President Zuma and Nkandla – A Leadership Take From Adriaan Groenewald

Winston Churchill uttered these wise words: “To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.” I propose that these words are very pertinent to President Zuma at this time.

But first, a question this Leadership Platform asked of him in 2012: “Can President Zuma restore the current trust-deficit that exists? He is exceptionally resilient with a proven track record of overcoming any obstacle thrown at him, which means if anyone can turn around a situation that gained momentum in the wrong direction, then he can. Over and above this he can recover by doing one or more of the following: making correct and values driven leadership decisions; ensuring his behaviour here on forward matches the values of his followers and what he promotes in word; confronting the past perceived ‘out of line’ behaviour head on; putting in place a more exciting, inclusive and forward looking vision that ensures a legacy that all South Africans can buy into.

However, he cannot afford another corruption charge or be the accused in a rape case or be engaging in behaviour that many South Africans may believe to fall in the category of infidelity. He must stay clean because such acts send a message of a lack of integrity even to those that may agree with his moral or traditional values. If those closest to him can’t trust him, how can ordinary South Africans?”

It is unfortunate that the Nkandla bomb has now exploded. So what should President Zuma do? As with all leaders, it starts with his personal aspirations and genuine motives, the kind of legacy he honestly wants to leave behind. I will assume for a moment that he wants history to judge him favourably, and not as someone that simply tried to enrich his family and friends; that he wants to be remembered as a leader that actually made a difference. This can be difficult as he led in the shadow of our greatest leadership icon Nelson Mandela, and served in the sacred position of South African President at a time when the Mandela chapter was finally closed, and the world gravitated towards him and the kind of leadership he represented, like no other leader in its history. So how on earth does he measure up to this?

Our nation experienced a miraculous revolution and ultimate political transformation. Next on the list of things to do was an economic transformation, which, depending on who one talks to, never really came into full swing. This part of the overarching revolution seemed to go horribly wrong – too few benefited, though there is the counter argument that many black South Africans are in the main stream of our South African economy and are starting to show that they are equal to the task.

While Nelson Mandela is our undisputed leadership symbol for the political transformation, no one has emerged as the leadership symbol for the economic transformation, though characters like Julius Malema is aggressively positioning for this and with the benefit of hindsight some may want to bestow this title on former President Thabo Mbeki. As we figure out which direction our economic transformation should go, and who is going to be its rightful leadership symbol, it can be easy to miss that we are also in the middle of – perhaps more importantly – a moral transformation; a struggle for what morals and values we espouse, and what leadership behaviour is expected against these adopted morals and values.

Leaders like Nelson Mandela, and President Jacob Zuma for that matter were willing to sacrifice everything, even their own lives and family to ensure a successful political transformation and ultimately freedom. Perhaps it is only fair that a leader that hopes to be the title bearer and own the leadership symbol of our moral transformation and freedom might have to sacrifice in equal measure. One could argue that Zwelenzima Vavi was in the running for this honourable title; he always seemed to be on higher moral ground, but then his course was halted, and we know why.

It is so in leadership that during what seems like ones worst hour, can be born ones greatest opportunity to rise and do the impossible, make a mark, stand and be counted. President Zuma may be in his worst hour. If he did what and how I will suggest in this article, it will be an act of courage and just maybe history will judge him as the leader who made a stand at a pivotal moment in our countries history, who turned the tide on moral leadership, who set the standard on what any leader should do when his conduct is morally wrong.

President Zuma, as many have suggested, should resign, but he must be sure to apologize and deliver a ground breaking speech that will forever be referred to as leadership doctrine, outlining how a leader that goes wrong should act. This is the opportunity to demonstrate unselfish leadership, to give new meaning to accountability of the highest order.  It is this kind of uncompromising, unselfish, brave leadership that earned Nelson Mandela the right to become the symbol of the leader that successfully led our political transformation. This is an opportunity to turn the tide on an unhealthy leadership culture that has taken root, one where leaders far too often dodge responsibility for their actions, but instead exhaust the legal road and at its eventual end, still deny wrongdoing.

The only snag here is that many would argue President Zuma was a strong contributor towards establishing this unhealthy culture. And this is especially relevant when one considers there was a time when he had “the chance to do a very special thing” as the Deputy President in charge of South Africa’s moral regeneration programme. Did he at the time miss the opportunity for his “finest hour”? If the above is true then perhaps this is the very reason why he needs to own the added burden of turning it around?

President Zuma, once again you have an ideal opportunity before you, though this time the actions required are more onerous. Do the right thing. Change the moral course of our nation’s history. South Africa, and in fact the world, needs exemplary moral leadership. I know this is idealistic, and the consequences for you may be dire, but I also know that great leadership always starts with an idealistic dream and only when followed by an equal measure of courage, sacrifice and endurance can it become a reality.

Will he do this? Probably not. It takes practice to clearly identify that “very special thing” amidst adversity, and then turn it into ones “finest hour”. This kind of noble skill is not acquired overnight. Nevertheless, that tap on his shoulder is taking place right now. Is he going to surprise us and make this his finest hour or is he tragically unqualified or unprepared?




Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

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Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


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