South Africa must look beyond individuals to solve the current crisis

21 April 2017 | Story Timothy London
Former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan flanked by Deputy Minister Mcebisi Jonas and Director General Lungile Fuzile. GCIS
Former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan flanked by Deputy Minister Mcebisi Jonas and Director General Lungile Fuzile. GCIS

When the axe finally fell on the embattled South Africa’s finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, the reactions played out as many people had predicted. The country was hit by an immediate drop in the value of the rand and a sovereign credit rating downgrade from rating agencies S&P and Fitch. Widespread protest against President Jacob Zuma has since followed.

The ensuing protests and debates are dominated by a focus on the role of individuals: Zuma is the centre of focus as the wrecking ball; Gordhan and to some extent Jonas, were seen as the saviours. The view is that all hell will break loose once these good man are gone.

Given the current state of the economy and the sensitivities of the markets, it is inevitable that South Africans are likely to fixate on the financial outcomes of Zuma’s moves. But focusing too heavily on individuals’ actions and the outcomes from them is dangerous.

This is not because the role of these individuals and the outcomes are unimportant. But it must be the systems and processes that should matter more for an approach that goes beyond the 24-hour news cycle and into rebuilding a better future. The underlying systems of government and party politics that generate and support leaders need to change if the country is not to repeat the recent calamities.

While people may be justified to protest, shout and tweet slogans like “Zuma Must Fall”, it’s a mistake to assume that change in one leadership position will bring about a shift in underlying systems. Likewise, the positioning of Gordhan (and to a lesser extent Jonas) as the saviours speaks to this same problem. Both perspectives are based on an extremely limited conception of how institutions and societies work, hearkening back to the outdated, and ironically colonial, “Great Man Theory”.

It’s the systems that matter

The Great Man Theory says that leaders are born with a special gift and their unique skills make them indispensable. Worthy successors are thought to be few and far between. Great things can only happen with these chosen people at the helm of institutions or societies.

The prevalence of this view in South Africa is deeply worrying. It shows a shockingly unrealistic understanding of the scope of issues facing the country. It also shifts people’s focus to leaders in certain positions as opposed to systems and institutions.

Good leaders can obviously make a difference, but environments can also exert a profound impact on leaders. Take the American experience: the running joke in the US is that President Donald Trump said he was going to “drain the swamp” (change the political system), but his recent failings in many initiatives show that “the swamp is draining him”.

It’s certainly possible that a change in leadership at the top may lead to better outcomes and shift the direction of a country. But keeping all of the underlying systems and processes intact will likely guarantee that the future will remain the same.

Some indicators of underlying change

To get a better sense of the true impacts of the Zuma cabinet reshuffle, South Africans need to assess how it relates to crucial systems, rather than just immediately quantifiable outcomes. For those who are fearing or hoping this most recent political move is a watershed event, the proof of their case will not come in shorter-term outputs, but in real changes to underlying systems, which speak to the strength – or weakness – of institutions.

There have been reports that other cabinet members would resign in protest after Gordhan was removed. Significant resignations by internal senior leaders will be indicative that the current processes for leadership selection and support are no longer holding. If that fails to happen in a meaningful way, it will be a strong indication that the underlying system will not be shaken.

Short of resignation, who will speak out from inside the ANC. There are indications of internal factions in the ANC, exacerbated by the organisation’s 2017 ANC elective conference. Opening the leadership debates around ANC’s contestations for power will be beneficial. Made public, the rationale and underpinning logic for differences of opinion give insight to both ANC members and the public as to what the real issues are facing the party, its leaders, and the country. If these factional territories are kept hidden rather than staked out in public, it will be a strong indication that the underlying system will not be shaken.

Much of the ANC’s leadership selection and succession processes are highly opaque, making it hard for the public to see just how leaders arrive at their positions. This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with that person or those processes, but the lack of transparency allows for every shortcoming to be magnified with suspicions of shady dealings in the background. If the process for the elevation of leaders in the ANC is not made more transparent, it will be a strong indication that the underlying system will not be shaken.

The bottom line

The loss of Gordhan and Jonas is no doubt a blow to the National Treasury. Good leadership is always a benefit to institutions. South Africa, like any country, should try to make the most of any good leadership it can find. But this should not blind South Africans to the fact that the finance ministry, and the economy as a whole, can never be wholly dependent on one or two people.

If the country wants real “radical economic transformation”, it can only come from institutions that are strong throughout and buoyed by the work of many people dedicated to the task of improving the country.

Gordhan himself appears to understand this. Commenting after his dismissal, he said Treasury is in safe hands because its professionals remain committed to ensuring macro-economic stability.

The bottom line is that if South African politics is its own “swamp”, it would be foolish to think that skimming the top (whether that’s in the form of Zuma or cabinet ministers) will be sufficient on its own to improve the situation and keep the country safe from future harm. Anyone who has been in a swamp knows that the most dangerous things lie below the surface, ready to emerge at the right moment for an attack.

Opinion: Timothy London, Senior Lecturer, University of Cape Town.

This article first appeared in The Conversation, a collaboration between editors and academics to provide informed news analysis and commentary. Its content is free to read and republish under Creative Commons; media who would like to republish this article should do so directly from its appearance on The Conversation, using the button in the right-hand column of the webpage. UCT academics who would like to write for The Conversation should register with them; you are also welcome to find out more from

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.