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Never in SA’s history has a government assumed power under more favourable conditions than the ANC did in 1994, and still managed to make such a mess of things. The country has gone from a promising, new constitutional democracy to a failed state, staggering under an incompetent, corrupt government and inept bureaucracy.

Our last desperate hope seems to be that the upcoming elections might save the country from total catastrophe — even a devastating popular uprising. Unfortunately, this is a forlorn hope. We are a house divided by deep ideological and cultural fault lines, hamstrung by the lack of courage and prescient leadership.

An extraordinary effort will no doubt be required to save the country from what now seems an inevitable disaster. Sadly, one must conclude that the present political leadership, in both government and the opposition, is not up to the task.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s failure as a reformer-statesman has simply reinforced the reality that the governing party does not have the quality of leadership that is needed, and there is no-one around him who is any more suitable. All we can do is to muddle through at the mercy of mediocre political role-players and hope for the best.

As Harvard academic Samuel Huntington has said: “A successful revolutionary need not be a master politician; a successful reformer is.”

According to Renaissance philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, “there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.

“For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries who have the laws in their favour; and partly by the incredulity of mankind who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.

“Thus, it arises that on every opportunity for attacking the reformer, his opponents do so with the zeal of partisans, the others only defend him halfheartedly, so that between them he runs great danger.”

For reasons Machiavelli pointed out almost 500 years ago, despite wielding overweening power, our current political leaders are incapable of effecting the comprehensive reforms required to save the country from further decline. After three decades of progressive failure, the situation becomes increasingly intractable.

However, apparently unperturbed, the government and its bloated bureaucracy muddle through in “business as usual” mode, as if they were untouchable, ensconced in a permanent reward system.

Present opposition wisdom is that the governing party must be kept below 50% support in the coming election to change the status quo. But this is a forlorn hope. A coalition government would inevitably be hamstrung by the usual infighting and divisions, making high-risk policy changes impossible, particularly with no leader around with sufficient gravitas, intelligence or experience to master reform.

It would therefore be instructive to learn from successful reformers elsewhere — not that they could be copied, as each leader is unique in his or her own way, operating under unique circumstances, but as role models for aspiring talented politicians.

For this reason, I wish to single out as a role model Turkey’s phenomenal Kemal Ataturk, a successful nation builder and reformer. A century ago he almost single-handedly brought about the birth of the Turkish republic, which rose from the ashes of the once mighty Ottoman Empire (created in 1299). In doing so he established himself as a reformer without peer in his time and long afterwards.

What Ataturk achieved was simply phenomenal and unparallelled. Throughout his career he strove to liberate Turkey from its debilitating Ottoman identity, repression and decadence by way of secularisation (Westernisation) — despite strong left- and right-wing opposition. As leader of the “Young Turks” after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War 1, he masterfully achieved that goal in less than a decade to become known, even today, as the “Father of the Turks”.

The reason for his success was mainly his uncompromisingly clear vision and careful choice of reform strategies and tactics, coupled with an exceptionally charismatic character and forceful intellectual prowess. He had the choice of three reform options, which he orchestrated in virtuoso fashion: first, the “Fabian” (foot-in-the-door) incremental approach; second, the “blitzkrieg” approach; and third, a hybrid of the two.

He was always careful to choose the right mix and sequence, moving separately from the less to the more controversial while tactically applying the blitzkrieg approach to abort opposition mobilisation. He followed Richelieu’s advice that “experience and reason make it evident that what is suddenly presented ordinarily astonishes in such a fashion as to deprive one of the means of opposing it, while if execution of a plan is undertaken slowly the gradual revelation of it can create the impression that it is only being projected and will not necessarily be executed.”

This is precisely where Ramaphosa faltered: promises, procrastination, obfuscation and opportunistic demagoguery became his trademark in a country that was hungry for a better life for all. Yet using the tactics and strategies described above, in less than one decade Ataturk successfully brought about a Turkish secular republic replacing the decadent Ottoman rule of many centuries.

The question South Africans should ask themselves is whether a similar feat could be achieved here. Like Turkey, we have unique circumstances, but Ataturk’s mechanisms, tactics and strategies have been applied elsewhere in the developing world with success under skilful leadership.

We were probably on the right track with the adoption of the comprehensive SA National Development Plan in 2012. The far-reaching goals it set for 2030 — mainly to eliminate poverty and reduce unemployment and inequality — were enthusiastically welcomed as both timely and necessary. However, execution was left in the hands of an incompetent bureaucracy, and like most other critical socioeconomic initiatives, it got stuck.

Take unemployment, among the many examples. According to 2022 figures released by Stats SA, 63% of the SA youth between 15 and 24 years old were unemployed, and 42% aged 25-34. However, from the rarefied luxury of Davos, our finance minister glibly told would-be investors recently that SA has never had it so good. This is simply denialism and opportunistic lies for whom the bell tolls.

As the SA political landscape now stands there is no reforming leader of the ilk of a Kemal Ataturk, Margaret Thatcher or Charles de Gaulle in sight, either in the governing party or in the ranks of the opposition. Muddling through under the questionable guidance of an ever-vacillating president and horde of hopelessly ill-equipped bureaucrats is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

• Olivier, a former SA ambassador to the Soviet Union, Russia and Kazakhstan, is professor emeritus at the University of Pretoria.

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