Amid this crisis, we are not statues
By working together, being accountable and choosing their leaders well, citizens can drive off the feral flock of unscrupulous and self-obsessed rogues, writes Owen Skae
A flock of political leaders is playing pigeon chess across the world. In pigeon chess, the pigeon knocks over all the chess pieces, deposits its droppings on the board and struts around proclaiming victory.
Pigeon leaders want to create the impression that they break the rules and challenge the status quo in the same way that innovators, pioneers and great deal makers do; that their actions will result in a better outcome. This could not be farther from the truth; they act with self-interest and rules are made up and broken as they go along.
Sadly, this results in two dynamics. The entertainment value of what will happen next overrides fundamental debate about what is in the best interest of the country, parliament or organisation. Derision and scorn are the order of the day.
For those who act with integrity, engaging with such leaders is challenging because the goalposts keep moving. Trust is something pigeon leaders do not inspire.
When faced with pigeon leaders, we have no precedent for their behaviour and it becomes very complex for people to plan with any certainty. Leaders who directly tweet out whatever occurs to them as they shoot from the hip, or who utilise and undermine official structures, cannot be seen to be behaving with integrity.
Any attempt to challenge them results in unbridled personal attacks, which, in turn, fosters dangerous rhetoric that can spark anything from firings to life-threatening scenarios.
We are living in unbelievable times in which leaders profess to uphold the Constitution and sanctity of Parliament or Congress but cast aspersions on the Office of the Public Protector or ignore court rulings, undermine judicial independence and call people "so-called judges". And we let them.
A president summarily signing executive orders and saying he is simply doing what he said he would do is, in his mind, fulfilling his promise to those who voted him into office.
Such is the power of self-delusion that, over time, it asserts itself as ideology or core belief, which leaders then present as truth. SA’s apartheid ideology is a perfect example.
Today, the US and SA are experiencing a powerful resurgence of leaders whose self-focus and deluded self-belief is so powerful that, as political philosopher Frantz Fanon explains, when they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, it cannot be accepted. "It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance," Fanon wrote. "And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalise, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief."
But, sooner or later, the backlash has to come. In the US, court cases are shot-putting the country towards a constitutional crisis that threatens the bedrock of democracy. The similarities in pigeon chess being played across the world highlight the grave risk of giving licence to people and organisations to claim countries as their kingdoms and push the boundaries until good faith breaks down. This is a recipe for disaster.
Time is not on our side. Presidents and leaders are duty-bound to act in the best interests of the country. Irrespective of their ideology or political persuasion, engaging in good faith and observing the rule of law is paramount. A tangible illustration of this is the reality that SA has to borrow money from the world. Therefore, whether we like it or not, the rating agencies are a necessary referee and we are duty-bound to respect the rules of the game and behave in an accountable way.
The Cabinet may not make unilateral decisions without proper consultation. When it goes it alone, it leads to predictable consequences of courts overturning decisions.
We need to transform society, but playing pigeon politics is not the way to do it. As Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan reminded us in his budget speech: "Our growth has been too slow — just 1% a year in real per capita terms over the past 25 years, well below that of countries such as Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, India or China."
Instead of seeking isolationism, we need to work together. Instead of seeking to exploit our natural environment without considering the consequences, we must seek sustainable opportunities in the blue and green economy. By spending more than we can afford and not spending where we should, we condemn the majority of our citizens to a bleak future.
Nobody said the solutions were easy. But scattering the chess pieces is not the answer. It leads to citizens increasingly demonstrating their deep dissatisfaction. There will come a time in the not-too-distant future when citizens in droves will dump the rules and stop protecting the fragile egos of leaders doing wrong. At that moment, we will see pigeons fall. But the damage might be too great.
The most important decision we can make in any sphere is to choose our leaders wisely and hold them accountable.
• Prof Skae is director of Rhodes Business School.