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A redistributive presidency: Some incomplete thoughts on political leadership

The After 8 Debate raised an important question for me: What are the qualities of leadership? The debate provided important perspectives, especially that leadership is both complex and contextual. What qualities should the president of South Africa have to implement a programme of redistribution? As I argued in an earlier article, that programme is needed and needs to be effective and sustainable.

The question is a topical one, given that both of the contending candidates for the ANC presidency have focused on leadership style rather than policies. On the one hand, Jacob Zuma has promised a change in style, advocating for a more consultative approach. On the other hand, Thabo Mbeki has focused attention on the need for leaders to remain true to the mission of the ANC. Of course we could criticise both approaches. However, I want to focus on redistribution and political leadership, both from the perspective of qualities, and possible strategies. The focus in the article is definitely shaped by the Polokwane conference, but attempts to take a longer view of, say, the next 50 years.

Redistributionist at heart
In his or her private thoughts, I want a president who runs through scenarios for redistribution. This would confirm for me a focus on the central task of “transforming apartheid material conditions”. I remember being told that Gear was not conceived after 1994, but before that. The person making the argument was stressing that key people in the ANC had run a scenario in their minds to avoid the debt trap faced by other African countries. There is more than an iota of truth in that we have avoided a debt trap, and that we have more fiscal space.

Without getting into the debate on Gear, the current context demands a president who runs through scenarios for redistribution. These scenarios are obviously contextual, and need to relate to the complexity of our situation. A demanding exercise: How do you redistribute to the poor without making others worse off? What are the links between growth and development? What trade-offs will government make? How do we as a country redistribute in a society where resources are still largely based on race? These are questions that must occupy the mind of our president, and he or she needs to lead a process of finding the right strategies as well as convince society of its importance.

These questions are pertinent in our context. It is certain that if Zuma becomes ANC president, he will need to continue the process of building private-sector confidence. He will need to do this simply because markets have power to move capital, and growth requires investment capital. The same is true for Mbeki — although less so; he will need to reassure capital over continuity of policy. The question, however, is whether either leader would succumb to the market and once again put redistribution on the back burner.

Building societal support
We need a coalition builder supportive of a more equal society. It requires bringing together the powerful unions and powerful business. It requires bringing together leadership from different parts of society, especially the poor. Romantic stuff, some might say, as leadership requires tough and unpopular decisions. In South Africa, building support for a programmatic vision is even more difficult, precisely because of the racial, class and gender divisions in our society. It is not a question of “Can the centre hold?”, but rather “Can a centre be created that supports the mission of the ANC?”. Pulling together such a coalition obviously requires a programmatic expression. Something like South Africa Vision 2050.

The difference with the current government programme of action — an impressive exercise in reporting — is that a long-run vision is more clearly embedded within society. It would ask social actors to reach tough agreements and honour commitments. At the same time, the government is not an equal partner in such an arrangement; it rather has some autonomy to enforce agreements reached and act to respond to changes in circumstances.

Sounds contradictory? Not at all. Governance is a tough task; building a developmental state even more so. The toughness of the tasks at hand means that reaching the mission of a “better life for all” is not a linear process, and the government needs the societal support. An example might illustrate this. Should commodity prices fall for no fault of ours, the government would need to react quickly. If it reacts in the context of agreed development strategy, it is likely to have significant societal support. Without a developmental strategy, the government is open to significant criticisms.

The building blocks for a developmental strategy are in place. For instance, there is significant work on social security and economic growth. Traditionally, social security and economic strategy have been the basis for agreements especially between capitalist, organised labour and governments. The policy challenge that remains is around more direct redistribution strategies. This would include changing the rules of the private investment game to focus very strongly on job creation, using economic growth to support the livelihoods for the poor.

Embedded within this agreement, politicians must provide voice and space for those marginalised in the economy. As the recent bread-price ruling by the Competition Commission shows, alliances between the poor and emerging business might be an important link to sustain in order to tackle monopoly capital.

It would be foolish to argue that everyone would be in a redistributive coalition. Many sections of society would stand outside this coalition. The leadership of the country must engage with those outside the coalition, and create space for a culture of debate and tolerance. In doing so, it must seek to widen support for its programmes. After all, creating a coalition that lasts for 50 years requires constant revision and flexibility.

There is, however, a danger that in building consensus between power blocs, the poor are left behind. So a president focused on redistribution would need to ensure that the poor are provided with avenues for expression. This is because undertaking a 50-year strategy of development requires active citizens. The introduction of participatory budgeting at a local level could provide a key means to provide expression and power for the poor.

A common trait between both Zuma and Mbeki is that they argue that the media are not doing a good job. On most days I agree, but for different reasons. Politicians argue that the media vilify. Politicians need tougher skins. A free press — even one beholden to capital — is better than a restriction of ideas. Of course, a free press that includes much stronger alternative media — which challenge power — is of course the first and best option, because having alternative media is central to organisations representing the poor, contesting spaces and building power. That is, of course, not a task for a president, but rather for the organisations themselves.

Dreamy …
There are, of course, many other traits that a great president should have. For instance, is it too much to ask for a president to speak sensibly about HIV/Aids? The list could be endless; I have instead focused on a somewhat dreamy approach of what political leadership aimed at redistribution might entail. As things stand, I sincerely hope that we have a leader (and a leadership collective) that could achieve that. Is the scenario of a redistributive presidency desirable in the future? I think so.

This article first appeared on the Thought Leader group blog hosted by the Mail and Guardian.