While describing the importance of seeing the big picture in today’s complex world to leaders of a large mining house, I used the opportunity to emphasise that most of their employee base either follow Julius Sello Malema or watch him with keen interest, which means it would be wise for them to understand him – a relevant message to all business leaders out there. My conversation happened after I bumped into him at Mathews Phosa’s launch of “Chants of Freedom”. I watched Malema carefully as he entered the diverse and packed auditorium where for a short while attention shifted from the Former President Kgalema Motlanthe to him. With more hindsight and context since my two and a half hour in depth interview, (Part 1) (Part 2) a while back, here are my current views.
It does not matter what happens with the EFF, Malema is here to stay. He may change course, as he did by starting the EFF, which I might add happened despite a convincing argument to me personally that he would never leave the ANC and also never wants to be President of the country. Today he may argue that a change in circumstances necessitates a change in personal aspirations and ambitions.
For those who have ignorant or uninformed opinions of him through media only, let me attempt to settle this once and for all. He is intelligent, streetwise – a seasoned and talented politician that can create significant movement.
Malema has the ability to zoom in on the essence of what the majority of South Africans need and connect with them. He also has the capacity to understand the bigger picture of our complex and dynamic political landscape. He is astute enough to garner huge support initially, at the conscious risk of alienating important minority groups, and then at the right time tone down his message, or package it in such a way that it flatters and slowly draws in many of those same alienated groups.
Malema has presence, charisma, and gravitas. When he walks into a room, no matter what his dress code, attention shifts to him. He knows this yet does not look uncomfortable because of it. This is a space into which he naturally fits. He can be compared to a top athlete whose performance rises to match the required level, occasion and resultant pressure.
He is courageous, which some might view as something else – even a man on a mission seeking revenge against those that turned on him. But he is admired even by his protractors for speaking truth to power. He challenges the status quo wherever he goes, which society desperately needs – in some form – because clearly what leaders have done in the past and even now isn’t working, and if it is, not fast enough. He is a change agent, a rule breaker! He has guts – a quality most feel is lacking in current politicians. He has strong views and is not afraid to noise it about. He promotes a cause with passion and vigour! Internal opinion by someone like Advocate Dali Mpofu seems to indicate that while he categorically leads his organization, he also allows his organization and team to lead him. Those that knew him from the past, who grew up around him describe him as a simple man, an open book.
All of the above and more are why many leaders in the ruling party are so wary of him, even ‘fear’ him. This is why others cosy up to him. This is why he has done the ‘impossible’ with the rise of the EFF in such a short space of time.
So Malema has many leadership qualities in his favour. Anyone that knows him and understands leadership will have to admit this. He stands out and those that fall in this category are often envied (good and bad), admired or hated.
The big uncertainty is what will happen if he rose to the top leadership position, if he became President? What could be at risk, discounting for a moment his political philosophies and ideologies, because many would argue the best solutions for our country hide somewhere between ANC, DA and EFF proposals?
A fact to consider is that the position of “President” changes all individuals, to a lesser or larger degree. This mantle is lonesome, a heavy burden to carry for any man or woman – only understood by those that have worn it. It is heavy not only because of the responsibility that comes with it and the unequalled visibility and pressure, but because there are always others that envy it, want it, for different reasons. It is a position that, more than most, is surrounded by power play that brings out the worst and most dangerous part of men and woman.
Being in such a powerful and visible position tests ones true agenda, values, motives and character. Any leader that is not absolutely clear on these, who hasn’t truly “become one” with it will be caught completely off guard and as a result default to a lower, weak and even destructive set of values and motives – becoming defensive, distrusting, cynical, secretive, exclusive and/or more power hungry. A person that is unmistakably in tune with their own values, motives and deep character will not change for the worse but for the better, grow into and closer towards the requirements and high demands of the job, rather than grow away from the sanctity of what the office represents.
This is one of the reasons why we value and admire Nelson Mandela so much. He seem to have passed the test of conquering the traps of this powerful position, and as he showed consistently that his behaviour matched the values, motives and character we thought and hoped he had, trust levels between him and South Africans increased. It seems he changed for the better as a person because of that chair. The same could be said of Kgalema Motlanthe who was able to humbly serve as transition President and stand down when the time came.
Can we say the above of Former President Thabo Mbeki and current President Jacob Zuma? Would we be able to say the same about Julius Sello Malema? This is the real risk! Watching him closely as the top leader of the EFF should offer hints of what he may be like as President, but it is not a foolproof test – few positions compare with the real deal. Important questions are: Has he or is he overcoming his own insecurities and prejudices? Can he lead across boundaries of race, ethnicity, gender and other barriers that exist in our complex society? Is he developing a sound and possibly universal value system – one of following principles rather than people and even an organization?
No doubt there is a place for him at the political table in South Africa. Will he be more than a strong influencer and change agent? Ultimately it lies in our hands. Are we willing to take the risk? In the final analysis life is fair – we get what we choose or vote for. But one thing is certain, you as a leader must watch him, understand him. He is part of your big picture!
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