As the noise over whether we are in the throes of a deep leadership crisis continues, a friend noted that the Gautrain provides a perfect benchmarking instrument.

The train service runs on time, all the time at every station because systems, infrastructure and rules were developed to ensure that it does.

Critically, she observes, all this infrastructure works in tandem because someone ensures that it does and is totally uncompromising about maintaining the standards required to meet the service’s promise to its customers.

Adverse consequences ensue if any of the staff responsible do not adhere to its timetable for reasons of incompetence or dereliction of duty.

There are many in positions of leadership who claim to be baffled by the reported leadership crisis, and insist that these complaints are merely part of a broad liberal offensive determined to mask overwhelming evidence of President Jacob Zuma’s sterling leadership.

They insist that the country is not drifting but is in fact moving in the right direction.

Notwithstanding their loud protestations, we have to examine whether the outcomes of real and effective leadership are visible where it matters the most. Leaders rely entirely on authority to get things done. In government that authority arises in two ways.

The first is that the constitution confers certain powers on members of the cabinet in order that they may perform their duties in service of the people without undue delay. This is called statutory authority and is given to anyone appointed to a position.

The second way to have authority is to earn it. Those who demonstrate a fierce public spirit, are trustworthy and often lead by force of example and earn the respect of those who observe their conduct. Over time their ideas accumulate an authority heavily supported by the wisdom of their ideas.

It is preferable that those who occupy public office also have an ability to accumulate authority in addition to that conferred by the law. This requires good ethical standing, strong moral capital and a sound judgment which engenders confidence in their decisions.

This is not to propose using self-righteousness to set impossible standards for holders of political office. It is, however, possible to define boundaries of personal conduct which relate directly to the work individuals are elected or appointed to do, and the moral nature of the contract between politicians and citizens.

There is a falsehood that has taken root in South African politics that the moral contract between citizens and those they elect is unimportant because citizens choose policies, not leaders. This lie also posits that the abilities of an individual are irrelevant because they are part of a collective. In essence, this position says a corrupt incompetent can be placed in any position as long as the party they represent has sufficient electoral support to ensure they occupy that position.

South Africans now have to think very carefully about whether they can reasonably expect the country to progress when they fail to perform the basic task of defining public leadership and what should emanate from it. It is delusional to expect sterling results when we neglect to apply selection standards that match the performance we expect from leaders.

So why do some of us insist we have a crippling leadership deficit? What is its effect?

In order for public office holders to accumulate authority in society, they have to be trusted, and trust is earned. Election to public office puts vast financial and other resources at the hands of politicians who, should they be inclined to do so, can abuse them to serve their own interests.

Earning the trust of citizens means, for example, demonstrating restraint not to spend taxpayers’ money on personal comforts whose sole purpose is to further inflate already bursting egos of politicians.

It means trusting the population with sufficient information on the state’s activities to make informed political choices. It means not utilising the legal authority arising out of their positions to pervert the course of the law, give unlawful instructions and to hide malfeasance while claiming to fight it.

It means not using the power to appoint officials in critical positions who do not have the skills, the experience nor the potential to perform their duties. The cost of incompetence is poor decision-making, poorly conceived work and disastrous results.

Such outcomes can only undermine the credibility of the office held by those who abuse it.

Those who insist that no leadership deficit exists assert that this complaint emanates from those who do not like the leadership of President Jacob Zuma and his cabinet. They go as far as attributing the complaints to middle-class citizens who do not want to see a “black” government succeed.

These hollow noisemakers must be dismissed with contempt. If their assertions were true, we would not have frustrated citizens in numerous basic service protests calling for the removal of their local leaders for failing them. We also would not see placards in the same protests saying unflattering things about senior politicians which relate to their personal conduct.

In the context of the discussion, we must ask whether complaints about leadership do not emanate from an apparent inability of the state machinery to get things done on time and in the way they are expected to be done.

We must also wonder whether citizens still believe that politicians manage and use their taxes for the purpose intended rather than for their personal enrichment and comfort.

Given the recent depressing reports by the Auditor-General and various adverse findings against powerful politicians by the Public Protector, it is not difficult to see why the trust deficit would widen.

When our government fails at very simple tasks – like delivering learning material to schools – should we blame many for doubting its ability to make overall improvements to the education system that require considerably more complex work?

In the final analysis, the dissatisfaction with leadership should not be about comparing personalities.

It should be about measuring the level of trust citizens have in those who occupy public office, and examining whether the fundamental pillars for constructing that trust are intact. When our senior political leaders promise to fight corruption but it continues unabated, perpetrated by those close to them, it is difficult to believe them when they make similar promises in future.

Crucially, it becomes difficult to discourage those who wish to engage in corruption when they can see that corruption bears no adverse personal consequences.

When they implore citizens to use money responsibly in response to the country’s inequalities but splurge obscene amounts on their personal comforts, it is ridiculous to expect others in positions of influence not to follow their awful example.

The number of people who use the Gautrain has continued to grow.

While it might have been a novelty at first, the service’s ability to realise its promises repeatedly is what has kept the number of customers growing.

It has been able to keep its promise because failure to do so carries consequences for the company’s profits, its standing with its customers and for those individuals who control it.

Perhaps the simple question to ask is whether our politicians can be trusted to run the Gautrain.

The answer to that question should give an indication of what we believe they can do with bigger, more complex and sensitive things.

- Songezo Zibi is a member of the Midrand Group.