occupying South Africa's highest political office in 2009. In 2005, he was criminally charged with corruption, following the case in which his benefactor, Schabir Shaik, was found guilty under the same charge. The case is ongoing.

Later, in the same year, Zuma was charged with rape. Although he was lawfully acquitted, the trial revealed enough about Zuma the person for any level-headed South African voter who values leadership character to question his credentials.

Journalists writing for the Mail & Guardian described the political damage to the ANC, caused by the rape trial, as incalculable, irrespective of its outcome. Further to this, they claimed that Zuma himself was regarded as a spent force, as far as the presidential candidature was concerned.

For many South Africans, Zuma represents some of the nation's least appealing qualities. They consider their deeply flawed president and faltering government and mutter dark thoughts about a failing state and a banana republic.

Zuma's first term

Despite all this, however, the ANC saw Zuma as fit to lead the party.

In 2007, the party's 52nd national conference elected him as ANC president. Two years later, in South Africa's fourth democratic general election, the majority of South African voters gave the ANC their blessing, presumably with the knowledge that Zuma was the party's presidential candidate.

President Zuma had a scandal-plagued first term. Controversies surrounding his publicly relevant and damaging misconduct, included his alleged involvement in the premature release of Schabir Shaik, the uncovering of the Nkandla saga, his illegitimate child, and his deployment of South African National Defence Force (SANDF) troops to the Central African Republic (CAR).

Reporting on Nelson Mandela's memorial service at the end of 2013, Max du Preez wrote: "For many South Africans, Zuma represents some of the nation's least appealing qualities. They consider their deeply flawed president and faltering government and mutter dark thoughts about a failing state and a banana republic."

In Clever Blacks, Jesus And Nkandla, Gareth van Onselen (2014) chronicles more than 300 of Zuma's public statements, all made prior to or during his first term as South Africa's president. The collection of quotes, aided by the author's analysis, depicts a man with scant respect for, or little understanding of, the South African Constitution and Bill of Rights. The book revealed President Zuma as a hypocrite, a misogynist, a cunning political strategist and a false prophet.

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
African National Congress (ANC) president,Jacob Zuma (2nd R) waves to his supporters as he arrives for the parties traditional Siyanqoba rally ahead of the August 3 local municipal elections in Johannesburg, South Africa July 31, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

A second round

Despite the increasing controversy surrounding Zuma's leadership, history repeated itself in 2014, perhaps unsurprisingly so. The ANC again won the majority of the national vote with Zuma at the helm, albeit with a decline in support of 3.75 percent.

The "many South Africans" referenced by Max du Preez in the previous year were clearly not in the majority.

Given the added substance with which Zuma had brought his own leadership character into disrepute during his first term as president -- a point raised during parliament's presidential nomination process in 2014 -- the majority of South African voters had now added insult to injury.

The result was a second term in office during which Zuma and his ANC aides have done increasing damage to South Africa and its people.

"Everything rises and falls on leadership" – and that if we are to rise, we will need leaders who display the necessary character for us to do so.

Leadership character low on priority list

In 2009, the majority of South African voters lent their support to a political party whose leader displayed questionable character. In 2014, many of the same voters empowered an ANC whose embodiment of toxic leadership had become evident.

South Africa's consequential political reality encourages the following question: do South Africans have an understanding of what qualifies as "good leadership", and is there an appreciation among voters for the impact of leadership and the need to prioritise leadership character when electing public office holders?

Whatever and however many the reasons are for the sustained submission to the ANC's toxic leadership, these same reasons have trumped the importance of prioritising leadership character in deciding whom to support as political leaders.

It seems we South Africans have some way to go in appreciating that "everything rises and falls on leadership" – and that if we are to rise, we will need leaders who display the necessary character for us to do so.

Craig Bailie is a political science lecturer at Stellenbosch University

Disclaimer: blogs represent the opinion of the author, and not necessarily those of HuffPost.