Will a good leader please stand up. We need you
There is no one to guide us out of the mire as global leadership descends into name-calling and race-baiting
Travel is a beautiful thing. It gives you a chance to get some perspective, to appreciate your own, to look at others afresh, to raise your eyes above the melee of the noisy, sometimes inspirational and often depressing South African political scene.
Often, travel makes you realise how much trouble we are in. I have been travelling, and it isn’t pretty out there.
The world is upended. Those we once imagined stood for good, for the poor and the oppressed, are now champions of the world's worst dictators. Those who claim to stand for the poor are actively stoking division to line their pockets.
Populism is back in fashion. Leaders blame minorities and immigrants and those who are of a different colour to them as responsible for crime, for poverty, for lack of public amenities and for poor delivery of services. Across the globe now, this is the trend. The right-wing nationalists, everywhere from Italy to France to the US and right back here at home, are beating the drums of exclusion, hate and insularity.
The problem is leadership.
Those we trust and have come to expect to exemplify and defend these rights and responsibilities are now routinely breaking them. The perpetrators are across the gamut: men who sit in presidential suites, opposition party leaders who speak radicalism by day and live Marie Antoinette-style by night, even NGO leaders who talk gender rights and equity by day and then go on to commit rape by night. And by day.Last week the United Nations reflected on the culture of impunity that allowed many male employees to not only assault female colleagues, but the massive cover-ups that accompanied such practices. What’s going on? This is the UN, the organisation that supposedly upholds and defends all rights across the globe!
Where are the global and local leaders to inspire and help us through the next 20 years of disruption and upheaval? The field looks poor.
While five journalists were gunned down in the US by a gun-toting madman, here in SA journalists were called “house niggers” by an opposition leader who has insulted virtually everyone in our political firmament these past few years. He has no argument against those who call him out for his racism, and so the next best thing is bullying and name-calling.
By calling people “house niggers” he knows what he is doing. He is silencing dissent, chilling debate, shutting down independent voices. One shudders to imagine what such leaders will do when in power.
All the trouble in the world
This coarsening of debate is across the globe. In 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte launched a profanity-filled tirade against EU leaders following criticism of the rising death toll in his brutal crackdown on crime.
Duterte punctuated his insults with a rude sign – raising his middle finger – and said: “I say to them, fuck you.”
This is what leadership is today: name-calling, race-baiting, encouraging attacks on foreigners and journalists, shutting borders, creating an “us and them”.
US President Donald Trump has branded undocumented migrants as “murderers and thieves” who want to “infest our country”. This is language from a president, not language from a xenophobic attack in some European backwater or, to bring it here at home, from someone threatening a Somali shopkeeper in KwaMashu.They are the same: the one in a suit and a mighty pen, the other with a knobkierie and a machete.
We are in trouble.
We were great, once, a long time ago. When Nelson Mandela ascended to power in South Africa we already had a progressive example in the US by way of Bill Clinton. In the late 1990s Tony Blair led a new Labour Party which also projected progressive views onto Europe, where by the early 2000s progressive, social democrat leaders held sway.
On this continent Olusegun Obasanjo was leading a reinvigorated and democratising Nigeria. In South Africa, after Mandela, came a visionary Mbeki.
All of this meant we could see ourselves remaking a harsh and unforgiving and cruel world into something new. We could begin to give the world, as Steve Biko once put it, a human face.It was possible. We had a leadership that, at the very least, seemed to have the toolbox to get us to a dream where we are stronger together than we are apart and at each others’ throats.
Here we are today. South Africa is in the throes of a debilitating ennui while unemployment, poverty and inequality widen. Africa lacks strategy and is leaderless.
North America makes and breaks policy by the day. Europe is turning in on itself. China and Russia are playing geopolitical war games. The Middle East is eating up its young.
There are no leaders. There are no leaders.