The leadership we deserve

South Africa is facing a leadership crisis. Yet there is a way to cultivate effective, empathetic and accountable leaders.

It is now undeniable. The crisis of leadership in South African politics, academia, business and civil society is a failure we shoulder collectively as a nation. It requires courageous reflection and action.

Disappointed, betrayed, hopeless, angry and fearful are some words that describe the current mood as South Africa nears 30 years of democracy. In this winter of discontent, the country needs leaders at all levels and sectors who are self-aware, unencumbered by ego, willing to admit mistakes, and can act in the interests of those they serve.

But where do we find them when South Africa’s past and present are a litany of trauma, making it difficult for leaders to be self-reflective, vulnerable and able to find the courage to seek help?

On 18 and 19 May, 50 leaders from non-governmental organisations (NGOs), academia, government, donor agencies, social movements and the private sector gathered in Durban, in KwaZulu-Natal province. They sought to answer these questions: What is needed to build, nurture, inspire and support good leadership for peace and non-violence? What do young people and social movements need to build solidarity and mobilise for peace?

Meeting under the auspices of the Violence Prevention Forum, the gathering offered a glimmer of hope. It raised the possibility that platforms can be created to bring together diverse South Africans across generations, to connect in dialogue and confront difficult issues while building solidarity. This is crucial if we are to break the cycles of violence, trauma and shame hindering inclusive progress in the country.

South Africa can’t move forward without acknowledging the country’s damaged psychological architecture

Participants recognised that the leadership crisis echoes within the halls of Parliament, in political parties, NGOs, corporate spaces, government buildings and in communities. Despite this, seeds of hope are being sown in convenings designed and facilitated with care to promote honest interactions.

Addressing the gathering, Nomfundo Mogapi, Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for Mental Wellness and Leadership, said South Africa couldn’t move forward without acknowledging its damaged psychological architecture. ‘The challenges we face with leadership in our country are not a lack of skills or talent or policies or laws … the issue troubling leaders is not being awake to their own wounds.’

Leaders who haven’t addressed their psychological wounds are likely to repeat the same forms of harm they experienced, according to Mogapi. When faced with corrupt leaders acting against the interests of the people they purport to lead, or who don’t create compassionate, inspiring workplaces, the question to ask is: ‘What happened to you?’ This is inspired by the book by Dr Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey with the same title.

South Africa has held an internationally celebrated Truth and Reconciliation Commission and put policies in place to achieve redress from apartheid. It’s easy to lull ourselves into a false belief that we should just leave the past behind and ‘move on’.

But the past is not so forgiving. Unresolved trauma shows itself, often in deeply destructive ways. Just as a child who is a victim of beating, rape or witnessing violence at home is likely to continue that cycle later in life by perpetrating the same violence, or choosing a violent partner, so too do harmful patterns of behaviour repeat at all levels and in all institutions. They infiltrate many areas of our lives, reflecting among victims of crime, jobless graduates, undernourished school children, and the homeless.

Leaders who haven’t addressed their psychological wounds are likely to repeat the harms they experienced

The traumatised brain will constantly repeat the past. Because it is in survival mode, it cannot be present, plan, or show compassion or empathy. This is the neuroscience of trauma.

The consequences of failing to acknowledge and deal with individual and collective trauma are visible in South Africa’s broken roads and broken promises, and in the darkness that comes with load shedding. They are in the ever-increasing number of people sleeping on city streets and in the electric fences, high walls and private security surrounding the homes of the wealthy.

South Africans will have to innovate healing solutions to carry the collective out of its unresolved and perpetuated trauma, says Professor William Gumede. He notes the enormous burden of intergenerational trauma compounded by high violence levels that find expression on our roads, in our communities, in boardrooms and in our Parliament.

Leaders who experienced the trauma of exile or torture; the humiliation of being treated as inferior – such as when an adult man is called ‘boy’; or whose parents endured forced removals, being conscripted into the apartheid military or regular beatings; all carry unhealed wounds.

When left to fester, the result is leaders who refuse to admit when they are wrong, who act in what appears to be narrow self-interest, or who humiliate and abuse those who work for them.

To all leaders: look at yourself, address your trauma and offer the kindness and compassion we need to move forward

The dialogue in May underpinned the need for more well-facilitated, welcoming and safe spaces for difficult conversations; for sharing and finding our common humanity and seeking courage from our vulnerability. These spaces already exist, and must be expanded and made accessible in communities, universities, government departments, companies and NGOs that provide South Africa’s social welfare services.

S’bu Zikode, leader of the social movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, threw down the gauntlet when he said: ‘What you do today has to reflect the society you want tomorrow.’ If the vision is for a safe, prosperous and inclusive nation, we need to embrace a kind of leadership that listens, reflects and does not perceive itself as superior to those it serves.

This is a call to action for all leaders in South Africa: look at yourself, address your trauma and offer the kindness and compassion we need to move forward.

Chandré Gould, Senzekile Bengu, Thato Machabaphala and Bongi Mlangeni, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS Pretoria

Image: Participants from academia, social movements, government agencies and donors in dialogue at the Violence Prevention Forum in Durban on 18-19 May 2023. © Moeketsi Mamane 

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The ISS is grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
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