OPINION | Do our current leaders have what it takes to face the challenges at hand writes Clem Sunter

With South Africa facing load shedding, unemployment, widespread poverty and a stagnant economy, proper leadership is needed to safeguard the destiny of our country and avoid destructive confrontation. Similar concerns are raised on the global level when it comes to leadership, writes Clem Sunter. 

Something we have no control over during our individual lifespans is the selection of world and national leaders who happen to be in power at the time. Despite this inconvenient truth, they can from afar temporarily or permanently influence the direction of our lives. Unlike the Lion King, who ruled only his own jungle, some members of the human species can have an impact everywhere.

Take my father, for example. He was peacefully moving up the corporate ladder in the 1930s in London at the same time as Adolf Hitler was cementing his leadership position in Germany. War was declared in 1939, and my father spent the next five years fighting for Britain. Thankfully, he survived the war and subsequently became a stockbroker. But it changed his life. The wartime memories were always there. 

Three positive examples of leadership flags in recent history

Since 1945, we have not had another world war – yet. I have been lucky to be part of the generation that has enjoyed a long-term peace dividend. One of the reasons has been the fact that at moments of extreme stress, we have had leaders who have calmed the situation down.  

Remember the Cuban missile crisis in 1962? At a crucial moment when it looked like the world was about to witness a nuclear conflict between the United States and Russia, Jack Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev agreed on a compromise, which maintained the peace. They both had been through the Second World War and must have reflected on whether it was worth having another one.

At the end of the 1980s, the leaders of US, Britain and Russia – Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev – developed such a good relationship between each other that it led to the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Just after that, we had our own example in South Africa with Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, who got on sufficiently well to broker a peace settlement against all the odds. But for them, we might have ended up embroiled in the “low road” scenario of conflict leading to civil war and eventually our country becoming a wasteland.

The uninspiring global leadership flag today

Now the situation is different on the global stage. The three most prominent leaders are Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, who – though elderly – have never experienced the realities of a world war as adult human beings. Certainly, there is no love lost between Biden and Putin, and Putin’s relationship with Xi is cordial at best. Moreover, the future status of Taiwan hangs over the relationship between Biden and Xi, which therefore remains guarded and cool. 

Against this backdrop, the war in Ukraine qualifies as the most stressful moment in modern history. Besides the dreadful human death toll and destruction of property in Ukraine itself, the danger of the war spreading outside the borders and expanding into a third world war is rising by the day. It has to be contained and ultimately stopped by diplomacy if the worldwide peace dividend is to continue.

On a different note, but posing a similar existential threat, the issue of climate change demands an unprecedented level of cooperation among world leaders to find practical solutions to safeguard the future of our planet.

Hence, the question to ask is simple: do these three global leaders have the qualities to head off the brewing storms, or are we about to witness the end of the world as we know it? Regretfully, the recent escalation of weaponry in the war in Ukraine and the absence of any real progress in turning pledges to reduce global carbon emissions into action suggest a negative answer for the time being.

Nevertheless, another component of the leadership flag is that leaders are mortal and eventually die or are replaced. It may be the next generation of leaders who put the world on a positive trajectory again. Equally, another leader, such as Narendra Modi, the current prime minister of India, may join the exclusive leadership club and improve its dynamic. We might then move from a discordant trio to a creative quartet. 

A crucial moment for the leadership flag in South Africa

Here in South Africa, we are at a second crossroads. The first crossroads was political, and, as I have already mentioned in this article, it was handled in a remarkable way by the leaders at the time. The second crossroads is economic and has to be resolved in a satisfactory manner to allow our local peace dividend to continue. 

Our president, Cyril Ramaphosa, did a good job as a leader during the Covid pandemic. He surrounded himself with medical experts and, based on their advice, gave clear instructions to the public on a regular basis. As a result, we handled the challenges of the pandemic as effectively as any other nation in the world.

Today South Africa faces a much tougher situation with load shedding, unemployment, widespread poverty and a stagnant economy. One can add in violent crime and corruption as well. If ever proper leadership was needed to safeguard the destiny of our country, it is right now. Nature abhors a vacuum and human nature abhors a leadership vacuum. Things can go wildly wrong very quickly.

Furthermore, the three positive examples of leadership I quoted earlier demonstrate that it is all about compromise and pragmatism to find a way through a problem to the other side. Our natural tendency to seek conflict must be set aside. Only by adopting a Team South Africa approach will we keep the peace dividend in place and allow people to get on with their lives as best they can.

In conclusion, we as a nation and the world as a whole are in the same boat in terms of avoiding destructive confrontation, which may well lead to total ruin. Hence, we both need exceptional leaders working in concert to break the logjam. That is what taking the “high road” is all about – globally and locally.

Writes Clem Sunter – Scenario planner and Strategist [News24]

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