Tutu and Blair spat, a distraction

Alex Eliseev

Archbishop Desmond Tutu may have succeeded in drawing our attention to the immensely controversial 2003 invasion of Iraq, but he’s also robbed us of an opportunity to discuss a much more important South African topic: leadership.

The bulk of the media attention this week’s Discovery Invest Leadership Summit received was over the Tutu/Blair spat, and the failed demonstration that was due to take place outside.

As a country, we are experiencing an unprecedented leadership vacuum which has left the door open for a flood of dangerous political opportunism and widespread corruption. If you leave your house door open, criminals run in to steal your television.

And yet, instead of listening to one of the world’s smartest men, Garry Kasparov, talk about the importance of education, people hurled insults and asked whether we were “drinking Iraqi blood” during lunch. I challenge you to argue that there is anything more important we need to be speaking about in South Africa than education.

Instead of engaging with one of the planet’s wisest business gurus, professor Michael Porter, on whether state-owned companies are a drain on society, we were reporting on how Tony Blair fobbed off a lone heckler in the crowd. There’s no question that government’s plans to become more involved in the economy and nationalisation are of paramount importance to the health of our economy and country.

Instead of paying attention to what finance minister Pravin Gordhan had to say about corruption, research and development (RND) and the role of small businesses in our economy, we were left arguing whether Blair is a war criminal or not. Gordhan also spoke about the need for leaders to balance political ambitions against economic priorities (ring any bells?).

While these crucial issues were being debated inside the Sandton Convention Centre, most eyes were fixed on a group of about 20 protesters in the street. We allowed them to steal the show and we should hang our heads in shame.

To be clear: I’m not arguing the Iraq invasion is not a worthy topic of discussion and that people’s views about Blair, Britain’s former prime minister, should not be debated. His actions changed the course of history and affected an entire planet. His decisions led to a war which claimed many lives and those calling for his arrest are entitled to their beliefs. Having him visit our country was always going to be controversial and some of my closest friends and most respected colleagues have shared their disgust at his presence.

“Fuck Tony Blair and all who sail with him, for laughing-off our Brave Arch and his moral conscience. To hell with all arms dealer playboys!” read a tweet from one of the country’s most respected journalists.

My views on Blair and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan don’t matter. As a journalist I was sent to cover the summit and by conveying what Blair had to say I in no way endorsed any of his words or explanations. I reported on his justifications for the war and his long-standing view that based on the intelligence they had at the time, the invasion was carried out in “good faith”.

Likewise, I reported on what he had to say about the global recession and the Arab Spring, as well as his opinion on Africa and its leaders. Blair devoted a big chunk of his presentation to saying that the most important lesson he’s learnt is that the world needs leaders who are brave enough to make decisions – no matter how unpopular - and to stand by them afterwards.

He was asked about whether he had any regrets considering that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. He said he did not.

Ultimately, there was nothing new in what Blair had to say on the Iraq invasion. He warned against the bloodshed being caused by extremists and terrorists, adding that once an oppressive regime is broken, the path to freedom is never easy.

There will be people who agree with him and those who don’t, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But at a time when textbooks are not being delivered to pupils in Limpopo, schools are shutting down due to protests in the Northern Cape and teachers are still being forced to teach under trees, nobody paid attention to Kasparov’s ideas about education.

Invest in education,” he urged. “It’s the only investment that guarantees results.”

Kasparov spoke at length about technology within education and the need for it to evolve. He spoke about science and the Mars landing and how courage was the common denominator in moving humanity forward. He ventured into politics and his protest against Russian president Vladimir Putin’s regime, which saw him arrested and jailed just a few weeks ago. Kasparov said he fought the system because it’s his “moral imperative” to do so. His address should have given us plenty to chew on.

How much can we learn from a man who could be living a comfortable life but has chosen to lead a rebellion against one of the world’s toughest and most unforgiving regimes? A man willing to be dragged away by security forces and locked up for his beliefs.

Gordhan’s speech was less animated but equally as important. He even ventured into the run-up to Mangaung, saying the “political contest” will come and go and should not be over-sensationalised. Few will agree with this considering the implications, but the point is that these comments slipped by virtually unnoticed.

Think about what Porter said: “Governments can’t create wealth, only business can”. This contradicts what today’s government is preaching and calls for more focus on creating new businesses. He spoke about the pitfalls of state-owned companies (think Eskom, SAA and Transnet) – a topic that should have sparked off analysis.

Some may argue that the entire summit was a PR exercise for one of South Africa’s most powerful companies at a time when there’s a wave of public sentiment turning against “greedy” corporates and banks. That may be so, but the topic of leadership is important and, regardless of the platform, the issues of education, nationalisation and corruption are what we should be discussing – even arguing – about.

Regardless of its motives, the summit should make us think long and hard about our president and the damage he’s done to this country. It should make us think of those waiting in the wings and those skating closer and closer to the point of inciting violence in the wake of a bloody tragedy at Lonmin. It should make us think about the devastating consequences of weak leadership - and what could have been achieved in the hands of a more capable government. It should make us think about stepping out of our comfort zones and fighting for what’s right.

Kasparov said at the time of landing the first man on the moon, Nasa’s entire computing power equated to – more or less – what’s now packed inside an iPhone. He then asked what we are doing with this technology today: “throwing birds at pigs?” Likewise, we can be accused of throwing insults at each other while the real issues were quietly swept away and a great opportunity was missed.