Does effective, shapeshifting leadership require its exemplars to push against the bounds of current consensus and navigate “the road not taken”?

I interrogated this theme in a lecture this week in Cape Town and came to the perhaps obvious but rather glum conclusion that yes, it does, and our country and the world has a few signs of it.

My talk did not traverse the current crop of leaders vying, and worse, for the plum ANC posts in less than three weeks before its elective conference. But since none offers a public manifesto, and each of the favoured candidates hews to the orthodoxy of current ANC thinking, the answer would be no change. No change from whoever wins on the policies and practices which have collapsed the state, rutted its infrastructure, ballooned unemployment, widened the inequality gap and entrenched poverty as the default position for most South Africans.

The leadership, whoever it is, will be mandated to implement a depressing confection of unfunded promises (NHI and increased social grants spending), more employment equity and racial preferencing and cadre deployment, and attacks on the independence of the few institutions still standing as centres of excellence (the SA Reserve Bank, for example). All will be nodded through the conference with the support of its newly elected leadership. Socialism, or an ersatz Nasrec-baked version of it, lives on.

Humour helps at this point. Russian-British satirist and commentator Konstantin Kasin, in his book, An Immigrant’s Love Letter to the West, decries the “socialist answer to poverty is the equivalent of helping wheelchair users by cutting everyone else’s legs off”.

Too true. So here we have a disastrous and corruption-riddled public health system and a reasonably well-functioning private health network. The ANC answer is to collapse the latter and place it in the tender (apt word) clutches of the former. That is before the mass exodus to more hospitable shores of health professionals and a collapse of the taxpayer base that renders the entire flight of fantasy a dystopian nightmare.

It is also true that of the outlier candidates, there is an offer of change. Long-shot and perennial presidential candidate Lindiwe Sisulu, for example, believes the constitution (which she voted for and swore an oath to defend) needs to be binned, judges need to be partisan race-warriors not independent adjudicators and the president who appointed her and under whom she serves is not fit for office.

If she is not to the taste of delegates, there is also the bunfight for other posts.

For example, fresh from collapsing the rail infrastructure, the roads systems and surrendering long-haul bus operators to the criminal armies of outlaw taxi operators, Fikile Mbalula is offering himself for election as the head of ANC in the powerful role of secretary-general.

This serial malpractitioner who wears his incompetence as a medal of honour is apparently backed by Cyril Ramaphosa’s campaign team. He must also be the dream candidate of the opposition as well, since if he can deliver inside the ANC what he has visited on the country, their odds of taking over government in two years must surely shorten.

ANC warhorse Gwede Mantashe has also thoughtfully offered himself to his party for re-election as chairman. Based on branch nominations recorded, there is some prospect that he might finally be out to pasture. But whether he wins or loses there is something quite extraordinary (but no longer shocking in Ramaphosa’s government) that the minister in charge of energy (apparently Mantashe’s day job) can launch, as he did this week, an unbridled attack on Eskom boss Andre de Ruyter.

Mantashe (himself found by the Zondo  commission to be worthy of criminal investigation for accepting gifts from the tender-milking machine, Bosasa) decried the beleaguered de Ruyter for acting as a “policeman”. Actually, given the industrial-scale sabotage at Eskom and the nest of corrupt practices there, policing criminality there is an eminently correct posture. And, into the bargain, he also dismissed Zondo himself as “a beneficiary of cadre deployment”. By such mighty men (few women in truth) is the ANC led.

In my lecture last night, I recorded a key observation on the founding prime minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, one of the titans of 20-century politics. Thomas Friedman wrote of him:

“David Ben Gurion always understood that his first constituency was the facts and that his second constituency was his people, whose subjective will had to be shaped by the facts.”

That is why, just five years after the end of WW2, he determined that Israel, battling extreme economic deprivation, absorbing hundreds of thousands of refugees and battling enemies on its borders, needed to accept financial reparations from Germany. This while the Holocaust was fresh in memory. In so doing he nearly split his party and his country. But Ben Gurion, having made the determination, drove it through to successful conclusion.

Operating outside the comfort zone of your core supporters and constituencies is emblematic of real leadership.

Nelson Mandela displayed copious examples of this attribute. Of the many times he went against the grain, one small example offered larger meaning.

Leaving aside controversies of today, such as Rassie Erasmus and his comments on refereeing, some of us were privileged to have been at Ellis Park on June 24 1995 and witnessed the moment Mandela won the hearts of white SA. By appearing on the field in a Springbok cap and the captain’s No 6 green and gold jersey, Mandela not only earned a roaring ovation from the overwhelmingly white crowd, but almost certainly helped edge the team to an against-the-odds victory, achieved with a heart-stopping drop goal in extra time, against the more fancied All Blacks.

There was an even more dramatic backstory to the glittering and gritty final that day and Mandela’s role as the team’s unofficial 16th man. A friend of mine, great journalist John Carlin, who reported from SA during its transition, wrote about the World Cup epiphany, Playing the Enemy, which was made into the movie Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood, some years later.

There is one piece of dialogue in that film which, perhaps better than any other presidential encounters memorialised in celluloid or in books, distilled the efforts of Mandela’s self-appointed task as builder of a new nation and why he was uniquely equipped for the role. Mandela, played by the impressive Morgan Freeman, engages with the ANC’s national sports committee, which is keen on dumping the Springbok name and emblem precisely because the committee sees them as cherished symbols of the white overlords of the apartheid era.

Mandela rejects the decision, admonishing the NSC: “That is selfish thinking. It does not serve the nation.”

Then, facing the camera, and presumably speaking to SA whites for whom the Springboks had an almost religious significance, he says: “We have to surprise them with our restraint and generosity.”

Decades later, much of Mandela’s legacy has been abandoned, revised and contested as the country’s conditions deteriorate precisely because “restraint and generosity” are in such short supply. But the Springbok name and emblem remain one of the few bonding features in a fracturing nation.

And they won at Twickenham!