The Never Ending Refrain…
An examination of the discourse related to Africa and its Leadership today
Prepared for Archbishop Tutu Leadership Fellowship Course, August 2011
Tumi Molekane is a leading South African musician. “Leading” in this regard speaks more to his stedfast exploration of alternative processes and methodologies of honing, creating and distributing his craft as opposed to leading by the world’s more popular benchmark of sales. By this standard he could be considered a laggard. He has however been able over the past decade to carve a niche out for himself as a musician first, rather than a Hip-Hop or rap artist; he pioneered poetry in the media mainstream in the early 2000s and later formed Tumi and the Volume, a neo-jazz, funk band that has attracted an almost cult following in SA and Europe in equal parts. All of his albums are produced and released independently (as in he is not contracted to one of the world’s major music corporations) and he was one of the first South African musicians to publish free online music.
Tumi was also last year featured in Cosmopolitan magazine as a “Twitter King”, a group of South African men proving to be leading figures on Twitter, a leading global Social Media platform. Leading in both cases speaks more to influence as neither Tumi, not Twitter have the numbers behind them to claim having the most followers or users respectively, but both can claim to be able to move their respective audiences, particularly to action. Twitter of course become topical this year for being seen as playing a significant role in the Arab Spring revolutions across Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab nations this year.
Tumi on the other hand, makes people gyrate to what could be called “conscious-rap” that questions the prevalent “bling” and misogynistic themes that are the recording industry’s staples. Tumi sings songs about his past, being born to freedom-fighters and growing up to a single-mother, becoming a caring and present father eschewing crime and self-aggrandisement. He is Marley sped up1. Tumi’s biography on his twitter page; the following quotation by American political activist Ralph Nader, “I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to create more leaders not more followers”; is a hallmark of this non-conformist; after all Twitter is all about Followers.
Ralph Nader himself has been pegged as influential, officially at least. By Life Magazine which in 1990 named him as one of 100 most influential Americans. And a host of other leading magazines. He is known as an avid consumer activist, so much so that he has even been dubbed anti-corporate, which for any American is tantamount to being branded “unpatriotic”. He is also known by some, most older than my generation, as the chap that ran for the US presidency. Often. And didn’t make it. The Democrat Ross Perot. In all five cases he just didn’t have the numbers to make his bid count. What he did and perhaps forever will have is the backing of history. His campaign for car safety in the 1960s resulted in unprecedented changes to US legislation that placed the burden on motor vehicle safety on the manufacturer. As the US car market was the then flag-bearer of the industry, this trend spread to all corners of the globe. Today, vehicular safety is no longer a sales pitch, but a given. This success didn’t come without a cost, Nader was persecuted by the industry to the point of being spied upon.
So here we have it, a classical tale of leadership, a man seeking the greater good of society struggles, undergoes hardships, overcomes and defeats the mighty Goliath in the best interest of all. That is the narrative of Heroism that since the Grecian era has informed our collective consciousness on what good Leadership should be.
Of course, the issue of numbers muddies the waters ever so slightly. Why would such a Hero not be able to get into the White House? Why would he have to resign himself to watching actors and later draft-dodging cowboys take that honour and arguably make a hash of the job. More importantly, should he even have tried?
The one thing Tumi doesn’t do is participate in active politics. In South Africa, the proven means to assuming political Leadership is grassroots mobilisation. Hard work, that isn’t glorious or even very honourable very often. To be active in politics today means to be in a political party. For instant impact in terms of access to decision-makers that would be the African National Congress (ANC). For a speedy rise to a position of influence the party to join for Tumi would be the Democratic Alliance (DA). Both options have their pros and cons, Joining the DA would mean that Tumi, a so-called “struggle baby2” would be ostracised by many of his immediate community, and he may need to make some ideological compromises. Joining the ANC is easy, he’s done that already, being active is another matter. He would have instant clout on the one hand. And instant detractors on the other. First of all he wasn’t born in SA, although he is a impassioned patriot. Secondly his tongue betrays his class position, in a country that is increasingly becoming polarized along class lines. Thirdly, at 32 he has no history of having worked alongside within the “comrades” constituency whereas some of his peers have been doing only that for nearly 20 years. Lastly, it really would be a hard slog, demanding much of his time and attention, and he has shows to do. He also has a new-born baby to care for and be present for in a way that his father never was. Someone else, and since Politics alongside Crime, the National Lottery and Sex, is still the fastest ways to make a quantum leap in one’s economic circumstances, a lot of “someone elses”, will be working at their politics (lobbying, canvassing, manipulating, decrying, manipulating, studying policy etc) whilst Tumi is performing and doting and sleeping and the like..
Perhaps it is an issue of sticking to one’s knitting or a resignation that the work required is a bridge too far from the safety of ideology that non-practitioners of politics reside in. In the event, all things remaining the same it is doubtful that Tumi will becoming a political force in SA, regardless of the growth of his sphere of influence. We saw the same of Fela Kuti in Nigeria, a man loved by Nigerians, that one day went from singing about the politics of the day to announcing his intention to becoming part of the politics of the day. Whereas his fame and international acclaim could not spare him the harassment that was to follow, in fact they were only enhanced by it, ultimately he remained on the periphery of politics; a commentator. In all likelihood he would have stood a better chance if he’d been a colonel in the army.
Countless other public profiles around the world have suffered a similar fate; the hearts and minds of people in one area of leadership may not necessarily transfer into another, or even worse, the skill of those practised in politics may render all of this goodwill null and void. Such skill of course requires honing. Contemporary models on doing so and acquiring power, such as Nicollo Machaveli’s The Prince, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Robert Green’s 48 Laws of Power and even Hitler’s Mein Kampf perpetuate the idea that power is about a series of manoeuvres rather than any core ideology or even public responsibility. When all is said and done, politics is seemingly about the acquisition of political power for whatever ends, and those who excel in this are very often deemed to posses the characteristics of our popular narratives’ villains, not heroes.
The recent adaptation of the Battle of Thermopylae, the 2007 Zack Snyder movie 300, depicts a brave King Leonidas’ plans to lead his army to war against a threatening Persian conquerer Xerxes were thwarted by the machinations of a sly politician. Leonidas ultimately pays the ultimate sacrifice, feeding into the narrative of heroism, but the question of how many stitches could have been saved where it not for the business of politics remains. This is remains a very valid question today, be it in the conflicts of Libya, Cote D’ivoir, the Middle East and Afgahnistan, on the streets of London and on the trading floors of the established bourses.
Indian writer Arundhati Roy’s 2004 book of essays “the Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire” examines the nature of this business of politics as it is manifest in its most extreme forms. In every case the same pattern emerges; the spirit of the transformation engendered by world renowned leaders such as a Ghandi or Lincoln is many years later eroded by the system of administrators of the then new order introduced.
The Afrikaaner Boers are a case in point. After being exterminated in their hundreds in British concentration camps, they go on to mete out similar punishment on thousands of black South Africans. The Isreali-Palestinean conflict mirrors this. Neither were the Red Russians different given enough time nor the Americans who sort freedom from the under the Jackboots of the English, the same Anglo-Saxons that sought their freedom from the Romans. It would seem that Jacques Mallet du Pan’s assertion that “Revolution devours its infants” applies. In the face of this a Mugabe doesn’t seem so unique. But perhaps what we are all missing is his necessity in the equation of Leadership.
If our earlier stated assertion that the most critically thinking of society or rather service-orientated are not involved actively in politics, simply because of the inherent conflict between the demands of politics and their own value-systems or respective spheres of leadership, then perhaps the often heard refrain of poor leadership, particularly heard loudly in reference to Africa may be over-stated. Bureaucracies are by their nature not about Leadership, even though they are crystallized in times of Leadership. They cannot afford Leadership because Leadership is transformational and disruptive at best. Not unlike a corporation a nation can only do with so much leadership before human nature settles in and with it the demand for management with its benefits of predictability and some-one-to-dislike, the boss. If the theory of Leadership being ephemeral is correct than Leadership must also indeed undergo a life-cycle of sorts. What would such a cycle look like?
Let’s go back to Tumi. He would be an ideal candidate for anyone wanting to invest in South African leadership development programmes. Even his radicalism could be tampered with time. He is well travelled, understands local and international Politics and History, is a keen analyst of local and global trends, particularly amongst the youth and he is willing and able to try different things with the support of a dedicated base of followers. Above all Tumi has at his core a creed, a doctrine, a set of values steeped in Africanism. Who wouldn’t be an obvious candidate for a so-called progressive programme is another young South African; let’s call him Sipho; that has hardly left Johannesburg let alone the country. Sipho isn’t a particularly stellar scholar, perhaps because he spends more time running Student Representative Council (SRC) affairs and mobilising youth in his township for the next election be they organisational, Municipal or National Elections. He wouldn’t dazzle with a rather prolix vocabulary but he would one day emerge as a local leader that could then be up for grabs by anyone wanting to influence political policy or win an election, he would be a renowned organiser cum mercenary. A known leader, who could use his organisational skills to improve his socio-economic position. He would likely never be offered a place at a prestigious leadership development course, or when he is an obvious candidate for it would be deeply suspicious of it.
In the absence of such continued application of theory and thought to the treatment of the power and influence that Sipho will amass with time, what counterbalances does nature offer? Well, we have Tumi. A Tumi must inspire a Sipho, such that Sipho’s actions are informed with a sense of consciousness. However, if a Tumi can see that Sipho’s ears have hardened to his message, then he must collaborate with like-minded and similarly influential leaders of other sectors of society. Together they must influence a popular shift from the status quo which became entrenched by their own exit from the sector. Members of my own family have over the years demonstrated the inordinate power of stringing together a thread of seemingly unconnected people, issues and arenas into a solid platform for the transition of power and the status quo and as such helped me to understand the nature of this cycle. However, once these changes are inculcated into the system; and let us accept that the basic system of rule will not change – a few will run and manage the affairs of many on their behalf and hopefully at their behest; they will need competent and largely uncreative manager types to ensure stability. Again exemplary Leadership will shift from the political terrain to the many complimenting others – business, civil society, arts and legacy, academia etc. Again, the calls of defect leadership will become audible, until they reach a crescendo and with it the inevitable attempts at correction.
By this logic, I am convinced that Africa’s dearth of leadership is a necessary fore-running for an impending time of visionary and transformative Leadership that inspires confidence in African citizens to make the necessary sacrifices to engender meaningful and sustainable change for the betterment of Africans the world over. My position is informed by my own discourses with many young Africans that are determined to collaborate in the manner already described. The most encouraging sign of this is the increasing sense of shared identity that many young Africans today share. This sense of collective responsibility for broader African issues including starvation in the Horn of Africa and ire at the aggression of the West in Libya represents to me a significant milestone on the route to a swing in the Leadership style of the age, just as the 1960s did and the late 1800s before that. The subtext of these development further rejects the common myths that change for Africa will happen in a vacuum or will be easy given the size and power of the preeminent stake-holders in the status quo, and that Africa’s past is irrelevant in the greater scheme of things as long as a good leader arrives. Obama’s unconvincing first term challenges this theory.
Just as Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk
Urban Legend has it that two South African politicians from different eras and races were flying over the Eastern Cape and making observations on the landscape. Flying over a deeply impoverished shanty town, one remarks “what can this area even produce?” The other quick as a whip replies “Leaders”.
My grandfather, Walter Sisulu’s most famous quotation “It is a law of Life that problems arise when the conditions are there for their solution” applies. Whereas the world over has and continues to grapple with the same challenges afflicting Africa, obviously to varying degrees, it is of Africa that greater Leadership is demanded. I don’t believe this to be coincidental, rather yet another necessary stage in the life cycle of Africa’s Leadership.
The conditions for solution do exist. They point in the direction of a more-value based bureaucracy in line with what many know to be the essence of Africanism. Traditional African governance systems are consultative and value-based, with a deep sense of appreciation of the linkages between past and present. This would be a significant shift from the status quo, and the true test of the significance of this period would be how well entrenched the core ideologies driving such a transition would be; how well will the next crop of Leaders pass the baton of their mission on.
Tumi and his band’s last musical effort was called Pick a Dream. It is a melodic album with dreams of Africa as our parents had shared with us, and theirs with them: Free, Full, Fulfilled. Their shows draw out hordes of South Africa’s chattering classes. They sing along to those dreams. And talk about them. And share them. More surely than slowly we are acting on them as well.