Former South African President Thabo Mbeki recently painted a bleak picture of the country and its prospects. He said the ruling African National Congress (ANC) led by President Cyril Ramaphosa has no national plan to address the country’s many socio-economic problems. These include high and rising unemployment, inequality, poverty and crime.

The official unemployment rate in the country is 34.5%. The country is also the most unequal in the world, with about 55.5% (30.3 million people) of the population living in poverty.

Mbeki served two terms as president of the ANC, from 1997 to 2007, and as president of the country, from 1999 to 2008. During his tenure, South Africa averaged 4.2% GDP growth, making him and Finance Minister Trevor Manuel the most successful economic combination in South Africa’s young democracy. Nevertheless, the socio-economic problems of the country, inherited from apartheid, persisted during his tenure.

Mbeki expressed dismay at ANC politicians who did not serve the people of South Africa and were more focused on self-enrichment. He also complained about the lack of a social contract – cooperation between the government, civil society organizations, communities, businesses and workers. And he pointed to the dire state of local authorities, especially those led by the ANC.

Mbeki complained about the high crime rate. He said that South Africa is badly governed by the ANC, which has been in power since 1994. He warned that the country was ripe for its own Arab Spring, the uprisings that toppled Tunisia’s government in 2011 and spread across the Arab world.

South Africa is indeed under threat because of all these problems – especially unemployment, inequality, poverty and lack of cohesion. The Tunisian revolution was caused by high unemployment, inequality, food inflation, corruption, lack of political freedoms and poor living conditions.

In my view, the country needs transformational leaders who can inspire positive change in individuals and social systems to solve its problems. Such leaders should be concerned about the country’s problems and participate in solving them. They should help every member of society to succeed. Only transformational leadership can help renew South Africa.

The desire to renew

Any South African who cares about the future of the country and its people will agree with Mbeki that something must be done urgently about the socio-economic problems he has outlined to avert disaster.

However, people – including economists, political commentators, politicians, business people and politicians – disagree about the goals and methods of such renewal. For example, some believe that a country’s wealth is based on natural resources, capital, prestigious jobs and job creation. For them, redistribution of wealth, affirmative action, job creation and higher wages are the answers to the country’s ills.

Others argue that South Africa is a poor country. So redistribution of wealth will make everyone poorer at best. Therefore, economic growth is necessary to grow the “pie” that will be redistributed. For this, the economy must be freed from government control so that entrepreneurs and businesses are motivated to earn good money, invest more and thereby create jobs to make the country prosperous.

Certainly, both of these views have merit, but there are also blind spots that can seriously harm development. We no longer live in the industrial age of the 20th century, when the struggle between capital and labor reached its peak as a zero-sum game.

Although there is still a struggle between capital and labor, in today’s economy, knowledge, skill development and ground-breaking innovation are the main drivers of a country’s prosperity.

This requires all South Africans to join hands and get involved. And this construction work must be done with great patience, adaptability, respect, humility and great hope and courage. For this to happen, the country needs transformational leadership.

Transformational leadership

Transformational leadership is a process in which leaders and followers help each other to continually advance to higher levels of morale and motivation.

The best form of transformational leadership was demonstrated by Nelson Mandela, the late, first president of democratic South Africa. He envisioned the country as a “rainbow nation” and rallied almost the entire nation – black and white – to realize his vision. But over the years it faded.

However, futurist Philip Spies describes the new South Africa as a ship that started sailing in 1994 with very good hopes and direction, but froze in an ice pack 28 years later, halting the country’s development. It is a product of, among other things, class, racial and ethnic polarization and alienation of communities and greed, elitist governance and corruption by privileged and privileged civil servants and politicians.

Unfortunately, current political leaders – and this applies to most political parties – are not very good icebreakers. Too many politicians are selfish and interested in self-enrichment. They are often distant – literally and metaphorically – from citizens.

A large group of poor people in the country feel betrayed by democracy. Political liberation did not lead to economic liberation.

While politicians protect their positions and privileges, the poor want to survive. These are two opposite motives of people who perceive reality in completely different ways.

The incompetence and corruption of many officials and politicians force people to rise up. This in turn creates opportunities for criminal elements. Such leadership drains the humanity out of people. This inflames emotions and hatreds that lead to riots that have no respect for anything or anyone, as was seen in the provinces of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal in July 2021.

But transformational moral leadership is future-oriented. It changes people’s attitudes and motivates them to do exceptional things.

The upgrade – how to break the ice grip on the ship – brings danger to the leader of the transformation. In the process of renewal, there will always be losers who can easily become subversives, as was seen in the transition to democracy in the early 1990s with some right-wing political parties.

James Brian Quinn, an American academic and author, points out that transformational leaders should pay even more attention to the interests of those who stand to lose during the renewal process than to the change programs themselves.

Many so-called professional politicians are short-term oriented. This easily makes them “enemies” of long-term development, and therefore the future of the country. Because they need to survive politically. But leaders focused only on the long term can easily lose sight of immediate needs. Thus, citizens stop following them.

Transformational leaders aim for long-term development – based on good background analysis – while trying to solve the immediate problems of the country and its people.

For such leaders, continuous introspection, vigilance, service to the people, and dialogue are critical to taking the country on the path of a knowledge economy and sustainable development.


When we measure the extent to which the country has skilled, capable and committed people building a vibrant, resilient society, President Ramaphosa and the ANC are woefully short of providing transformative leadership.

The country needs more than just transformational leaders. It requires change management, a completely new design that can lead to the purest expression of democracy in South Africa, with its vast disparity in wealth and diverse communities with their diverse interests. However, this is not possible without transformational leadership.

Chris Jones, Senior Research Fellow, Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology, Head of Moral Leadership, University of Stellenbosch

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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