Leadership Challenges Facing
South Africa’s Political Economy: Reflections And Projections

By Dr Reuel J. Khoza (Chairman of Nedbank Group Limited, Aka Capital  and author of several books including Let Africa Lead and Attuned Leadership)  I  12 September 2019


Leadership is situational.  Leadership finds effective expression in context.  Effective leaders are those who are attuned to the existential context of their followers.  Attuned to their followers sense of history and perspective.  Attuned leaders are sensitive and responsive to the current needs and wants of their followers in the context of prevailing circumstances.  Very significantly, effective, ethical leaders are attuned to the aspirations and wishes of their followers, lucidly envisioning and articulating a sense of destiny that resonates with the followership.

The current national restlessness occasioned by perceived lack of response to unemployment – particularly youth unemployment, searing poverty, obdurate inequality, rampant crime and corruption, is a cry for caring, responsive leadership.  Skittish investors yearn for pragmatic, action-oriented leadership.  Curious diplomats seek answers to the pressing question:  Whither South Africa?

With regard to the following challenges South African leaders would do well to behave as if they are standing on a burning platform, because they in fact are:

  • Widespread corruption that has wrecked state institutions, state-owned enterprises as well as some major corporations.
  • Stubborn unemployment that keeps on mounting, particularly among the youth – including those with university degrees.
  • An education system that seems to produce deficit models for the world of work, or is not fit for purpose if one considers the huge number of unemployed graduates.
  • An unsustainable social security programme facing mounting numbers of would-be dependants, with a shrinking GDP and a straining fiscus.
  • Unrelenting polarisation between organised labour and owners of capital, with the Gini-coefficient remaining unacceptably high.
  • A health service that seems to be so stretched it cannot cope with national demand.
  • Xenophobia or Afro-phobia that regularly gets out of hand – occasionally degenerating into violence, crime and looting of barbaric proportions.
  • A parliament that has lost its plot, pre-occupied with trivia and neglecting addressing challenges of national and international importance.
  • A government that is growing lethargic, insensitive and not responsive to burning issues.
  • A political leadership that is long on elaborate plans and short on implementation.



During the past decade or so numerous negative political forces have conspired to hamstring, frustrate or even hinder South Africa’s socio-economic development.  Among these are:

  • Ideological misalignment of ostensible allies;
  • Populism trumping popularity;
  • A flawed parliamentary democracy;
  • Moral decadence occasioned by depraved misleadership and politics of patronage;
  • Deployment displacing employment;
  • A political tail wagging the political dog.
  • Reiterative Planning Paralysis;
  • Bureaucratic party “structures” that guillotine economic action plans, inter alia.
  • Mounting national debt that might lead to unwelcome IMF restructuring.
  • Exodus of skilled South Africans as a response to despondency about the future.


1. Ideological Misalignment of Ostensible Allies

For decades dating from the era of the struggle against Apartheid, the African National Congress (ANC) and the Communist Party of South Africa (now SACP) have been in alliance.  The ANC has always been the forceful nationalist movement – the drive engine of the struggle; the Communist Party ostensibly the intellectual force.  Nationalists and Communists in alliance but ideologically at variance.  The Communist Party has always been ideologically more vociferous, riding piggy back on the ANC and coy to go it alone as a political party.  The current impasse in socio-economic development is partly due to this unholy alliance:  The ANC propagating and implementing a pragmatic mixed economy, the SACP ally stridently advocating socialism at best, discredited communism at worst.


2. A Flawed Parliamentary Democracy

The most popular form of democracy assumes the form of government of the people by the people, for the people, typically constituency based.  In this form parliamentary representatives are directly accountable to those who elected them.  The current South African version is based on what has come to be known as proportional representation, where political parties elect their president, who in turn leads the party’s campaign for election.  The parties in turn compile lists of parliamentarians who tend to owe allegiance to their respective parties more so than to any particular constituency.  This way parliamentary accountability to the citizenry is vicarious and weakened.  Leaders of the country together with an active citizenry need to address this.


3. Populism Trumps Popularity / Efficacy

The 2007 ANC election of Jacob G Zuma was a classical case of populism trumping popularity, hollow sloganeering displacing a sense of efficacy.  Thabo Mbeki was perceived to have been unfair to Jacob Zuma, his erstwhile deputy.  Additionally by insisting to remain Party President Thabo was seen to be scheming to remain in power.  The anti-Mbeki sentiment and sympathy for Jacob Zuma coupled with the more effective campaigning by the Zuma Camp conspired to successfully unseat the Mbeki Camp.  This populist wave cast Jacob Zuma on the shore of South Africa’s political economy.

Barely literate in the intricacies of twenty-first century politics and economics, devoid of ethical values, ignorant of the complexities of globalisation and basically depraved and amenable to self-enrichment, Jacob Zuma was destined to ruin South Africa.  The rest is a history of modern-day fiefdom, corruption, moral decadence, politics of patronage, elevation of mediocrity to the status of virtue and worse.


4. Paralysis by Iterative Planning

Planning, iterative, reiterative planning over decades, has paralysed socio-economic development.  First was the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) in 1994, whose real legacy is a housing scheme that delivers structures that are even smaller than Apartheid’s township houses on miniature sites that can barely accommodate a cabbage patch.  No decent civic centre, no decent schools.

The RDP was followed in 1996 by the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (GEAR) which delivered commendable economic growth without job creation during the Mbeki Era.

Third was Accelerated Shared Growth Initiative (of South Africa) ASGISA in 2005, a lack-lustre programme meant to be an improvement on GEAR by inter-alia addressing job creation.

Fourth came the New Growth Path in 2010, laced up with socialist rhetoric, designed to address ASGISA flaws.  It went the way of its predecessors.  Limited growth.  Minimal job creation.  Imperceptible poverty alleviation.

Fifth was the grand design, the National Development Plan (NDP) in 2012.  Elaborate vision and mission statements in glowing poetry.  400 pages of a well researched and well-written plan – long on narrative but short on implementation guidelines:  non explicit desired End State, Action Steps (Phases), Time Lines, Deadlines and Monitoring mechanisms that are schedule bound.

Lastly Tito’s Recipe.  Businesslike, addressing such themes as:

  1. Modernising Network Industries,
  2. Lowering barriers to entry and addressing distorted patterns of ownership through increased competition and small business growth,
  3. Prioritising labour intensive growth in sectors such as agriculture and services including tourism,
  4. Implementing focused and flexible industrial and trade policy; and
  5. Promoting competitiveness and harnessing regional growth opportunities.

Overlay an appropriate budget and a strict implementation programme – behold you are en-route to implementation, job creation and prosperity!!

But alas, alliance partners are up in arms because they were not intensively consulted, and did not have a chance to give a red or green light.  Mind you they are not even elected to national leadership, nor have their socialist plans delivered good anywhere.


5.Bureaucratic “Structures”: A Guillotine for Business Enterprises

Legend has it that applications for business rights in countries like Singapore and Malaysia can take as short as forty eight hours to secure approval.  In South Africa, by contrast, turn-around time for such approval can take as long as seven years.  In peri-urban areas or the former homelands which are sorely in need of investment and socio-economic development, such applications for project development typically go through as many as five corruption riven steps:  the local induna, the chief, the regional mayor, the provincial administration and finally various offices at the department of land affairs.

Projects that could create jobs within twenty-four months are that way guillotined and never see the light of day.  Sensitive and responsive leadership should consider themselves duty bound to eliminate such bureaucratic red tape.


6. The Tail Wagging the Dog

The National African Congress (ANC) is the Party in Government.  It often comes up with plans, organises investment and job summits that are supported by various stakeholders, including potential international investors, and national corporations and business organisations.  Inability to follow up in a business-like fashion often results in these withering on the vine as good intentions.

Poor alignment between Government and its alliance partners is often blamed for ham-stringing implementation.  The tail often wags the dog to a stand-still.



Real, substantive economic growth cannot be the product of striving to unify irreconcilable adversarial political forces within the ruling party.  Neither can it be achieved by a ruling party that panders to the whims of unelected alliance partners serving sectional ideological interests.  Real economic growth must be driven by the urge to serve the national interest.  A national interest that shuns the various isms and opts for the one ism that yields results:  pragmatism.

South Africa has witnessed numerous iterations of national plans.  Elaborate documents that are gathering dust in hallowed government shelves.  What we need is a national action programme driven by bias for action – a propensity for implementation.  As a matter of work in active progress, South Africa’s leadership must orchestrate a political economy made possible by changes in technology, lifestyle, work style that is characterised by diligence and a willingness to put in the hours, conducive regulation that is not sheckled by undue red tape, a sound appreciation of geopolitics and its bearing on the national agenda and the like.

Ralph Waldo Emerson observed and wrote:  “There are always two parties, the party of the past and the party of the future; the establishment and the movement.”  This observation is instructive to present day South Africa.  The future belongs not to the perpetual crystal ball gazers, but to those who are bold enough to challenge the biases and prejudices of the “establishment” – an establishment riddled with contradictions.  The future will be brought about by leaders who dare to be unorthodox, not those who prognosticate.  The future of this nation will be brought about and driven by subscribers to momentum, not by the chronic starry-eyed.

The future and the present are intertwined.  Every nation is in the process of becoming: becoming an anachronism irrelevant to the future (consider present day Zimbabwe), or of becoming the harbinger of the future (consider present day Rwanda).  The medium-to-long term is not an occurrence of some distant date;  it is what leaders and their followers are building or forfeiting by their daily pragmatic actions.

As William Jennings Bryan put it:  “Destiny is no matter of chance.  It is a matter of choice:  it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”

The admonition to those who purport to lead South Africa is glaringly clear:  Only those who envision and with boldness pre-emptively create the future will be around to enjoy it, or to proudly bequeath it to posterity.

The following are practical actions our leadership may consider taking:

  • Greater cooperation between the public and the private sectors: organised business, including YPO, Leadership SA, BUSA, BMF, IOD, etc. are very keen to cooperate with government in tackling the challenges facing our political economy.  Government must reciprocate with commensurate enthusiasm.  A business-like action programme of implementation is imperative.
  • The ANC as the governing party must govern and provide bold, decisive, action-oriented, results-focused leadership. Unelected alliance partners, particularly those given to obstructive behaviour, must be made to understand that theirs is a secondary, non-governmental, at best advisory role.  Not co-governing.
  • Plan, act and implement continentally. The African Renaissance and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development should not remain the dalliance of academics and philosophers.  For compelling economic reasons Pan-Africanism must be rendered real.  South Africa must invest in and trade with the rest of Africa and vice versa.  Afrophobia must be combated and stamped out without fail.
  • Deal with globalisation with insight and appreciation of its intent and complexity, ensuring that it is at worst equi-beneficial to South Africa and Africa; and at best more beneficial. Beware of the second scramble for Africa.
  • Think, plan and implement generationally. The Youth Employment Services (YES) Programme must be broadened beyond addressing current burning challenges to deal with future generations, heeding inter alia, the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  The latter might just enable us to leapfrog our putative emerging economy hurdles.



Our leadership as well as our nation are standing on a burning platform.  A sense of urgency must permeate our plan of implementation.  Bias for action is called for.  Responsiveness with a sense of urgency should be the hallmark of our leadership.