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Op-eds

The leadership quandary: Trust me, I’ll make your nightmares real

  • GeoffEditorial
What makes a leader? Morality, humility, wisdom?
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Mar 08, 2018

The question becomes increasingly relevant as the planet seems to be hurtling towards potential self-destruction. Ordinary people watch fearfully as international leaders threaten stability in ways not seen since the Cold War. For us in South Africa, the country seems rudderless, lacking any true national leader.

Authentic leadership goes deeper than having a clean record. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long been under police investigation for corruption, yet most Israelis still regard him as best choice for prime minister and vote for him, because no one else in the political landscape seems able to ensure Israel’s security.

Israelis are anyway cynical about political leaders’ morality: President Moshe Katsav was jailed for rape in 2011; Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was jailed for corruption a few years later; and Shas leader and Cabinet minister Aryeh Deri was jailed in 1999 for bribery and breach of trust.

Ironically, one of Israel’s most outstanding leaders was an ardent right-winger. Former prime minister Menachem Begin led the Likud Party to electoral victory in 1977 after three decades of Labour Party dominance. He was initially reviled by the left, but today is admired as a role model by people across the spectrum for common sense and propriety.

He is the leader who made peace between Israel and Egypt with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, with whom he received the 1978 Nobel Prize for Peace.

In America, President Donald Trump’s chaotic tenure in the White House, and his irrational tendency to blunderingly change positions on major local and international issues, continues to erode confidence among Americans who believe he is unfit for the job, and creates disdain elsewhere. But he sits in the power seat and could lead the world into a hell from which it would take forever to recover.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin brags belligerently about the ability of his country’s nuclear weaponry to reach targets anywhere, particularly the US, terrifying people who fear another nuclear arms race.

What about South African leaders? Obviously, the historical giant among them was struggle icon and former president Nelson Mandela. He is history now, although the memory of his vision lives on, disappointed as the citizens may be at his country’s decline.

And the others? President Cyril Ramaphosa has yet to prove himself; many people believe the task of reconstructing South Africa is too big for him. He succeeded in removing his poisonous predecessor, Jacob Zuma, from office, but not yet the rot that Zuma created.

On a much smaller, charismatic scale, we have the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema. It may seem ludicrous to include him in a descriptive list containing the likes of Putin and Trump, but we are talking qualities, not scale. One may not like his politics, but he makes enough noise on the national and even international stage to be noticed by people interested in South Africa.

Whether his leadership brand will produce anything positive is unlikely because of his toxic anti-white racism, epitomised by his latest statement: “We are cutting the throat of whiteness” – in reference to his party’s plans to remove Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Athol Trollip because he is white.

Sound familiar? It is little different from apartheid leaders HF Verwoerd and PW Botha, whose target was blacks, not whites.

Does a leader have to want the best for his people? Not necessarily. Hitler, as repulsive as he was, inspired Germans to move mountains, even if they were in the most depraved direction, and eventually brought catastrophe down on them.

South Africa’s record on leaders is not a good one. Are there any potential Mandelas or Hitlers waiting in the wings? This country has a tendency towards great drama and must beware of the likes of Malema, whose anti-white slogans could easily morph into anti-Indian, anti-Muslim or anti-Jew ones.

Read Geoff Sifrin’s regular columns on his blog sifrintakingissue.wordpress.com

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