The Cult of the Big Leader

By Jane Duncan · 14 Jan 2015

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Picture: Leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema and Cosatu General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi courtesy SABC
Picture: Leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema and Cosatu General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi courtesy SABC

How important are leaders to South Africa’s politics? Should they be allowed to make or break organisations? Two recent events held last month have thrown up these questions: Numsa’s United Front Assembly, held in Kempton Park and the Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) first elective Peoples’ Assembly in Mangaung.

In the case of the United Front, Ranjeny Munusamy lamented the absence of controversial Cosatu general-secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi. She argued that his absence left the new initiative without a ‘face and a visible identity’.

The EFF assembly was marred by a dispute over elected positions, reportedly leading to prominent Gauteng delegates refusing to stand for office, as they felt that decisions had already been taken about the leaders who would be selected. Unsurprisingly, the indisputably charismatic Julius Malema was confirmed as the party’s leader.

While their politics may differ in significant ways, and without detracting from their strengths as leaders, neither Vavi nor Malema come to leadership positions with completely clean hands. They are both big, but flawed, leaders. South African politics is far too reliant on such leaders, to the detriment of democracy. For unfathomable reasons, people continue to tolerate leaders behaving badly.

Leaders are essential for mobilising and articulating organisational goals. But when these organisations become dependent those very leaders, rank and file members can become lazy and defer to the leaders constantly. They can lapse into being permanent followers, and followers will always need leaders.

But often, followers get the leaders they deserve, as they contribute to the problem by allowing authoritarian leadership tendencies to take root. Mass organisations need leaders and members, not leaders and followers.

The more authoritarian big leaders can destroy the internal democratic life of organisations, by dictating terms and stifling a culture of open debate. Members also risk taking decisions based increasingly on loyalty to the leader, rather than political clarity. These problems may become apparent only once the organisation faces serious internal disagreements.

Big leader politics is damaging organisations. Political organisations that are built around big but flawed leaders risk imploding when the leader misbehaves. Any leader that assumes office once again without being held fully accountable for past misdemeanours is very likely to misbehave again.

Big leader cults have a long history in South African politics. The ANC has been particularly susceptible to the problem, where the organisation built its leaders up into demi-Gods. As a result, this trend has become firmly established in South Africa’s politics as a dominant organising form. All too often, what lurks beneath the cult of the leader is a profound mistrust in the ability of ordinary people to rule properly.

While the EFF has some excellent leaders, it still remains an organisation that is built around one person. This, potentially, makes the organisation vulnerable to all the problems of organisational leadership cults, which threatens its sustainability. This vulnerability is hardly surprising, as its organisational culture has been moulded, to an extent, by the ANC, in spite of its estrangement from its political parent. In fact, it is much more vulnerable to this problem than the ANC.

The media, too, can contribute to the problem. Journalists are often tempted to use big leaders as reporting hooks, rather than focusing on the totality of factors that make collective action possible. They may justify this practice by arguing that after all, this is how politics is ‘done’. But in the process, political reporting can become reduced what big leaders in various organisations say and, to a lesser extent, what they do, reducing the membership to the status of followers and undermining their agency.

But mass organisations, too, can contribute to the problem by feeding the publicity beast in ways that push the big leader forward time and again. Organisations that court media attention to amplify their message, often do so to get away from the much harder task of organising on the ground.

Such organisations risk conflating media presence with organisational presence. In other words, they take the extent of coverage as a sign of their strength on the ground, leading to overconfidence about their actual political significance. They can distort their own internal organisational processes simply in order to keep their big media star happy. 

Through their incessant reporting on big leaders, the media can create a monster: an egomaniac who becomes so puffed up that he believes he is always right and unassailable, and that the organisation cannot survive without him. There are already far too many egomaniacs in South Africa’s politics.

Given the realities of South Africa’s largely testosterone-driven politics, the big leader is more likely to be a man than a woman. Whether they are aware of it or not, many organisations socialise women into becoming great listeners and exemplary followers, but who lack the confidence to become leaders.

Even those organisations that mouth gender equality can undermine women by failing to affirm their voices in the internal democratic life of the organisation. The massive social power that big leaders enjoy increases the temptation to use their organisational positions to get more sex. Some women may also see a relationship with a big leader as a ticket to power and resources, complicating internal gender politics even further.

In a country where the majority of its citizens are women, their absence in leadership positions remains an Achilles heel of mass politics. But, this weakness comes about precisely because of how leadership is being constructed in mass organisations.

The media, and even organisations themselves, often tend to value charismatic leadership over strategic leadership. Women are less likely to be comfortable with articulating positions publicly, which means that they are less likely to be elected as leaders. As a result women’s voices continue to be excluded systematically from public life, including in the United Front interim leadership.

The commentariat’s obsession with creating a new generation of leaders diverts attention away from other, no less important, political tasks. In the case of the United Front, progress is going to be slow. At least the EFF could draw on existing ANC Youth League networks, which assisted the organisation to gain considerable traction in a very short space of time.

However, there are no actually existing models for labour-community organising, which means that this organisational form lacks pre-existing foundations. Neither is there a consistent post-apartheid tradition of social movement unionism, where unions move beyond organising around traditional workplace concerns to address community struggles as well.

There are huge disparities to overcome between labour and community organisations. The trade union movement has existing structures and resources at its disposal, which are generally not available to community-based movements. Those that have resources are likely to be tied to non-governmental organisations, with all the negative consequences for their independence. They may also represent elite civil society.

While the South African National Civic Organisation is largely a spent force, increasingly its most experienced activists are searching for new political forms, and this trend intensified around the 2011 local government elections. This is a significant development as many of these activists often enjoy considerable currency at community level.

These realities suggest that the United Front will need many bridge leaders, skilled at building relationships between labour and communities. Historically, women have excelled at this form of leadership, because they are able to exercise often-highly developed skills at building and sustaining relationships.

The galvanising potential of big leader should not be downplayed: a Vavi may win some people over politically. But big leader politics cannot replace the need for the slow, hard work of building grassroots structures: work that is unlikely to attract the headlines.

Not everyone is leadership material. Some activists are destined to be leaders, and undeniably, the quality of organisational leadership matters. Organisations without people who can anticipate problems and then go out on a limb to solve them, will be dull, lifeless and grey.

Good leaders should combine a number of strengths. They should be excellent at recognising political opportunities, translating them into organisational goals and proposing political strategies.  They should ensure the building of organisations that are at the forefront of struggles. They should promote organisational transparency, and create the conditions for members to act collectively.

These more strategic roles need to become much more valued as essential qualities of leadership. Leaders also need to realise that the role that they have been entrusted with places on them the burden of leading exemplary lives. Those who are not willing to lead such lives should not accept leadership positions. 

But excellent leadership is not just a question of individual attributes. Organisational types are needed that draw out the best abilities of leaders, while holding them to account. More distributed leadership through teamwork is needed, without organisations lapsing into leaderlessness.

To argue that South Africa needs new leaders is to misread the key political task on the leadership question. What South Africa really needs are new models of leadership that break fundamentally from the cult of the big leader, and organisational forms that create the basis for more sustainable leaderships to emerge. Once this begins to happen, then perhaps South Africans will start to see the emergence of the kinds of leaders the country both needs and deserves.

**Note: The writer participated in the United Front Assembly

Duncan is a Professor of Journalism at the University of Johannesburg.

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ron Verified user
15 Jan

Wishful Thinking

The problem with leftist comments on the NUMSA united front is that it's wishful thinking based on concealing NUMSA's actual politics. Prof Duncan's previous article about NUMSA's continued commitment to the theory of the National Democratic Revolution was one of only two exceptions. Unfortunately here she does the same as all the others. I think it is wishful thinking to expect NUMSA to fight for 'new models of leadership' and to oppose 'the cult of the big leader'. The union's approach to these matters are fairly clear. It stands for a unmistakeably top-down approach it calls 'democratic centralism' and it is very much part of the cult of big leaders, starting with dead ones like Lenin of course.

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19 Jan


NUMSA and the EFF are both off-shoots from the SACP's Stalinism. They are the last place to look for democratic politics. They are both ideological dinosaurs. No change of a Podermos or Syriza developing here.