#8 Winter 2017

Strong institutions are more important than great leaders

Zuma’s Cabinet reshuffle has been billed as a watershed moment in SA’s history, but unless the underlying systems of government are shifted, nothing much is likely to change and the country will be doomed to continue to lurch from one crisis to the next.

When the axe finally fell on embattled Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas a few minutes after midnight on Thursday night, the reactions played out as many people had predicted: an immediate drop in the value of the rand and a rating downgrade from S&P. Given the current state of the economy, it is inevitable that we are likely to fixate on the financial impacts of the move – even though it was part of a larger Cabinet shakeup. While obviously important, however, focusing too heavily on these outcomes is incredibly dangerous.

This is not because these outcomes are unimportant, but because in this case, South Africa’s medium- and long-term future will depend on whether one of the outcomes of this event is to change processes. While people within and outside the ANC have spoken out about the change and what it means for the country, if we think about this response beyond the 24-hour news cycle, it means little. The underlying systems of government and party politics that generate these leaders, and the environments (social, political, economic, etc.) that allowed them to flourish, need to change or we are doomed to repeat the calamities we spend so much time decrying in the present.

People can shout and Tweet slogans like “Zuma Must Fall”, but that makes the enormous assumption that change in this one leadership position means all of the underlying systems will also change. Likewise, the positioning of Gordhan (and to a lesser extent Jonas) as the saviours in this story – the two lone men keeping downgrades at bay, stabilising the economy and safeguarding against the looting of the Treasury – speaks to this same problem. Both perspectives are based on an extremely limited conception of how institutions and societies work, hearkening back to the out-dated, and ironically colonial, “Great Man Theory”.

This theory posits that leaders are born with a special gift that allows them access to positions of great authority. Crucially in this scenario, their unique skills make them indispensable, with successors few and far between. Great things can only happen with these chosen people at the helm of institutions or societies; without them, those same intuitions will likely fail. This notion is scary, mostly because it shows a shockingly unrealistic understanding of the scope of issues facing the country and because it shifts people’s focus to leaders in certain positions as opposed to systems and institutions.

Good leaders can obviously make a difference, but environments can also exert a profound impact on leaders. The running joke in America is that Trump said he was going to “drain the swamp” (change the political system), but his recent failings in many initiatives show that “the swamp is draining him”. So while it is certainly possible that a change in leadership at the top may lead to better outcomes in some measures, keeping all of the underlying systems and processes will likely guarantee we end up in the same place in the not too distant future. To get a better sense of the true impacts of the reshuffle, we need to assess how it impacted on crucial systems, rather than just immediately quantifiable outcomes. For those who were fearing or hoping this move was a watershed event, the proof of their case will not come in shorter-term outputs, but in real changes to these underlying systems, which speak to the strength – or weakness – of institutions. For instance:
There were reports that other Cabinet members would resign in protest if Gordhan was removed; if that fails to happen in a meaningful way, it will be a strong indication that the underlying system will not be shaken.

Short of resignation, who will speak out from inside the ANC against and in support of the Cabinet reshuffle? There have already been rumours and accusations of internal factions in the ANC, exacerbated by the coming elections; if these factional territories are kept hidden rather than staked out in public, it will be a strong indication that the underlying system will not be shaken.
Much of the ANC’s leadership selection and succession processes are highly opaque, making it hard for the public to see just how leaders arrive at their positions. This does not mean there is anything wrong with that person or those processes, but the lack of transparency allows for every shortcoming to be magnified with suspicions of shady dealings in the background. If the process for the elevation of leaders in the ANC is not made more transparent, it will be a strong indication that the underlying system will not be shaken.

The loss of Gordhan and Jonas is no doubt a blow to the Finance Ministry; good leadership is always a benefit to institutions and South Africa, like any country, should try to make the most of any good leadership it can find. But this should not blind South Africans to the fact that the Finance Ministry, and the economy as a whole, can never be wholly dependent on one or two people. If the country wants real “radical economic transformation”, it can only come from institutions that are strong throughout and buoyed by the work of many people dedicated to the task of improving the country.

Gordhan himself appears to understand this – commenting after his dismissal that the Treasury is in safe hands and that the “1 000 plus professionals are committed today as they will be committed tomorrow to make sure they do their utmost best to continue a very proud tradition of managing and maintaining macroeconomic stability in South Africa.”

The bottom line is that if South African politics is its own “swamp”, we would be foolish to think that skimming the top (whether that’s in the form of Zuma or Cabinet ministers) will be sufficient on its own to improve the situation and keep us safe from future harm. Anyone who has been in a swamp knows that the most dangerous things lie below the surface, ready to emerge at the right moment for an attack.

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