OPINION | We are a Nation that has Surrendered itself to be led by Fools – we need Courageous and Visionary Leadership writes Brutus Malada

Despite his failure to resolve the national question – race relations – General Jan Smuts conceived a vision for an industrial South Africa. He recognised that his vision would be a chimera if not anchored on a reliable and cheap electric supply and on steel production. 

Brown dissuades us from using strength as a measure of leadership, for as he says, “strength is better suited for judging weightlifters or long-distance runners”.

However, with the collapse of our state unfolding before our eyes, we should be pardoned for crying out for strong leadership. Yet, what we are actually yearning for are not weightlifters or marathon runners. Our country is crying out for courageous and visionary leadership. 

The role of political leadership is to articulate a vision and attract relevant expertise to translate that vision into practice. 

Very few of our political leaders – past and present – have illustrated this ability. General Jan Smuts is among the few who exuded the qualities of a courageous and visionary leader. As a war general, Smuts is hailed for his courage during the Anglo-Boer War and his stratagems during the two world wars.

His contribution to the formation of the League of Nations and his craftsmanship of the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were the hallmarks of visionary leadership.

Despite his complacency in the failure to resolve the national question – race relations – here at home, Smuts conceived a vision for an industrial South Africa. However, he recognised that his vision would be a chimera if not anchored on a reliable and cheap electric supply and on steel production.

Thus, he searched for the relevant skills set that would translate his vision into practice. One scientist, Hendrik van der Bijl, stood out for him, for he had made significant strides in engineering.

We learn from South African Heritage: A biography of HJ van der Bijl by Alice Jacobs that Van der Bijl had left South Africa in 1909 to read for his doctoral studies at Leipzig, Germany. By 1912, he had acquired a Master of Arts and a Doctor of Philosophy in Physics, Mathematics and Chemistry.

From Germany he set sail for New York, where he worked at the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. By October 1915, with World War 1 raging, he had made possible for the first time in world history, “the transmission of speech without the aid of wires”.

That is how he became an authority on the thermionic vacuum tube which formed the basis for wireless telephony. His book, which was prescribed for engineering students, reigned for more than 20 years in the field.

Van der Bijl returned to South Africa in 1920 to take up “a position of Scientific and Technical Adviser to the Government of South Africa” after he was persuaded by Smuts to do so.   

To convince the engineer, Smuts went out of his way to offer him a letter of appointment with the space for a salary left blank for the former to fill in.

Today, South Africa is greatly indebted to Van der Bijl for most of her state-owned enterprises. From the Electricity Supply Commission (Eskom, 1922), the Iron and Steel Corporation (Iscor, 1925), the African Metals Corporation (Amcor, 1937), and the Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa (IDC, 1940), to the South African Marine Container Lines (Safmarine, 1946), Van der Bijl established them or contributed to their establishment.

He laid the foundation for the establishment of the Armaments Corporation of South Africa (Armscor, 1968), a predecessor of Denel, when he served as a Director-General of War Supplies during World War 2.

For his contribution, Vanderbijlpark – an industrial and residential area about 50km south of Johannesburg – was deservedly named in his honour. He is truly “the godfather of South African industry”.

A world war was raging when Smuts was mulling the idea of industrialising South Africa. Yet, he did not allow the dust and sound of the bombs to jaundice his vision for the country.

He used his dedicated “place of quiet” in Irene and took long walks interfacing with “the spirit of the mountains” in Cape Town, thinking hard about the future of South Africa. 

Fast forward to democratic South Africa and we have witnessed no single institution built. We have instead witnessed the pillaging and obliteration of the institutions Van der Bijl built and our country is today besieged by an unprecedented energy crisis.

Yet, instead of making a call for our engineers and scientists abroad to come back home, instead of assembling a team to help our country to, in the short term, resolve the energy crisis and ready ourselves to take our place in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, our leaders celebrate the departure of South Africa’s best in the field or connive to frustrate South African-born initiatives.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s failure to intervene in 2022 when South Africa lost Professor Tshilidzi Marwala to the UN University in Japan is deeply regrettable and exposes him as a president out of his depth.

Marwala is no ordinary person. Among his many accolades, he is one of the few people in the world with a PhD in artificial intelligence from Cambridge University.

Marwala led the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. He conceived the establishment of the Artificial Intelligence Institute of South Africa. How do you let such a person go?

Before he became vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, Marwala was also a professor of electrical engineering at Wits University. He also served as a chairperson of the oversight committee for Johannesburg’s City Power.

Instead of making a bold decision to appoint Marwala to the Eskom board, our President thinks cancelling trips to London and Davos can bring an end to blackouts. As President, Ramaphosa had all the powers to give Marwala an offer he couldn’t refuse and he failed to do so.

Meanwhile, another South African, Elon Musk, is breaking the boundaries of science and innovation in the US and our leaders have seen no reason to approach him for help. It is an open secret that electrical cars and robotics are the future, and one of the leading companies in this field is Tesla, owned by Musk.

That no attempt has been made to convince Musk to – even on a short-term basis – come home to assist us with our electricity challenges and aspirations in robotics, is another example illustrating the shallowness of our leaders.

It was not long ago that democratic South Africa was on the cusp of becoming a leader in the development of electrical cars. In his memoir, Triumphs and Heartaches, former science and technology minister Mosibudi Mangena laments the tragedy of the loss of South African innovation in this regard.

Mangena narrates that our engineers at the CSIR and the Meraka Institute produced a prototype electric car called the Joule which won awards around the world. We were so advanced in the field that scientists around the world made a pilgrimage to the CSIR to learn from us and to marvel at our electric car.

However, when Jacob Zuma ascended to the Union Buildings, he wasted no time and stopped the project all because it was “an Mbeki thing”. The Standard 3 man from Nkandla was later seen giggling in Durban celebrating the opening of the Japanese’s Toyota assembly plant, only a few months after he decommissioned a South African-born initiative.

We are a nation that has surrendered itself to be led by fools. The current leaders cannot see, let alone imagine South Africa beyond the current tide of destruction. None of the so-called leaders in our national Parliament has articulated a compelling vision for South Africa.

Meanwhile, a country in distress requires a leadership that embodies the qualities that Archie Brown asserts are desirable for modern political leadership: “integrity, intelligence… shrewd judgement, a questioning mind… courage, vision”.

In 2024 we do not need strong leaders – weightlifters and marathon runners. We need courageous and visionary leadership. This is our last chance to avoid a precipice and the last opportunity to steer our country in the right direction.

By Brutus Malada Brutus Malada is a political strategist and a research consultant. He previously served as a specialist writer and communications adviser for the rector of the University of the Western Cape. He has worked in various think tanks, including the Human Sciences Research Council and the Centre for Politics and Research. He was a member of the Midrand Group – a loose association of intellectuals in Johannesburg.

SOURCE: This article was published by Daily Maverick before.

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