The advice that Professor Jonathan Jansen, rector of the University of the Free State, had for the country’s leaders on Sunday was that they should take South Africans into their confidence.
Jansen said he longed for the day when President Jacob Zuma would make a TV appearance during prime-time news, like in the US, and say, “we have a problem”.
“South Africans are an emotional people. We respond well to feeling emotionally connected,” said Jansen.
Speaking to The Mercury at the fourth annual Rubin Phillip* Peace lecture in Pinetown, he lamented that South African leaders were “morally out of touch” and that the country needed “empathetic leaders” who were in touch with its citizens and willing to build a nation with its people, rather than for its people.
People would be more forgiving and understanding if leaders were honest about their mistakes – like when they took money they were not supposed to and promised that it would be returned, he said.
“We’re a forgiving nation. Just say sorry… The more honest we are, the more people will say we understand,” he said.
Jansen hailed Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi as an example of an empathetic leader who trusted the nation with information and took people into his confidence.
However, Zuma and Correctional Services minister S’bu Ndebele both came in for a tongue-lashing from the professor for lacking moral fibre.
Zuma – for the hundreds of millions of government money spent on upgrading his home at Nkandla, and Ndebele for accepting a Mercedes Benz S500 worth at least R1 million from a group of people with contracts worth more than R400m in his department while he was transport minister. He later returned the vehicle after a public outcry.
“What really stuns me is not that they take public money… what stuns me is that they don’t know it’s wrong.” Unless leaders were prepared to look in the mirror, they would not understand why people were so “miffed”, he said.
* Rubin Phillip is bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Natal.