Faulty Personalized Leadership Frustrates Progress

Too many leaderships in Africa have failed their countries in hot pursuit of the leaders’ personal power — By Anil Gujadhur

In 1994, when South Africa was able to achieve a stable transition from its previous racist regime to a modern democracy under Nelson Mandela, there was a sigh of relief that things did not get out of hands, contrary to what some had suspected. The governance of the country under Mr Mandela was world-class. He managed to pacify the huge resentment that had built up during the apartheid years by setting up the Truth and Justice Commission under Mr Desmond Tutu. It helped give vent to huge pent-up feelings of long-lasting oppression of the 50 million people of South Africa.

But more than all of this, Mr Mandela’s sober style of going about his business of administering the state restored confidence that the rule of law will prevail, after all, while still righting the wrongs of the past. South Africa thus came to the forefront of world consciousness that it will become a model of governance for others on the continent so often taken hostage and ruined by self-serving and self-perpetuating rulers.

Now, nearly 20 years since Mr Mandela left the reins of power in the hands of his successors, can one say that South Africa, once seen as the beacon of a new surge of economic and social progress on the continent, has lived up to those expectations? No. And the reasons for this are not far to find.

The country’s main political party, the African National Congress (ANC), has been in power all the way from 1994. There has been big struggle for the party’s leadership, as it befits all truly democratic parties. In the latter years, however, this struggle has been for power grab by a coterie of politicians close to the chairperson of the ANC and hence the country’s president.

Political power increasingly came to be seen not as a means of furthering the well-being and prosperity of the people of South Africa; it became synonymous with getting a shortcut to ill-gotten private wealth accumulation for the leader and persons in his immediate proximity. Some estimates indicate that the prevailing system of rampant corruption has thieved away from 11 to 15 billion dollars.

Mr Jacob Zuma, the current president, faces 783 counts of corruption which are being held in abeyance. He has employed the necessary levers to avoid being prosecuted on those charges. Not to be outdone, Mr Zuma has been seeking to perpetuate a leadership which will keep condoning his outrages by shifting public attention to highly emotionally-charged subjects such as property expropriation of those who can be stood up as “exploiters”, like what happened decades back in failed state Zimbabwe.

He therefore gave his support to his ex-wife, Ms Dlamini Zuma, to be chosen to succeed him as the ANC’s next leader in the party’s leadership elections held from 16th to 18th December. In a close fight, however, it is Mr Cyril Ramaphosa who was elected leader, warding off the danger of South Africa shifting on to become a hereditary kleptocracy.

It is sad to reflect that a country like South Africa, which was once given as the next economic hub and launching pad for a new culture of governance for the continent is seen rather as the torchbearer of one of the poorest leaderships on the continent. It is also sad, given the small difference between what Ms Zuma and Mr Ramaphosa got as votes in the past week’s ANC elections, that those who have condoned previous abuse of political power have not been given a clear message that it is time to stop the destruction.

It is so disheartening to read, as writes The Economist in its edition of 9th December: “Under President (Jacob) Zuma, the state is failing. Contracts are awarded through bribes and connections; ruling-party members murder each other over lucrative government jobs; crooks operate with impunity.” This situation shows a complete downfall from the globally respected condition in which Mr Mandela had left the reins of power.

South Africa’s economy has stagnated since the recession of 2008-09 due to leadership failures and plummeting confidence in the country. A country which was seen before as Africa’s next economic powerhouse has seen instead falling investment, growing unemployment (27%) and falling public revenues. The hope now is that Mr Ramaphosa will impart a more credible leadership if he becomes the next President and give not only South Africa a new start but, by so doing, awaken the entire continent to a more promising dawn. Mauritius could become another boat that could rise with the tide if this turnaround were to come about.

Too many leaderships in Africa have failed their countries in hot pursuit of the leaders’ personal power. This can carry on only at great cost to the peoples of the continent. A more cohesive approach continent-wide is the key to everyone’s prosperity. At one time, Africa and Asia were in almost the same post-colonial stage of under-development. Asia has pulled up. Africa hasn’t, despite occasional spurts of high growth in individual countries from time to time at the time of commodity booms.

Data for 2016 show that approximately 82% of Africa’s exports go to other continents (Europe, Asia and America), mostly commodities, given the stalled state of its industrialisation. This means 18% only of African exports are directed to within Africa, largely within small free trade areas such as SADC of which Mauritius is a member. Africa is coming to the realisation that it will not be able to make significant inroads into industrialisation and manufacturing as it is happening on other continents because individual African countries essentially see themselves in isolation from each other, without considering the benefits an Africa-wide global trade strategy would yield to the benefit of all.

Can the leadership be persuaded to see the larger picture, instead of going on weakening their own countries in a bid to personally grab as much as possible before they go out of power? Some believe that a surge of faith in the whole continent’s higher collective potential is not the stuff dreams are made of.

This is what was on the agenda of African Ministers of Trade in Niamey, Niger, on 1st and 2nd December. The aim is to get all the 55 countries together under a free trade agreement, called the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) for which negotiations began in 2015.

Even if it took 10 more years to remove all the impediments to grow intra-African trade under the proposed CFTA, Mauritius should add its voice to the new chapter. We’ve seen how quickly trade arrangements are unilaterally rescinded by advanced countries with which we’ve had trading relations for centuries. We’ve also seen how countries, seeing themselves on a standalone basis in globalised markets, have almost ruined themselves when politicians go for increasing personal political power. That kind of thing doesn’t usually happen where a country is part of a larger club governed by strict rules of compliance in matters of governance.

Short of exploring new markets under arrangements like the CFTA and disciplining ourselves under the rules of the game, we risk doing to ourselves the kind of self-inflicted damage South Africa has inflicted upon itself under President Zuma.


*  Published in print edition on 22 December 2017

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