AMBASSADOR Billy Modise, democratic South Africa’s first black high commissioner to Canada and, later, chief of state protocol during former president Thabo Mbeki’s term, once said this to me: “No matter how close to or friendly you are with the people you lead, you must always wear your tie because to them you are always their leader and have power over them”.
Many people do not know this, but Ambassador Modise entered my life at a crucial time in the early years of my career and, for a short number of years, guided me as if he were my own father. But this is not what this column is about.
I admit, however, that I have thought many times about his advice over time, especially when I seemed to fail living up to it.
And I’ve also tried to balance it against a famous quote by Vince Lombardi, American football player, coach, and executive in the National Football League, who said: “The leader can never close the gap between himself and group. If he does, he is no longer what he must be. He must walk a tightrope between the consent he must win and the control he must exert.”
In hindsight, it is possible that my initial understanding of what Ambassador Modise meant was rather superficial. At first, I failed to analyse it beyond its obvious meaning. But don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t mean that I went about wearing a specially coloured tie whenever I was in the presence of the people who reported to me. But it was only over time that I got to understand that the tie he referred to was figurative.
Even If I came wearing shorts at a team party, I was still the boss and had the power to make decisions that had potential to change the lives of the people who reported to me. Their view of me, even if they did not always make it obvious, was that of the man with a tie.
More recently, I was reminded of Ambassador Modise’s words during a workshop in which we discussed the need for leaders to be aware of the impact of their words and actions on the people and the world around them. It became clear that there are still too many people in business and government who suddenly find themselves in positions of power over others and who, going by their conduct and utterances, have very little to no appreciation of what it really means to be in those positions.
They probably spend more time admiring themselves in the mirror for having miraculously attained those positions and enjoying the fruits thereof – legitimate and forbidden – than trying to understand what it really means for the people and the world around them.
Sadly, President Jacob Zuma strikes me as a good example of such a leader. Much of what he has done and said since attaining power indicates that he has very little appreciation of the historic importance of being president of the Republic of South Africa.
Given our country’s history and its unique cultural, ethnic and racial diversity, any man or woman elected to lead it has, in my view, to acknowledge a list of ‘non-negotiables’, at the top of which is that there is no one group of South Africans that belongs to this country more than all the others, despite our sad history and, in many areas, enduring and unresolved legacy issues.
In fact, it’s precisely because of such legacy issues that anyone who attains the highest office in the land has to be equipped with the wherewithal to lead it with care, balance, emotional intelligence, and a clear vision to guide the nation into a better, shared future.
He or she should master the art of winning the hearts and minds of South Africans from across the many historic divides and make them believe again that it can be done. No leader can pass this test if he or she fails to appreciate the impact of their words and conduct on the people of South Africa, and the country’s place in the community of nations.
Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba doesn’t have to follow in the footsteps of his boss, President Zuma, who has long crossed the line of no return. Instead, he can swallow whatever pride he might have and look to the likes of Advocate Thuli Madonsela, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, Advocate Vusi Pikoli and many other South Africans who understood that they were appointed to help advance the course of history.
It wasn’t about them as individuals. It was about the country. They understood that every person who gets appointed to lead in any capacity, in post-apartheid South Africa, has a historic role – yes, historic because history will note it – to take project ‘South Africa Inc’ further away from the apartheid era and closer to the vision we set for ourselves when we agreed on a new Constitution and Bill of Rights.
In delivering his maiden Medium-term Budget Policy Statement, Gigaba should remember where he is in history. He must remember the state of our country’s economic and country brand fortunes, as well as its daily impact on the livelihood of South Africans. He must remember that he too, like others before him, can defy the forces that are said to have put him in his position for their own selfish ends and choose to put the interest of country ahead of theirs.
He must remember that the people of South Africa, especially the poor who are still waiting to taste the fruits of a democratic order in a stable and growing economy, will be looking up to him to lay the foundations that will help South Africa start the climb back to reputational and, linked to it, economic recovery.
If Gigaba fails to appreciate the uniqueness of his position, corporate South Africa will keep holding onto the billions of rands it is said to be keeping for a time when there will be clearer economic and political policy; foreign investors will keep their distance and continue giving South Africa a wide berth; and tax compliance will deteriorate further – in line with the eroding trust in government because of bad, kleptocratic, leadership – making it hard for government to collect much-needed revenue to deliver genuine services to South Africans; and economic growth will remain weak.
Ambassador Billy Modise might be enjoying his retirement following many years of sacrifice for country, but there is no doubt in my mind that were Malusi Gigaba to pay him a visit for afternoon tea, he would return much emboldened to look his alleged minders in the eyes and put his foot down.
And the painful deferment of our collective dream might yet be arrested.