Too loyal voters – a threat to democracy

How do leaders lacking in a sense of morality and ethics get elected? NAI guest researcher Barney Pityana examines the concept of ethical leadership, and the lack of it in his home country, South Africa.

Ethical leadership exists when a leader does good for as many people as possible. There are abundant examples in the world testifying to this approach: human rights are on the agenda, environmental issues are a focus, and there are strong accountability safeguards. However, there are many other examples pointing in the opposite direction, where leaders are corrupt and enrich themselves at the expense of serving the public good.

“Often leaders' rhetoric suggests they are ethical, but all too rarely are the fine words translated into practice. Whenever people lacking in ethics and morality are in charge, matters can go in only one direction. My country is a striking example. With Jacob Zuma, everything is going straight downhill,” says Pityana.

Changed behaviour
In his research, he is seeking to uncover a new theory of ethical leadership applicable to the South African context. It will also consider the behaviour of the electorate, behavior which has changed over the years.

“People have become more selfish. They decide how to cast their votes based on how their wallets will be affected by tax policies, rather than on the basis of what is best for the whole society”, Pityana remarks.

In democracies, people can vote out leaders who behave improperly, although, according to Pityana, this seldom happens. Why do the electorate not use the power they actually have?
“In the case of South Africa, I think voters are too loyal to the ANC party. Whoever the party committee decides to nominate as a candidate, people will accept him or her, ethical or not.”

Dubious candidate
His research compares South Africa's three presidential administrations since the advent of democracy in 1994, and what impact each had on the country and its population. Nelson Mandela's presidency was marked by doing good – to reach out to as many people as possible, even to enemies. He managed to create a society that the majority thought was exciting to belong and contribute to. Thabo Mbeki continued on a similar course. He also showed increased interest in South Africa's role in Africa and in the rest of the world. Then Jacob Zuma became president after a chaotic succession. President Mbeki opposed Zuma's candidacy as his heir but was out-voted and, as a consequence, resigned a few months before the end of his term. Zuma was a dubious candidate. At the time, he was under investigation for involvement in a corruption case and was also accused of rape, of which he was later acquitted.

“South Africans cannot claim they did not know what kind of person they were electing or claim they did not understand what kind of leader Zuma would be. Those who actively wanted to elect an immoral president have no reason to be disappointed. Zuma has enriched himself and his family, and also managed to take complete control of the administration. People fail to recognise that our democracy is at risk”, Pityana states.

Now, many South Africans are angry at their leader, and campaigns in social media demand his removal. However, Pityana doesn’t believe this necessarily means they would vote for another party in the next elections, even though that would be the best alternative.
“With another party in power, the ANC would be forced to recognise that political power cannot be taken for granted and can be lost if the government does not live up to popular expectations", Pityana says.

Malfunctioning state
A newer party aspiring to win over ANC voters is the Economic Freedom Fighters. Its leader Julius Malema is one of the most outspoken critics of Zuma and the ANC. He was formerly leader of the ANC's youth wing, but was thrown out by Zuma. It is among South Africa's youth that the party has most support. EFF was fairly successful in the last election, and emerged South Africa’s third largest party. Although Pityana doesn’t see the EFF as a potential ruling party yet, he recognises the force of its analysis of South Africa’s problem – the state is malfunctioning because it always favours the rich, while the poor remain poor.

“I do not think EFF has an answer or response to this, though. Yet, to identify problems and make people aware is a good start. The ANC never talks about these things and seems to prefer to build a larger middle class, rather than to fight poverty and achieve an equal society,” Pityana concludes.

President Zuma with Swedish MP Joe Frans during the Frelimo party congress 2006 in Quelimane, Mozambique. Photo: Johan Sävström, Africa Groups of Sweden.
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