Should Character And Morality Be A Necessary Prerequisite For Public Leadership?

A few weeks ago, I spent most of my Sunday morning at an ANCYL Johannesburg Region emergency general council, which had been called by the ANCYL provincial leadership, here in Gauteng. After all the drama and tension of the emergency RGC, as so often happens, we all went out for drinks and spent time socialising and interacting with all the other leaders who are the backbone of the ANCYL in our region.

During this time, I got into a discussion with a few of the young leaders, where the topic was the issue of discipline and whether morality and character should be key considerations, when we decide who should lead us as a political organisation and subsequently as a country. The discussion/debate began because I “made the mistake” of criticising president Jacob Zuma for constantly lecturing the youth on the need to be disciplined, when he himself had shown no discipline in his personal capacity, which undoubtedly has brought shame and disrepute, not just to the ANC, but to South Africa as a whole. I was taken to task by the majority of the youth leaders around me (in fact, to be honest, I soon realised that I was the only person who held this view within the entire group that was standing around the table) for talking about personal issues instead of politics and I was advised to “engage” on genuine political issues as opposed to “petty personal attacks.” My first thought as I stood there was, are these guys for real? I thought to myself, as Oscar Wilde once said, “Why was I born with such contemporaries?” Then I thought to myself, well let me try debate this issue a bit and bring across my point of view. Let me try show these guys that my argument was not against an individual per se, but rather one of principle, the principle that states that, character ad moral values should be one of the things that we demand/expect from all our public leaders. I was reminded of the words of Charles Colson, “we easily forget that every private decision contributes to the moral and cultural climate in which we live, rippling out in ever widening circles-first in our personal and family lives and then in broader society.” Try as I might to present my case, these guys were adamant: the private and the public should be kept separate and the personal life of a leader should not be brought into consideration when considering qualifications for leadership. Now, I’m not the most flawless person myself (as anyone who knows me would testify), but to me it seems blatantly obvious that the basis for all leadership, should be self-leadership. If you can’t lead yourself, how can you be expected to lead others? How can you ask others to do, what you yourself are not even doing? Is that not what we call hypocrisy?

Benjamin Pogrund’s words in relation to Robert Sobukwe came to mind during this debate, “he asked people to do only what he himself was prepared to do.” One example should suffice here. In a country with a large part of the population dying from HIV/AIDS mostly transmitted through irresponsible sexual behaviour(and with most of these people being young), should the fact that an individual who aspires to lead the nation, has admitted to knowingly having had unprotected sex with a young woman be a disqualifying factor for political leadership? Should the fact that said individual lives a promiscuous and sexually irresponsible life, be considered material when analysing his presidential claims (bear in mind once again that we live in a country where people are dying of HIV/AIDS primarily because of irresponsible and promiscuous sexual behaviour and also bear in mind that said individual, in his prior capacity as deputy president was actually heading up the “Moral Regeneration Movement” in the country).

A friend recently made the hilarious comment, “the fact that president Zuma was leading the Moral Regeneration Movement in South Africa whilst doing all the stuff that we now know he was doing, is as absurd as putting a convicted child molester in charge of a kindergarten class.” So, should character and personal morality be considered when deciding who we choose to be our political leaders? I’ll let you decide, but here are a few thoughts from a few key figures. Leadership expert, John Maxwell, who has advised a few American presidents in his lifetime, has this to say on the issue, “this world needs leaders: who use their influence at the right times for the right reasons…who lead themselves in order to lead others…who work for the benefit of others and not for personal gain…who inspire and motivate rather than intimidate and manipulate…who understand that an institution is the reflection of their character…who follow a moral compass that points in the right direction regardless of the trends.”

This is Greek philosopher Plato’s (one of the best thinkers of all time) contribution on this subject, “if you get in public affairs men who are morally impoverished that they have nothing that they can contribute themselves, but who hope to snatch some compensation for their inadequacy from a political career, there can never be good government. They start fighting for power, and the consequent internal and domestic conflicts ruin both them and society.”(The last sentence should sound eerily familiar to those who have been following political developments in contemporary SA). So I decided to exit the argument with those young ANCYL leaders, not because they where presenting a more compelling case, but simply because I was outnumbered. However I spent most of the afternoon with that question going through my head. Should/does character and morality matter when considering people for public office? It’s your call! (I know what my view is).

Mugabe Ratshikuni

introverted, shy, nothing to write home about