The late business leadership expert Warren Bennis offered a dystopian assessment of what automation and artificial intelligence will do to the world of work.
“The factory of the future will have only two employees,” he wrote, “ a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog and the dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”
Hyperbole perhaps; but with half of current US jobs estimated to be capable, within a few years, of being robotosized, digitised and automated, a lot of current occupations and traditional career paths across the world are either on the chopping block or face severe disruption.
So while most current jobs are in line to either disappear or be reshaped, one of them –both occupied by very few individuals but of huge consequence to many, are unlikely to be automated .
Leaders of political parties are not going to be replaced by machines any time soon. Even if their failures to address the future of a world undergoing fundamental disruption upend many of their voters’ lives and careers, their own job category will endure for a long while yet.
But the very forces of change which have swept and changed the world –especially the hyper –speed of communications and connectivity –have fundamentally changed the nature of the job and added to the snares and traps for its execution.
For example, when I was elected to my first political post as leader of the opposition (PFP) in Johannesburg City Council in 1988 there was no email and no cell phones in this country. The concept of 24/7 news belonged to the realm of science fiction movies and the fax machine was regarded as the frontier of new technology.
Even in 2007, just a decade ago, when I stood down from my national leadership of the parliamentary opposition (DA), there was no facebook, twitter or snapchat.
Now political leaders, from Donald Trump over there to Helen Zillle over here can reach far more voters directly than all the traditional media outlets combined. A powerful weapon indeed but also, as recent events confirm, a boomerang as well.
But political leadership , whatever its future form and however it communicates itself , remains of crucial importance .
There is also something fundamentally unchanged embedded in party leadership, despite the sweep of changes in how their message is spread and received. This can be summed up by the interconnectivity of two ideas: first, the identity of the party is wrapped up in the popularity of the leader; second, the continuance of the leader in office depends crucially on good judgment.
These two concepts are often irreconcilable. Consider the recent and perhaps most important international case of a popular leader who displayed spectacularly bad judgment. His name is David Cameron and he is now the ex-prime minister of Great Britain. He delivered, against expectations, first a win in the Scottish referendum; next in May 2015 and in the teeth of five years of unpopular austerity he won an outright majority in the British general election. And then a combination of bad judgment, poor luck, a changed environment , and a dash of hubris, led to his devastating defeat in the Brexit referendum last June.
Cameron wasted no time on regret and recrimination and resigned the next day: he gambled, he misjudged, and he fell on his sword.
Like his predecessor bar one, Tony Blair on Iraq, he wishes to be remembered for the many things he got right. Posterity, at this stage, suggests that both of them will be largely commemorated for the one big thing each of them got wrong.
Here at home we have, in both the governing ANC and opposition DA two leadership tussles underway.
As with many things relating to our ruling party, its contest is both simultaneously opaque and direct. The open part is the known fact that a new party leader will be elected in December and the closed aspect is that none dare campaign in the open yet, or even directly offer a glimpse of how they will govern and for what great, or any, purpose larger than party or self they will do so.
The DA now has a direct collision on its hands: On Monday former party leader Helen Zille wrote in support of her tweets the week before on colonialism, that her own party faced “ the real danger, in its quest for votes, may start to swallow every tenet, myth and shibboleth of African racial nationalist propaganda.”
Of passing irony here was that in her years at the helm, Zille was no mean hand at vote-winning –and that was her success. As for tactics: she did what she thought circumstances required and was ruthless in its achievement. For example, she airbrushed part of the DA story out of existence in order to extend her base and to present a perceived real history of her party to the electorate in 2014. That of course is the leader’s prerogative.
Current DA leader Mmusi Maimane has his own calculus. The day after Zille’s ‘real danger’ warning, he fired back. He said, after denouncing colonialism, that “If this was the price for development, then I say the price was too high.” Whatever the merits, demerits, context or lack of it, for Zille’s perceived ‘original sin’, clearly the current and former leader cannot continue down this path. Something or someone has to yield.
The old Tswana proverb Two bulls cannot stay in the same kraal might have the wrong gender in this case, but points to the likely outcome. Maimane, in similar vein, announced on Monday, that ‘’there are no holy cows in the DA.”
Just ask the ANC. In December 2007, Thabo Mbeki calamitously tried to extend his rule over his party and lost to Jacob Zuma. He then retreated from the party to his national presidency and believed he could see out his final two years of office. Within nine months he was cast out entirely.
Politics – at its best – is about principle, vision and service beyond self. But there is also a great deal of Darwinism involved in leadership survival.
Here, a key requirement for both endurance and success is the ability to count votes and to remember the old adage that ‘’when your friends become your enemies, your enemies are still your enemies.” Of course, within both the ruling party and elsewhere on our political landscape there is a lot of positioning in anticipation of a regime change. Zuma clearly is trying to extend his rule by hand -picking his successor.
Zille already has a successor, but she, like Mbeki before, holds high state or, in her case, provincial office. And the issue of who prevails in her standoff with her successor , could be determined by the same calculus which will apply to the settling of the ANC succession (and the clearest indicator that Zuma could find his once large writ runs rather small in coming months ).
I am not sure whether or not Pompey he Great would qualify as a colonialist. As a conquering Roman general probably a box tick here. But his ancient wisdom well describes the snake pit in which all political leaders have to dwell, even in post-colonial South Africa. He said “More people worship the rising than the setting sun.”
• Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London. @TonyLeonSA