View from the Street: A good leader knows when to step down


View from the Street: A good leader knows when to step down

South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup a year after the African National Congress was voted into power, in what was the country’s first democratic election. The tournament was symbolic of the dawning of a new era – it was the first time that post-apartheid South Africa was welcomed back onto the international sporting scene, and a chance to showcase the new-found “rainbow nation”.

President Nelson Mandela understood the significance of the tournament. Rugby was never his passion, but he knew instinctively it was an opportunity. The moment Mandela took to the field, clad in Francois Pienaar’s number six jersey to congratulate the Springbok captain on his team’s 15-12 victory over New Zealand, was a symbolic message of unity.

This is one of the many examples of Mandela’s powerful leadership.

It’s been a turbulent two weeks for South Africa, where the party Mandela led has not honoured his legacy.

A week ago, President Jacob Zuma issued notice of a 20-person government reshuffle, including the dismissal of internationally trusted and respected finance minister Pravin Gordhan, who has been central to efforts to rebuild the country’s ailing economy.

The move has triggered fresh calls for Zuma to resign.

In the last few months, South Africa’s economy had begun to show signs of strength, thanks largely to Gordhan’s efforts. But Gordhan and his team at the Treasury have stood between Zuma and some of his most controversial plans, at a time when the President and his party have made a series of mis-steps.

Response to Gordhan’s departure was swift. On Monday, analysts at Standard and Poor’s Global cut the country’s credit rating to “junk”, dropping the sovereign rating to BB+ from BBB- , and said the outlook remains negative. Ratings agencies have been watching the economy closely for some time – but Gordhan’s removal was the final trigger for the downgrade.  

The South African rand, volatile at the best of times, has lost more than 10 per cent since the market suspected that the finance minister would be fired. On Thursday, S&P downgraded seven South African financial institutions, indicating that it could not rank local banks above the foreign currency sovereign credit ratings.

Country-wide protests are taking place today (Friday 7th April) in what has been declared a day of “mass action” to pressure the president to step down. My Facebook feed is filled with friends and acquaintances who have changed their profile pictures to reflect the dark mood in South Africa – a blackened out version of the country’s flag as an expression of frustration with Zuma’s impunity.

This is not the first time the president has faced calls to resign. Even before he took up his post he faced a corruption inquiry and a rape trial. The scandal over the financing of his Nkandla homestead has dogged the presidency for years and he has already survived five motions of no confidence brought to parliament by opposition parties. Additionally, wealthy business family the Guptas’ alleged influence on government contracts and appointments has been investigated by the Public Protector.

But loyalty within the ANC runs strong. In a sign of the support Zuma commands within the structure of the ruling party, the ANC’s national working committee on Wednesday rallied behind him and reprimanded party leaders who had criticised him – which included Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa – widely respected by the business community - and ANC secretary-general and party stalwart Gwede Mantashe. The committee’s decision heightens chances that Zuma will survive an opposition-sponsored vote of no confidence in parliament on 18th April.

While mass protests take place today, ANC supporters have in turn organised pro-Zuma gatherings. Party headquarters in downturn Johannesburg were this morning filled with different groups of supporters wearing ANC colours in a visible symbol of the support Zuma commands. One ANC supporter held a poster aloft which read: “Hands off our leader, our president, our movement”.

The S&P downgrade has potentially serious negative consequences for South Africa’s economy – it’s more important now than ever to have the right team in place to steer the country through this difficult time.

It’s a mantra that a good leader knows when to step down. Zuma is long past proving he is. The right to protest is protected in the South African Constitution – but whether today’s mass action will make any difference is doubtful. President Zuma will face several more hurdles in the battle to cling to power – the cards are stacking against him, but party loyalty has thus far proved stronger than national discontent. In the meantime, Mandela’s legacy is lost.