Lets Talk About The Presidency, Loyalty and Incompetency. By Devi Rajab

If one is a President of a nation; where should ones loyalty lie?

Should it be with ones political party or with the nation?

What is more important a government or the people?  

Should loyalty be an overriding emotion in the ambit of feelings or should responsibility and sound leadership be the qualities of a leader?

Our President has just declared that the ANC is more important to him than South Africa!

With one lisp of his tongue he has orphaned a sizable proportion of the citizens of his country making pariahs of them and declaring democracy and diversity of political opinions null and void.  What does this statement mean for nation building? The implications are dire. It is the basis on which sycophantism will be fostered. Anyone and everyone will be declaring their support for the ANC in order to get tenders and other benefits.

As President Zuma and leaders of this sort grow in stature in their omnipotence, the masses will begin to idolise every aspect of his demeanour. They will embrace his ethnicity, his life style of opulent living with many wives and his preference for a one party state over the vibrant political multiparty politics and his partiality towards his buddies.  Now we in SA know the dangers of loyalty as an attribute especially when it applies to unquestioning support for dysfunctional leadership and yet we will continue to elect leaders who will never quite fit the mould. “We have begun our descent” warns Justice Malala in his latest book which outlines strategies to stop South Africa from losing its way.

If we had to compare our President Zuma with leaders of colour like Barak Obama we find a situation of (inedible) chalk and (delicious) cheese.  Obama rose above his colour to embrace every American stating that there is not a liberal America and a conservative America-there is the United States of America. In the SA context we would have to say and act on the principle that SA is a product of its sum total of all racial groups if we had to harness the power in the words of Obama to “rescue, rebuild and restore”.

 But is it fair to expect Zuma who had served so many years in prison with no formal education to rule and lead a country in the same way as a Harvard educated  first world raised black man?  Certainly not. Political stalwarts don’t necessarily make the best leaders though they may have been great in the movement using expediency, guile, violence, espionage and all other attributes that warrant a win in a war situation.   They needed to be rewarded for their sacrifices in areas concomitant with their expertise. Instead we fall into the rut of assuming that their competency in one area may be easily transferable to others.

In 1969 a psychologist by the name of Lawrence Peter described a principle which was later named after him when he alerted organizations to their own folly. When we promote someone who is doing a good job in one area to a higher position we could create a situation in which he or she rises to a level of incompetence. In our case when ANC cadres are given positions for their loyalty and dedication to their party they are almost invariably set up for failure. So is it fair to blame Zuma for his incompetence or should we blame ourselves for expecting too much from him?

The Peter Principle explains why life could be so maddening—and why everyone around us seems, or is doomed to become, incompetent. It can be argued that in our case the people who ran Home Affairs and other government parastatals  don’t  intend to do such lousy work. They are simply victims of Dr. Peter’s immutable principle. They had been promoted inevitably, maddeningly, absurdly to their “level of incompetence. Dr. Peter also alerts us not to expect the few competent bureaucrats and managers that we may encounter to stick around for long, as they would soon be promoted to a job that they were unable to perform properly. In his analysis of his principle Peters describes behaviours of wastefulness, corruption, ignorance and indolence where “no estimate could be trusted, no contract adhered to, and no check was enforced.” To these behaviours he delighted his readers with pseudo jargons such as Tabulatory Gigantism” (an obsession with having a bigger desk than other colleagues or the “Teeter-Totter Syndrome” (“a complete inability to make decisions”) or “Cachinatory Inertia” (“the habit of telling jokes instead of getting on with business”) And we know how true this is in the case of our laughing President!

“Incompetence,” he argued, “knows no barrier of time or place.” Dr. Peter observed that one reason so many employees are incompetent is that the skills required to get a job often have nothing to do with what is required do the job itself. For example the skills required to run a great political campaign may have little to do with the skills required to govern.  Of relevance to us presently is the levelling or ‘dumbing down’ effect found in most hierarchies where super-competence is more objectionable than incompetence. Ironically extremely skilled and productive employees often face criticism, and are fired if they don’t start towing the line and performing worse. Their presence disrupts and therefore violates the first commandment of organizational life: the hierarchy must be preserved. These observations remain true for us in the new SA as they may have been in the late 60s because human society regardless of race or colour is essentially predictable under certain circumstances. In the light of these findings are we still surprised at our Presidents folly?


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