Madiba understood that ethical leadership meant creating shared ethical norms, and it is never too late to reverse our ethical decline, says the writer. Picture: Andrew Ingram/ Independent Media Archives
The critical question facing South Africa at this particular historical juncture is whether the country can regain the ethical leadership of its great Struggle luminaries.

Can it learn from the selfless leadership style of OR Tambo and great African post-independence leaders like Julius Nyerere, who led by example?

When Nelson Mandela went to Tanzania in 1962, to request military assistance and to set up the ANC’s headquarters, he had been impressed by Nyerere’s absolute humility.

Nyerere lived the life of a true servant of the people by eschewing personal wealth and living a frugal lifestyle. He lived in a modest house, drove a small car, and was primarily concerned with the well-being of his people.

How many of our leaders can say they are walking in the footsteps of Nyerere? One is hard pressed to think of a single one. It seems that our generation of leaders have been carried away by the politics of greed and self-accumulation, justifying decadent lifestyles by saying that cadres weren’t in the Struggle to be poor.

It is perhaps this turn towards self-gratification and away from selfless service and living among the people that has brought about moral degeneration, which is destroying progressive political movements from the inside.

How does one explain to the 1200 families of the Cape Town township of Masiphumelele who just lost their shacks to wildfires and are now exposed to the elements in the middle of winter, that it is necessary for an incumbent politician to build themselves a decadent mansion in the foothills of Table Mountain?

There is no way to explain why we want to keep exacerbating the wealth gap instead of those at the top working to narrow it. And working to narrow it surely means living a simpler lifestyle that is not so far removed from what the majority of South Africans experience.

The closer our leaders are to that reality, the harder they will fight to bring those two worlds closer together.

In simple terms, it would “keep them real”.

Perhaps the true test of a leader’s commitment to serve the people is their willingness to submit themselves to a lifestyle audit, whereby their priorities and their weaknesses would be open to public scrutiny.

How many of our leaders would be prepared to forgo the two luxury vehicles that come with the job at taxpayers’ expense, and opt instead for a mid-range functional vehicle that will get them safely where they need to go? If the answer is “highly unlikely”, then there needs to be some urgent introspection into how far we have fallen from the ideals of inspirational leaders like Nyerere and Tambo.

Sadly, the values of the current socio-economic system have perpetuated crass materialism and the desperate drive for self-enrichment.

This has deepened the unconscionable levels of inequality in our country, and created a generation of politicians who see power as a means to their own financial security and potential wealth, and little to do with the notion of being a servant of the people.

Perhaps this is the typical yet tragic decline in many of the world’s democracies, but it is perhaps more disappointing in South Africa as we need to believe that our leaders are committed to the greater good, striving to achieve a social democracy that will address the challenges faced by the poor and marginalised.

Humanism and ethics are all about addressing the challenges of the most vulnerable, and it seems we have more vulnerable in our society than ever before. With unemployment at a staggering 29%, we have a burgeoning youth population which is losing hope in the future and becoming increasingly frustrated at not benefiting from the dividends of participatory democracy. This is a particularly dangerous cocktail that some have called a ticking time bomb.

But it is not too late to reverse the negative trend. But it really comes down to how serious we are about delivering to the poor and reversing the devastating effects of state capture.

We seem more focused on arguing about who was responsible for state capture than ensuring our state-owned enterprises are working in the public interest, providing cheaper electricity to our people and ensuring the lights stay on.

Certainly, there needs to be a day of reckoning for those who stole from the state what belonged to the people, but we are so caught up in factional battles about who did what - by that, we are tearing our country apart.

Our May elections were supposed to be decisive and usher in a period where we are all moving in the same direction, pulling together to solve the massive challenges in our country that at times seem insurmountable.

But, instead, we are busy plotting and spying on each other to see which faction will score more political leverage, more tenders and, ultimately, future positions of political power that will determine wealth and even more decadent lifestyles.

Tambo and Nyerere must be turning in their graves if this is what the great revolution for economic liberation has come down to.

Madiba had talked about the fact that we need an ‘“RDP of the soul”, and that is never truer than at this moment.

While the political elite are driving luxury cars, sending their children to private schools, hosting lavish parties in Camps Bay with the best alcohol and caviar money can buy, the people have no electricity to turn on so their children can study at night, can’t afford to buy the antibiotics that will save their children from pneumonia or medicine that will treat tuberculosis, and are less and less able to afford the costs of local transportation.

We need to accept that mistakes have been made and they need to be corrected. After all, change is what is necessary to ensure survival.

Madiba understood that ethical leadership meant creating shared ethical norms, and it is never too late to reverse our ethical decline.

If state capture has been brought about by the alignment of interests of the business and political elite through connections based on familial relations and friendships, we need to break this cycle of corruption.

What we need to ensure is that the state plays its proper role to redistribute wealth in the country.

All of us need to learn from the example of our icons and treat people as an end not a means.

It means living ubuntu- “I am because you are” - and developing our humanity towards others.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor.