Address by Trevor Manuel on the Occasion of the Eric Molobi Memorial Lecture, University of Johannesburg, November 09, 2017.


I wish to express my sincerest appreciation to Martha, her daughters and the rest of the Molobi family and to the leadership of the University of Johannesburg for the honour to deliver this lecture.

The topic “Leadership, Ethics and Change” lends itself perfectly to take another look at the life and times of our late friend and comrade. It remains impossible to extricate the person from the times, especially since Eric was a conscious activist who measured his involvement and acted out of choice.

It is now 11-and-a-half years since his passing. This period is important because it equates roughly to the length of time that Eric was removed from society, having spent eleven years on Robben Island. Those who knew him before his incarceration would confirm best the phenomenal progress that Eric made in his personal development whilst in prison.

The eleven years was a period of study, of discovery and connection to a larger cadre; and it was distinctly a time of honing the leadership attributes that we so came to admire in the manner Eric conducted himself.

In contrast to that learning and growth, we have to develop a perspective of the affairs of state in South Africa that, for the past ten years have been led by one who spent ten years under the same conditions on Robben Island. The contrast cannot be more stark.

The author, Tony Judt, reminds us:

Even if we concede that there is no higher purpose in life, we need to ascribe meaning to our actions in the way that transcends them. Merely asserting that something is or is not in our material interest will not satisfy us most of the time. To convince others that something is right or wrong we need a language of ends not means. We don’t have to believe that our objectives are poised to succeed. But we need to believe in them

These words describe the life that Eric chose to lead. His belief in the involvement of the people in their own liberation and future, and remained unshakeable throughout his adult life. His belief in the ANC as a vehicle to attain that end was resolute…

And the engagement with creating opportunities through service to the people was actually what drove him and shaped his character…

He was gifted with a political maturity that wove together these attributes and recognised that society will be transformed by a series of actions way beyond those of government. He understood that the distribution of skills and resources had to go beyond seeking position in the upper echelons of the movement or being in government.

His leadership was of choice, comfortable in the knowledge that he possessed the attributes to occupy office, but to fulfil a different role. He was not alone in this view. Just two weeks ago, in his Oliver Tambo Memorial Lecture, Comrade Thabo Mbeki said:

The challenge which arose with (this) access to state power was and is that it could be abused, was and is being abused for purposes of self-enrichment. This means that the ANC contains within its ranks people who are absolutely contemptuous of the most fundamental values of the ANC, at whose centre is a commitment to serve the people.

Comrade Mbeki drew extensively on the political report of his predecessor-in-title, Nelson Mandela’s Presidential Political Report to the 50th National Conference of the ANC, convened in Mahikeng in December 1997. Madiba there said:

Our movement, the leadership that is gathered here, in whose hands rests much of the future of our country for many years, needs to understand this in a deep and comprehensive way, that the country we have inherited is essentially structured in a manner which denies us the possibility to achieve the goal of a new people-centred society.
Accordingly, the realisation of this objective, from which we will not depart, requires that we work to transform our country, fundamentally. The accomplishment of this task requires that we should all be made in the metal of revolutionaries.

Madiba proceeded to speak of the role of the ‘progressive sections of our intelligentsia’ to transform all of society, not merely the state. The two former Presidents of the ANC combine in arguing against those ‘people who only see the ANC as a step-ladder to gain access to state power for the express purpose of using that access for self-enrichment.

These views, articulated around the time of the 50th National Conference in 1997 was premised on the intent for nationwide transformation. The cadre of leadership outside of the organs of state and of the elected ANC leadership were viewed as a reservoir of cadreship that would act to ensure the fundamental transformation of the country. We can confirm that Eric was entirely comfortable with this approach to transformation. He embodied this ethos.

This approach is markedly different from that adopted by the leadership elected Polokwane a decade later. The dominant style of this elected leadership is that they alone constitute the leadership and that activists outside of themselves, especially those with a history in the organisation, are labelled “free agents.”

The leadership of the last decade has ridden roughshod over the ANC Constitution. I would invite you to take time to revisit the “Aims and Objectives” and “the Character of the ANC” (or sections 2 &3) to appreciate just how large the divergence from the stated intentions have become.

If this leadership has as little regard for the ANC Constitution, what prospects are there that it would lead an ongoing process for the ownership and socialisation of the national constitution?

But, I have digressed slightly from the point where we had referred to the choices that Eric had made. He had decided to work in the development space – facilitating both NGO and personal agency.

When the EU decided to curtail the funding that it had previously channelled through Kagiso Trust, Eric saw this as opportunity to introduce a lateral direction by funding the trust through the earnings from various investments in companies. This was a demonstration of the ability to put BEE initiatives to use other than the individual appropriation of proceeds.

Though the author Tony Judt refers to the earlier quote to needing “a language of ends not means”, Eric, by his actions demonstrated that it is actually ends and means that are needed to make a difference, the determinants are all in the beliefs you carry and the confidence to live by them. He was able to operate in a manner and style marked by conscious decisions. I came across the following characterisations of mindful leadership – and I share this because it so distinctly marked the engagements and values of Eric Molobi.

• Build trust through clarity and consistency
• Make sure that you never profess when people are watching, only to act differently when the temperature rises and the pressure is on.
• Know that you will feel uncomfortable, even vulnerable because in the midst of real change around you, the rules are not clear and politically expedient behaviour is very tempting.

We are marking the sharp distinctions between a method of leadership that does not need to occupy positions, and one that occupies positions only for self-aggrandisement; between the qualities of service and those of crude, primitive accumulation and extraction. We are talking about the polar extremes of the builders and the destroyers of institutions.

Raising the sharp differences between those, such as Eric, who display the longer vision – looking at the past and towards the future; and people who can only see what is right in front of their eyes.

Edmund Burke, writing about the French Revolution warns against dispensing with all we know of the past in the name of the future.

He wrote that society is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are yet to be born.”

The key measure is how the leadership treats institutions, especially those that develop over time, or those that are repurposed, as in the case of South Africa, to serve democracy.

Francis Fukuyama writes of institutions:

We have seen how institutions were the products of contingent historical circumstances and accidents that are unlikely to be duplicated by other differently situated societies.

One is compelled to think of the building of the ANC as an instrument of hope and the glue that bound the oppressed together for 95 years, through the most adverse of circumstances.

And then the decline to the point of rupture where all that remains are the symbols and history without the ability to convene people on the basis of a vision for the future! Of these symbols of hope little remains because it appears to be in the interest of those who have been elected to leadership now, and those embedded in key roles in public office to serve only their masters and not the people.

This might be the reason why so frequently ANC leaders talk about its glorious past that we can all attest to, but offer little about a future vision. This might also be the reason why the ANC Youth League is in the shape it is.

But then Fukuyama also writes about the institutions of state, more specifically. He argues:

In contemporary developing countries, one of the political deficits lies in the relative weakness of the rule of law. Of all the components of contemporary states, effective legal institutions are perhaps the most difficult to construct. Military organization and taxing authority arise naturally out of people’s basic predatory instincts. …..Legal institutions, on the other hand, must be spread throughout the entire country and maintained on an ongoing basis…. But most important, legal institutions need to be seen as legitimate and authoritative, not just by ordinary people, but also by the powerful elites in the society.

Here too, one must appreciate the rise and fall of the institutions of law. They were built as transformed and constitutionally-compliant after our democracy and then cut down in their youth. Today we must ask why the NPA, the Scorpions/Hawks, the crime intelligence units in the SAPS, the general SAPS, the NIA/SSA, the lower courts, the SARS and even the Public Protector have all been rendered incapable.

Notwithstanding the difficulty in building these to mark a sharp break with the apartheid past, they have all been destroyed because their presence as upholders of the law, do not serve the interests of the ruling elite.

To this long list, one must also add Parliament, found by its Constitutional Court to have “breached its constitutional obligations” in the landmark Nkandla judgement of 31 March 2016. Parliament did not act to remediate its faults, and the ANC benches appear to act as a choir of support to the President and use the numerical advantage to block rational enquiry into constitutional violations.

I wish that one could attribute all of this destruction to the person of the President. But he does not act alone, and, in fact, mainly gets others to act on his behalf. The origin of this demise is, of course, in the ANC.

The National Executive Committee, elected in 2012, with a few notable exceptions, does what it is told. It was the product of a gross manipulation of the membership and branch systems to construct a conference of unthinking and disengaged delegates. In Jacques Pauw’s book, “The President Keepers”, the events at Mangaung are described as follows:

When Brigadier Nkosana ‘Killer” Ximba and teams of crime intelligence agents left for the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung in December 2012, he allegedly took more than R 2 million in cash with him. The Mail & Guardian said Ximba was the “main go-to guy”; the “getting-it-done-guy” in Mangaung. Ximba, one of the “untouchables” at crime intelligence is a close associate of Richard Mdluli – who promoted him from constable to colonel within a day and who is well acquainted with Jacob Zuma…

Everybody knows that there was not much of a contest between the slates at Mangaung and if that effort required R 2 million of taxpayers money to grease delegates palms, pause and consider how much money will be poured into the 54th Conference in 37 days’ time. The stakes are very, very high this time around and R2 million is a mere drop in the ocean.

The ill-conceived NEC elected at Mangaung, produced on its watch, the crisis of illegitimate PEC’s, that in turn oversaw the election of poor REC’s, and in turn, destroyed the branch structures in the main. Hence there are different branch structures that contest the legitimacy of others at every conference. The debate on membership figures tells its own story.

A cursory glance at the membership numbers at various stages show the extent of manipulation.

At the 2010 NGC the ANC claimed 749 547 members. By the 2012 Mangaung conference this had ballooned to 1 220 057 and by the 2015 NGC it had declined to 769 870. My hunch is that there are prospects of fresh manipulation of numbers, as suggested by comrade Kgalema Motlanthe and that the 54th National Conference is bound to collapse in a heap at the stage of credentials.

If the conference does proceed, the same situation will play out, with even higher stakes. Yet, what South Africa needs is a governing party that will go into conference and do a few rational things.

Firstly, it should honestly evaluate its performance since the 49th National Conference in 1994…

The question to be answered is why the ANCs fundamentally shifted from its historic mission.

It will have to enquire whether the policy decisions it took, have been implemented and, if not, what were the impediments.

Then it will have to take action, not rhetoric, to remedy the situation.

Finally, it will have to agree on what cadre is best equipped to alter the course for the future.

Sounds all too simple, doesn’t it? There is probably zero prospect of that happening.

We need an ANC that wishes a leadership change for the better.

We need an ANC that will place a premium on ethics and hold its leadership to account.

We need an ANC that will recognise that it has lost its way..

Moreover, we need an ANC that is capable of developing and articulating a vision for the future of all South Africans, as directed by both its own and the South African Constitutions.

And so, let me strain against an identity that I, and so many others have attempted to shape and recast, as ANC activists.

However difficult this may be, it appears that we have to transcend party political identity to engage with the issues of transformation and the objectives and vehicles to deliver this.

Over five years ago we handed the National Development Plan to the President in parliament. The NDP constructs that future across a very wide pan of society, sector by sector, taking into account some of the more intangible issues, such as social cohesion and nation building.

The basic premise of the NDP, which is not a party-political document, is that no part of it will self-actualise. The NDP lays the basis for a myriad of compacts and experimentation to construct pathways from poverty and to activate the nation towards betterment.

It is indeed possible to build new alliances on the strength of the approach outlined in the NDP. We have an opportunity to build agency anew by focusing on civil society, NGO’s and people themselves. If the elected representatives and their party are incapable of leading, they must follow. But we cannot give up on the promise of a better life for all.

So, the question I am grappling with is whether I can continue to empower the ANC with my mandate. Right now, it appears too self-serving to be interested in the future of South Africa and the needs of its people. It does not even pretend to hold out a promise of a better future. I accept that the problem may be with me, rather than with the ANC.

I am very persuaded by Paulo Freire’s articulation in the Pedagogy of Hope. He writes:

The people cry out against the crass evidence of public corruption. The public squares are filled once more. There is hope, however timid, on the street corners, a hope in each and every one of us. It is as if most of the nation has been taken by an uncontainable need to vomit at the sight of shamefulness…..

Without a minimum of hope, we cannot as much as start the struggle. But without the struggle, hope, as an ontological need, dissipates, loses its bearings and turns into hopelessness.

In conclusion, it was hope that contributed to the lifting of our spirits in the dark days of apartheid. It was hope, coupled with a belief in the cause and its vehicle, the ANC that bound us together and inspired us. It was the evidence of a leadership that represented sacrifice, ethics and change that compelled us to action.

But all of that is wiped out due to those who occupy office being as self-serving as venal as they are. That hope is vanquished by letting into the inner sancta of the movement those whose only attribute appears to be their obsequiousness.

For leadership, ethics and change, we must make a new beginning.


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