Powerful powerlessness and what I learnt about leadership

On Friday, 17 August 2012, I attended what was essentially an opportunity to celebrate the work of Ruth First, but also a colloquium on inequality, where I expected to walk away with a better understanding of and answer to what is considered to be South Africa’s foremost challenge. Instead, I felt that the speakers were finding it difficult to address the topic of inequality within the framework of Ruth First’s writings, as well as addressing the subtheme to which they were allocated.

At the same time, flickering amongst the audience, some of whom were glued to their mobile phones, was an awful awareness that South Africa had just been witness to a national tragedy. A level of outrage about the Lonmin mines killings was voiced by some of the commentators and some of the speakers themselves condemned the shootings. Some asked what Ruth First would have said, but the answer is difficult to know. Some speakers tried to voice an opinion on what Ruth First would have thought of democratic South Africa in general, but twitter followers berated such attempts.

However, the more I learnt about the former activist and journalist, the more I wished to have grown up during a time when I may have been intimately influenced by her thinking and her work. Learning more about Ruth First made me realise the dearth of people like her that currently exist in South Africa. It was apt them that the issue of leadership arose, as well as the question of, “who has the power?” The issue was also raised about critical journalism and learning from the past. All of these topics are central to the tragedy which permeated the room. The questions which have arisen in the media since the Lonmin killings are questions of power, leadership and accountability. Perhaps the biggest question is “how could this happen and why wasn’t something done to prevent it?”

Speakers at the colloquium asked the bigger questions. Njabulo Ndebele struck at the heart of leadership shortages with his illuminating answers to why democratic South Africa has perpetuated all of those things which were fought against during the struggle. People fought against violence and racism; yet, both of these exist strongly today. He suggests that since 1994, no one has claimed the problems and embraced them as problems which they are responsible for by virtue of their office. None of these problems have been subjected to a visionary mandate; instead government has shown the people how to govern through demonstrations.

He asks why powerful people demonstrate when they have the power to change things, perpetuating what he calls a “powerful powerlessness”. The abandonment of the social vision and the lack of rationality within the public is leading us to become “victims of our own actions”. While this discussion does not immediately allow us insight into why inequality exists and what can be done about it, it does speak to accountability and the implications of non-rational leadership.

Joel Netshitenzhe and Kate Phillips explored inequality probingly, seeking answers to the problems which have more practical implications. Joel Netshitenzhe suggested that an activist state as an instrument of redistribution is necessary and that good quality public services can reduce non-economic inequality. Kate Phillips suggested that “right to work” programmes (public employment programmes), such as those found in India, can contribute to reduced inequality, at the same time that broader strategies are implemented; strategies which may take a while to show improvements. The importance of these public employment programmes is that it mobilises people within communities to undertake activities to improve their local environments.

A fascinating anti-neoliberal (or perhaps pro-socialist) theme ran through some of the discussions. It was even suggested that democratic South Africa was defeated by global capitalism. One audience member mentioned that alternatives are available in systems like solidarity economies and eco-socialism. But perhaps the raison d’etre for such a theme is to get the audience thinking about new ways of approaching the economic system and perhaps an attempt to find a solution to inequality which is slightly more radical. I accept such a point; considering how endemic and systemic inequality has become. Perhaps we need to start thinking in different ways about politics, the role of the state and our economic systems in order to really deal with inequality in a way which sees universal and powerful results.

While I don’t have the intellectual capacity or knowledge to make any further comments on this, the idea of “changing the whole” (my words) was interesting for me while considering further the reality of leadership of this country and the role models that currently exist. Maybe all it really takes to fight inequality is someone with vision, a powerful intellectual mind, who thinks less in dollars, than in humanist terms. A leader would accept responsibility for poor decisions and bad deeds and accept South Africa’s problems as their duty to overcome. More than that, it would take someone who is willing to apologise to the miners for what has happened and condemn the killings. While NGO’s mobilise around the tragedy, I ponder on the actions which government will take. I challenge them to lead. I challenge them to lead differently; to be diligent, forceful and visionary.

By: Claire Martens

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the Realising Rights bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Legal Resources Centre. The Legal Resources Centre is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the bloggers.

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The Legal Resources Centre is a public interest law clinic established in South Africa in 1979

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