Something that has stuck in my mind ever since I first read Long Walk To Freedom about a decade ago is the evidence of Nelson Mandela’s ability to show leadership in circumstances which, you would have thought, denied him the scope to do so.

One would not have expected a black political prisoner of a white, racially oppressive government to be capable of showing leadership while being deliberately set up for humiliation. One petty tactic of humiliation Mandela was subjected to in prison was  being forced, like a schoolboy, to wear kortbroek pants while under the guard of men in uniforms bearing the formality and regalia of state power.

Leadership is something almost simplistically easy to identify, but strangely difficult to define. Yet any reasonable definition of leadership must in the end come down to the judicious exercise of power. Reading various accounts of Mandela’s incarceration, including his own, it’s a small but telling insight into his understanding of power that Prisoner 46664 was able to assume a mantle of leadership even in conditions of humiliation and powerlessness. In Mandela’s progression from kortbroek prisoner to president, it’s his ability to assume leadership against the odds and without the trappings of official power that stands out.

When Chris Hani’s assassination shook South Africa’s hope in desperately needed political change, it wasn’t the State President with all the authority of his office who stepped up to assuage the fears, and express the fragile ambitions, of a country seeking a path to democracy. It was, essentially, the leader of the opposition who did so.

South Africa has over the past few days experienced its most significant civic and societal tension since the Hani assassination. These days of flaming chaos also signify the most extensive failure of government leadership since April 1993, when it fell to someone other than our head of state to rise to the occasion and offer something resembling hope.

Hollow platitude

Over these last few chaotic days, President Ramaphosa, the man who assumed the highest office in our country with the rhetoric of Thuma Mina, exposed this original rallying cry to be nothing but a hollow platitude. South Africans needed leadership, needed someone to say ‘send me’, when waves of violence and lawlessness crashed over stricken communities. Yet, it turned that not only does the emperor have no clothes, he also has no clue. With the trappings of office and the resources of state at his disposal, President Ramaphosa managed the astounding feat of only illustrating his own irrelevance.

In a contrast so striking that even fierce critics have acknowledged it, it fell to the leader of the opposition to show leadership amidst chaos and empathy amidst fear.

John Steenhuisen has been maligned and dismissed by some of the most prominent public voices in the media for daring to be elected to lead the Democratic Alliance (DA) and for doing so as a white man. The DA under Steenhuisen’s leadership has been decried and described as a party of white South Africans, for white South Africans. An alleged shift to secure a white electoral base has been commented on so often that many in the commentariat have accepted this as fact, a ‘truth’ established by repetition.

How absurd and out of touch this all now looks.

There is no silver lining to the clouds of smoke that seem to be clearing above what used to be thousands of businesses and livelihoods, but there is a profound insight to be found in the wreckage and ruin: the flames of destruction didn’t care about race,  nor do the communities coming together as they clean up and start the long walk to recovery. 

Irrelevant to his compassion

Without the extensive endowments of state power or the skin colour deemed appropriate by the commentariat, the leader of the opposition has managed to show a shaken country what leadership in a time of crisis looks like. And to the horror or surprise of the pundits, South Africans have shown that John Steenhuisen’s white skin is as irrelevant to his compassion as President Ramaphosa’s black skin is to his out-of-touchness.

Where Steenhuisen’s willingness to follow Helen Suzman’s evergreen advice to go and see for yourself showed the value of empathetic leadership, President Ramaphosa showed nothing but pathetic disconnection with the plight of people seeking nothing more than a fair chance to live a good life of their making and choosing.

[Image: Democratic Alliance, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=96850673]

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