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Rediscovering hope in SA

Adam Habib has recently published an important book with the provocative title 'South Africa's Suspended Revolution: Hopes and Prospects'. He argues that the country is approaching a critical moment in its long and turbulent history, what he has called a moment of reckoning.

I agree with Habib that our country is at a moment of reckoning.

I would characterise the choice we face in somewhat different terms. I do not foresee the prospect of Armageddon, an Arab Spring leading to military dictatorship, civil war.

For me the choice is between a continued messy, muddling through with low growth rates and even lower rates of social development, high levels of inequality, a growing pattern of social protest. The path we have travelled for much of the last two decades. It is important to note a few things about the road travelled thus far. South Africa in 2013 is a MUCH better place than it was in 1994. We are a constitutional democracy, with vibrant institutions including a critical media and courts capable of holding politicians to account. Millions of South Africans have better shelter and access to critical resources such as water, energy and schooling. However, very few South Africans can believe that this is as good as it gets. Getting our attitudes towards both the past and the present right is critical to realising our hope for the future.

The other choice is to rediscover that hope that almost every South African discovered standing in those queues, waiting to vote in our first democratic election. This was the hope of a diverse but united, prosperous and democratic country that was truly a beacon of light and hope in the world community. And to move forward to a rapidly growing economy, which rapidly and significantly gives the chance to all who want to be economically active. That rapidly reduces poverty and also significantly reduces inequality.

My sense of what we need to do to get back on that 1994 road is expressed in different language to that used in Adam's book. It is not fundamentally different, however, in its critical content. I think we need to do three things:

  1. Recover our shared vision for a better future.

  1. We need to review and reconsider the values that shape critical parts of our society.

For example, let us consider some of the values that inform our country's economy. South Africa has largely conformed to the fashion of the hyper individual form of capitalism that has come to dominate the global economy since the mid-1980s. In this value set profit is measured by short-term financial metrics. Workers are costs. Outsourcing has become a religion, with its major purpose to reduce costs and in fact disguise the working poor who actually do work in your organisation. Wealth is measured only over the shortest possible term.

Sadly this value set is not limited to the private sector. Just ask who cleans, secures and indeed does many other functions in government buildings, universities and others parts of civil society.

A few years ago South Africa adopted a new Companies Act. This is effectively the constitution of our market economy. It locates the purpose, character and governance of companies firmly in a multiple stakeholder model. The company has to work for and answer to its investors, employees, customers, and the community and country within which it operates. This model needs a value set that sees workers indeed as stakeholders, wealth as real and sustainable benefits both collective and individual, and risk and reward fairly shared between investors, workers, customers and indeed citizens.

  1. A third critical choice we are making in this moment of national reckoning is about the character of both of our leaders and of our citizens.

Each day each one of us, though both our words and deeds, endorses the leadership ethic we admire, promote and reward. And not only in politics. In business and labour, indeed also in civil society, in the media.

In each of these areas there are powerful examples of what I would call the warlord leader. I think the title probably speaks for itself. In business we meet this type of leadership in the heroic CEO. The warrior CEO who single handedly creates new companies and industries. Who becomes an icon of not only business success but also popular consciousness. Who remains faultless until fired.

I do not have a good title for the alternative type of leadership, which clearly we so desperately need. A phrase often used is that of the servant leader. If this means a leader with even a modest or no ego, it seems to me romantic, even dangerous. However, if we look for a leader whose energy and interests serve a vision, a cause, a goal bigger than him or herself then that is the kind of leadership that builds social movements, union movements, great companies and indeed great countries.

Again I must stress great examples of this kind of servant leadership are to be found throughout our society. Amongst our politicians, our public servants, amongst doctors, nurses, teachers and policemen and women. Also in business, in labour and in civil society. Inevitably the warlord leaders exist as well. Which kind of leadership will the citizens of our country most admire, follow and indeed, in that sense, reward?

Which brings me to the last point I want to make. As important as the character of our leaders, in all sectors of our society, is the character of our citizens. In a democracy both the calibre and character of the citizenry is at least as important as the calibre and character of its leadership. Citizens, rather than subjects, hold themselves accountable for the exercise of their rights and responsibilities. They see themselves as a part of the governing process, not just petitioners to the rich and powerful. Citizens seek knowledge, demand accountability, reward good leaders with their respect and show bad leaders the door.

South Africa is on a journey from a population of supplicant subjects to empowered citizens. The discourse amongst our younger citizenry leaves me deeply encouraged that all future leaders will have to lead well if they are to lead at all.

I want to close with the words of what has become what I would describe as the anthem of my youth. These are the words of the Beatles' song 'Let it be':

"When all the broken hearted people living in the world agree

There will be an answer, let it be

And when the night is cloudy there is still a light that shines on me

Shine until tomorrow, let it be."

The people of South Africa discovered that light in 1994. We can rediscover it now.

Let it be.

This an edited version of the speech delivered by Bobby Godsell at the annual Ahmed Kathrada lecture in Johannesburg on 14 October 2013. To read Adam Habib's address click here.

Bobby Godsell is a member of the country's National Planning Commission.