When Leaders Err

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office” said Dwight D. Eisenhower ages ago. Integrity: I’ve been taught it means who you are in private and in public is the same person, that you are a man or woman of your word. That’s what Eisenhower said has to be unquestionable for you to be a real success as a leader.

I am sad and disappointed as I write this. Something happened this week that has left me feeling the course of the battle against corruption in our country has taken a major knock. The most vocal voice against urban e-tolling and government corruption was compromised. His integrity shattered. His public persona is now questionable. Follow this link for details. (http://mg.co.za/article/2013-07-30-cosatu-may-still-proceed-with-rape-inquiry-against-vavi) Also, see these earlier blogs Thinking Critically and Begging for embarrassment to appreciate his place in South African society.

I would like to make it clear from the onset that I do not wish to stand in judgement against Zwelinzima Vavi and the apparent sexual indiscretion that he is facing. The tabloids and social network banter have done enough of that. My beliefs do not allow me to stand in judgement. In fact, if I knew him personally, my beliefs dictate that I should offer him support that he doesn’t lose his way further or completely. What I wish to do here is reflect on how a leader’s faltering can compromise a whole cause.(Please note that His organization, COSATU, has withdrawn the internal disciplinary charges against him)

Back in the early 90’s, as idealistic varsity students dreaming about a ‘new South Africa’ we always stressed the need for a very vocal, very active and vibrant civil society that would safeguard our victory after freedom was attained. We were worried that South Africa would go the way of most if not all recently liberated countries in Africa where democracy seemed to herald an era of unlimited looting of the country’s resources. So we agreed that a vocal civil society would ensure that never happened. What was needed we said, was what is now referred to as active citizenry.

Democracy came in 1994 and Nelson Mandela became president. The moral high ground that had carried the country from the brink of a racial civil war seemed to permeate through all society and government. The need for that vocal and active citizenship seemed to disappear. The world looked at us as the Miracle rainbow nation. We ourselves could hardly believe that we had looked into the eyes of the monster and survived. Our democracy was indeed a miracle.

Exit Mandela. Enter the arms deal. Rumours of corruption started doing the rounds. The rumour mill had it that everyone, and that means EVERYONE in government had benefitted improperly from that deal, hence the reluctance on the part of government from pursuing the matter. If everyone was tainted, who could raise their voice in anger, who would protect the interests of the poor. Mind you, there was a subtle change in language during the early 2000s. Where we once called on ‘the people’ to govern, we now wanted to protect ‘the poor’, not the people anymore. ‘The People’ who had voted the government in were now ‘the poor’, to be ‘protected’, on whose behalf decisions could be made.

Enter Mr Zwelinzima Vavi and his Congress of South African Trade Unions(COSATU) . Those idealistic wishes that we had of an active civil society seemed embodied in this man’s approach to things. He led workers and ‘the people’ in this country to believe that they can stand up to corruption without fear. That when those who chose to defend ‘the poor’ failed them, the poor needn’t feel voiceless, the poor can become ‘the people’ again and challenge their own leaders.

Many in government and the ruling party were obviously unhappy about Mr Vavi’s spearheading a campaign against his own comrades, after all COSATU and the governing party are all part of the alliance that achieved democracy in this country. But here he was, ruffling feathers without fear and challenging those who had given themselves the role of defending the poor whilst stealing from them. Many in power wished he could be unseated, there were even death threats against him.

Then came the sexual revelations this weekend. Mr Vavi has, by his own admission, engaged in sex outside of his marriage. I’m gutted, not because I placed my hope in an individual, no, but because that individual represents everything that is good in the ‘new South Africa’. The hope that the poor, the people, have a voice again. I could be wrong but I get the sense that a lot of people felt let down. To his credit he issued an immediate apology on Twitter. But the damage was done.

I was reminded of a recent retreat I attended where our Bishop reminded us that walking in our destiny requires vigilance. If necessary, put measures in place that will ensure that you are not robbed of that destiny by the kind of indiscretions that Mr Vavi finds himself in. It might sound laughable and simplistic but a simple rule like compulsory open office doors at COSATU House would most probably have saved our most vibrant civil society leader from losing his voice.

Unfortunately, once compromised, the moral authority goes. Your words ring hollow, people can choose not to listen. Your position remains but the authority goes. I don’t know about you, but for me your legacy too is compromised. I cannot remember Bill Clinton’s major achievements without thinking of Monica, can you? Most of what I remember about his second term is him fighting a long battle against impeachment.

In fact, in this world that knows about forgiveness but does not know how to forgive an indiscretion such as this one can follow you for life. When Bill Clinton lent his wife a hand in her campaign against Obama a couple of years ago, the effects of the scandal were still there. Some even suggested he was costing her votes.

A few years ago when our current president was facing his own challenges of sexual indiscretions, Senzeni Jokwana of the National Union of Mineworkers said at a conference: “We are not Christians. We don’t listen to the 10 commandments and we don’t have to listen when Christians tell us adultery is wrong.” There was all-round applause from those in attendance.

What they failed to realize is that it’s not only about being a Christian, it’s about being a leader who is taken seriously. There are very few people who will follow a leader whose personal indiscretions will compromise their overall cause. After all, being a leader is about being more disciplined than the ordinary person. People are not judging you when they are disappointed in your actions, it’s more that they hold you to a higher standard, because you are their leader.

People, even those who are not Christians realize that sexual indiscretions not only hurt their cause but hurt the family members of those involved. Their children. Their spouses. Their closest friends and colleagues. There are real lives involved, and you as the leader have failed to protect those closest to you, what more of the whole cause?

So in the end, for the sake of the cause they represent, it’s better to recognize that the Ten Commandments they are rejecting are the building block of any successful public life or cause for that matter. In any game there are rules, written and unwritten. In the leadership space the written rules that govern your integrity, and in the end, your effectiveness, are the Ten Commandments, in whatever form you may choose to present them.

With his integrity sacrificed for close to nothing, Mr Vavi is left clutching at an elusive reputation. He is reported to have said “…we are looking at possible criminal charges(against his rape accuser) …the damage done to our reputation and good standing… is beyond any material value”. My feeling is that the reputation and good standing were damaged by none other than the person Mr Vavi sees when he stands in front of a mirror.

Again, the are murmurs of “Vavi’s leadership has never been on morality, it is against corruption”, says Irvin Jim of COSATU, a Vavi ally. This unfortunately displays a shortsightedness and poor understanding of leadership. I fail to see how you can divorce morality and integrity. How would a leader who has been shown to have poor judgement when it comes to private matters be able to exercise good judgement in public office?

Unfortunately, one unwritten rule of effective leadership is that public trust in you, once broken, can never be fully recovered. Trust and integrity are two sides of the same coin. People trust because they believe the person you present to the is the same person who goes home to his loving wife and family.

So what’s the real damage you might ask. These were two consenting adults, the wife has forgiven him, who are we to meddle? Well let me tell you why. Every time something as huge as this occurs and you are tempted to think there are no real victims think again. Sometimes it seems there are no real victims because ALL of us are victims. Mr Vavi, the young woman,her family, his family,the public,the workers and the people/the poor . All victims. The weakening or silencing of that one voice leaves those wishing for his demise free to continue the feeding frenzy at the through of public funds unhindered.

It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth that in South African politics we are left to choose between leaders based on how less corrupt or compromised they are. “My leader, although accused, was never convicted so he’s better than yours!”. Really, what happened to insisting on clean, trustworthy leadership? Leadership strong enough to say I’m not afraid of the Ten Commandments because I’m clean. Let’s stop idolizing leaders who have been caught enriching themselves with public funds through tenders, have questionable integrity or think morality is a choice.

Let us continue working and striving for people with integrity to lead us. Our country and our children deserve better.


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