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It is hailed as one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, yet a crippling leadership vacuum has nearly reversed all the gains in South Africa’s constitutional democracy almost three decades on.

As the country was building up to the historic transition to democracy, its primary focus was on building institutions – such as the Reconstruction and Development Programme, the economy, infrastructure, and the expansion of services – with the values anchored in culture and heritage being forgotten.

This was the premise of Professor Somadoda Fikeni’s keynote address at the second annual Archbishop Thabo Makgoba Public Lecture on Values-based Leadership held this month at Nelson Mandela University.

His lecture, titled Values, Principles and Character: The Missing Link in the Architecture of South Africa’s Constitutional Democracy, is a partnership between the Archbishop Thabo Makgoba Development Trust (ATMDT) and Nelson Mandela University’s Faculty of Humanities.

 He said, “I want to start by reflecting on the importance of arts, culture and heritage, which very often we have relegated to a footnote in our society. Then we wonder why we find ourselves in the situation we are in today – limping from one crisis to another,” said Prof Fikeni, as he opened the lecture.  

“In the era of our transition to democracy, our primary focus was on building institutions, but my premise here is that we moved our value systems (culture and heritage) into a footnote. Institutions evolved, infrastructure evolved, but humanity devolved.

“Last [month], I was addressing a committee in Mangaung, after police conducted an inspection on prisons, police offices and community policing forums, where I listened quietly for two days, trying to reflect.

“Mangaung Prison is one of the state-of-the-art prisons … and they were still debating on how much more resources were needed …. When I finally got my chance to speak, I said to them ‘the hardware is not the problem, but it is the software of the values, the collective psyche, the mindset of those behind the machines [that is faulty]. It is not the drone that you can abdicate your moral responsibility to. It is not the camera that switched itself off to allow Bester to escape’.”

“So, when we relegated values, what did we replace them with?”

Elaborating on the founding principles and earlier successes of the democratic government and its leadership, Prof Fikeni said while those were commendable, democracy today was flailing.

“All these are early successes that made us proud and hopeful, but today our democracy is floundering, and every indication is that we have squandered the democratic moment. The miracle and magic has faded into a distant memory and the notion of South African exceptionalism has evaporated into thin air as our country is vigorously staggering like a drunken man who vaguely remembers where he has been, where he is and where he is going,” he said.

“Like a typical drunken man, Mzansi is hurling insults at anyone who dares suggest that he is getting lost. Social, political and economical crises choke the country that is fast reversing every gain it had initially made.

“We seem to have become punch-drunk off statistics, news of worsening youth unemployment, deepening inequality, intergenerational poverty, resurgence of racism, a shrinking economy, grey listing, downgrades by the rating agencies, rampant corruption, education crisis and the crisis in the health sector only add to this lot.”

Prof Fikeni said society has become numb as one scandalous incident replaces another. “Life Esidimeni, Enyobeni Tavern disaster, Mambuyi and the goat, Thabo Bester and Magudumane matter, gender-based violence, perennial incidents of corruption, the political tragicomedy, and the theatre of our political system from one collapsing coalition in one municipality to the next one with horse trading and political barter system in the open.”

However, there were glimmers of hope and national pride, often brought about by sport victories, and the global humanitarian work of the Gift of the Givers, for example.

“How long will we be flying on borrowed wings of sport victories, which are temporary Panado or Grandpa. Like a family gathering around a critically sick relative in ICU, looking for any sign of life or response or vital organs while hoping for a miracle, we gather around our democracy,” he said.

“We have become seasoned veterans of hope and despair and we often take refuge in humour to keep us sane. It is for that reason that our social media is one of the most humourous.”

Mandela University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sibongile Muthwa, said it was important to partner with civil society and other like-minded institutions in conversations about pressing societal issues.

“It is critical that we, as communities and nations, we reflect on values-based leadership – an important topic in its various guises and formats in how we can contribute to a more moral and ethical world,” she said.

“We are pleased that the lecture [was] hosted by the Faculty of Humanities as part of strategic intent to revitalise the humanities. Our humanities space is a very active intellectual space in the University.

“This, against the realities of nationhood and the national question, and complexities of citizenship that keep on revealing themselves to us. All over the world, the name ‘Nelson Mandela’ brings with it assumptions and expectations, especially with regards to social justice, equity and visionary values-driven leadership. This is not lost on me each time I engage with stakeholders outside the country.”

The ATMDT and Faculty of Humanities also ran an essay competition, where final year Humanities students were invited to write a paper on best practices in value-based leadership. The most outstanding essays with potential use for society and/or future research were awarded cash prizes.

The essay competition winners were Sinike Somila Ngewu, who walked away with R3000 first prize money, and Lutho Tokwe, who bagged the second cash prize of R1250.

Contact information
Ms Zandile Mbabela
Media Manager
Tel: 0415042777