President Jacob Zuma File picture: Marco Longari

We have no institutional mechanism to keep out corrupt, incompetent leaders, writes Brutus Malada.

 The five years of Jacob Zuma’s reign have been a monumental failure. His many scandals combined with lack of education have fuelled the perception that a rule by the learned would be better. While this may be true, it is the building of institutions that will save posterity from experiencing similar calamities.

In his popular book, The Open Society & Its Enemies, philosopher Karl Popper (1902-1994) reasoned that in politics, there are problems of the day and the problems of the future. According to him, “while the problems of the day are largely personal, the building of the future must necessarily be institutional”.

Thus, when we are confronted with problems such as those of weak, corrupt and incompetent leadership, we should think of institutional mechanisms to avoid their recurrence. In other words, we should use our current experiences to craft a better future for our children.

Popper wrote about this issue while demolishing an argument by ancient philosopher Plato, who presented the question, who should rule? as a fundamental problem of politics.

In Popper’s view, Plato’s phrasing of this question left a lasting confusion in political philosophy. It created a myth that only with a “philosopher King” at the helm will the fundamental problems of politics be resolved.

Plato, a believer in “sophocracy” – the rule by the learned – hastened to proclaim in his The Republic that “the wise shall lead and rule, and the ignorant shall follow”.

Desirable as this may sound, the problem with Plato’s philosopher kings was that he considered them infallible; and the rest of society would submit without question to their wisdom and rule.


Democracy, according to Plato, had brought “things in flux” or instability and the solution was the return to the perfect state of the Golden Age in which the philosopher kings would rule.

In Plato’s Republic there would be no need for measures to counterbalance the power of the philosopher kings as they would rule in the interest of the nation.

By proffering philosopher kings, Plato would have failed to resolve the problem of the future – institutional safeguards to protect the nation from the rulers.

It is thanks to Plato’s indoctrination that many people around the world still believe that the problems of politics can simply be resolved by putting the Best or the Wisest at the helm.

Yet we know that untrammelled power is dangerous to society no matter how wise or best our leaders may be. Lest we forget Lord Acton’s counsel at our own peril: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

In South Africa, those who believe in Plato’s doctrine of philosopher kings make two mistakes.

The first is that they assume that our political space is blessed with the wise or the best. The reality is that the crop of our political leaders consists of neither people of ideas nor men of letters.

Ours is a political space dominated by opportunists who have failed to make it in life. The majority of those who dominate our political space are not goaded by political ideals, but by stomach. To them, politics is an easy way to earn a living.

When they think of Parliament, the first thing that comes to mind is not what they are going to do in the legislature to better the lives of the people. They think of the benefits. They salivate at the smell of the more than R800 000 salary, free air tickets, free house, free meals and wine.

Secondly, those who believe in Plato’s doctrine wrongly believe that by simply removing Jacob Zuma from the Union Buildings they would have resolved the problem of corruption and mediocre leadership. While it surely would take South Africa on the right path, it will not make our problems disappear completely.

People who think otherwise are oblivious to the fact that it is the failure of our political system that has bequeathed to us a flawed leader as Jacob Zuma.

The ANC has no institutional mechanism to prevent corrupt and incompetent leaders from taking it over. Instead, its institutional make-up expedites the ascendance of such flawed leaders. You only need to count the number of people facing corruption charges while at the same time occupying positions of leadership in the ANC to understand this point.

Thus, without tinkering with the political system within and without the party, it is possible for Jacob Zuma’s incarnations to conquer the political space in the future.

It is precisely for these reasons that we should strive to resolve the problem of the future.

The beginning of such an exercise is, as Popper impels us, to ask: “How can we organise political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?” In answering this question, we should first be content with the fact that our political parties are not, at least in the short term, in a position to give us the best leaders we may aspire to have.

Our political choices are very limited. Our starting point is not who is outstanding among the best; it is, as the cliché goes, in the absence of the best, the worst is preferred!

Compare Julius Malema and Jacob Zuma for instance, or Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Pieter Mulder, or Helen Zille and Mamphela Ramphele; are these ideal leaders to aspire to as a nation?

Looking at this choice, it appears to me as it did to Popper, “madness to base all our political efforts upon faint hope that we shall be successful in obtaining excellent, or even competent, rulers”.

The best we can do, therefore, is to adopt “the principle of preparing for the worst, as well as we can, though we should, of course, at the same time try to obtain the best”.

Indeed, Jacob Zuma has done too much damage and we would be equally foolish as a nation not to have learnt our lessons. We would also be guilty of dereliction of the duty and responsibility history has bestowed on us to save future generations from experiencing the same calamities.

What, then, should South Africans do?

Two things are crucial. The first is to restore the power of the ballot and send a clear message to political parties that bad and incompetent leaders are not tolerated.

Doing so will institutionalise a culture of not taking the electorate for granted. Once they learn this lesson, political parties will never again field compromised candidates for election.

Secondly, South Africans must demand a change of electoral law to allow them the right directly to elect their president.

Part of that reform should include a provision for a referendum to enable a recall of a president before the end of a term of office. Circumstances necessitating such a referendum should however be clearly stipulated to avoid abuses. Five years is too long to allow the loot to continue.

It is the building of institutions that will save posterity from future calamities. We must organise our political institutions for the worst, so that we can prevent bad or incompetent rulers from doing too much damage.

* Malada is a member of the Midrand Group.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Indepent Newspapers.

The Star