Posted by: Andries Louw | 7 November 2008

South Africa’s leadership crisis

daily-sun-6nov083Where is OUR Obama? is the question on the front page of yesterday’s (6 Nov) Daily Sun, South Africa’s biggest daily newspaper according to its publisher, Media 24. Here is the full article:

Barack Obama is black, he’s got a good-looking family, he’s full of promise and ambition. But the REALLY important thing – the thing that will travel around the world – is that he’s an ALL NEW kind of politician.

  • He’s a man of the 21st Century.
  • He seems to have shrugged off America’s racist roots.
  • He’s a man who is not tied to past evils with leg irons…
  • He’s a man who looks forward.
  • He seems to be a real reconciliator. That’s a huge achievement for a black man in a country which was built on the sweat of African slaves.

Something similar would be a huge achievement here too – a country which is still struggling to rise above the inherited evils of apartheid. But if they can do it in America… we can do it here. So where’s OUR Barack Obama? When will he – or she – step forward? The whole country’s waiting…

This article is all the more significant because it is on the front page of the newspaper whose readership is predominantly black working class citizens of Africa’s largest economy. It brings the leadership crisis we are currently facing in South Africa sharply into focus. With our next general election only a few months away, our ruling party, the ANC having sacked president Thabo Mbeki less than 2 months ago and a new breakaway party in the process of being formed, this country is desparately in need of quality leadership.

My wife tells me that Kieno Kammies, late night presenter of 702, South Africa’s best known talk radio station asked the same question last night: Where is our Obama because he / she is certainly not in politics.

Max du Preez, seasoned journalist and liberal political commentator wrote in his column in yesterday’s Star SA needs an Obama – even a McCain would do. He then carries on to explain why our options for possible political leaders are so limited. If the Daily Sun says that we are looking for our Obama and Max du Preez is prepared to settle for a republican American candidate you know that we are really like sheep searching for a shepherd!

A relative and I have been discussing the issue of leadership in the church via email over the weekend. Then I discovered yesterday that a group of bloggers are participating in a synchroblog on leadership. At the end of this post are a few links to some of these blogs.

Essentially my cousin and I were debating whether we can’t do away with the term leadership in favour of for example discipleship because so many Christian leaders are using their positions of authority to manipulate and hurt people. I argued that we cannot throw away the term leadership simply because some people are abusing it. Rather we should rediscover what true leadership means and attach the meaning to it that Jesus did when He said in Mark 10:42-45 (NIV quoted from in response to a leadership struggle among His disciples:

42Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

This passage is also quoted in a few other posts mentioned below. My conclusion was that every Christian is called to be a disciple but not everyone has to be a leader. One of the reasons is that leadership is a gift. Not everybody has the same gifts. See for example Romans 12:6-8:

6We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his[a]faith. 7If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; 8if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.

I believe one of the most important contributions to this conversation about leadership in the body of Christ is the post by Joe Miller, Elders Lead a Healthy Family: The Future. This is firstly because he emphasises the biblical concept of collective leadership as opposed to the senior pastor model which places an unhealthy burden on certain individuals to perform as the public face of the church. Secondly he illustrates the point by relating the story of a leadership crisis experienced in a real church.

Back to our leadership crisis in South Africa: What if our next president doesn’t turn out to be the leader we need him / her to be? Will that paralyse the church because we are not getting great leadership from our politicians? Or will it bring the best out in us because in times of crisis there is an even greater need for the church to lead boldly and courageously, collectively as the body of Christ?

My cousin challenged me to fundamentally re-evaluate my thinking about the church when he suggested that maybe we should substitute the term leadership for something like discipleship. Although I didn’t agree with that as already stated above, there is also a lot of truth in that suggestion.

The only way for the church to provide hope-bearing leadership to society, is every member being a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. If the followers who have the gift of leadership are taking up their responsibility to lead collectively, people will once again see Jesus walking our streets, healing the sick, touching the poor, embracing the outcasts, pushing the darkness away so that God’s kingdom of light can take root in our soil.

Some other posts in this synchroblog on leadership:



  1. I was really interested in reading your thoughts from a South African perspective. Good leadership is one of those universal cultural needs. Great post.

  2. Nicely said. I spent a great deal of time in my Master’s program on leadership studying the TRC and I would say South Africa is leading the world in some ways towards reconciliation. Hopefully you will find your Obama.

    I think your observations of him moving past the injustice of the past is huge.

  3. We had our Obama… no, we had more: Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (a.k.a. Madiba)!

    In the weeks running up to the American Election some have said that maybe Obama can grow to become the type of leader Mandela was. So maybe the question we need to ask is how do we make the legacy of Mandela part of our culture, of our identity…

  4. Hi John and Jonathan! Pleased to meet you and thanks for commenting on my blog.

    John, good point about the universal need for good leaderhsip.

    Jonathan, mentioning the TRC you are touching on such a pivotal issue and one that is very close to my heart. My missiology professor in the early nineties was Piet Meiring, the only white Afrikaans member of the TRC.

    Maybe you know about the following incident but other readers might also find it inspiring. Here Piet Meiring relates one of the good news stories of the commission:

    Although I was not a policeman or a soldier and although I never regarded myself a racist I still felt a heavy sense of guilt because it was my people who created apartheid and my church that sanctioned it theologically.

    One of the most liberating moments for me was when I attended a week-end seminar by Mercy Ministries called Healing the wounds of ethnic division

    There I had the opportunity to stand before a number of black Christians confessing the sins of my forefathers and confessing that I had done nothing to speak out against the injustices of apartheid. I could also wash their feet and ask them for forgiveness.

    It was one of the most emotional experiences in my life and also one of the most liberating moments. I will never forget the way that old man was weeping when he embraced me and forgave me.

    Cobus, I think the experience I described above is perhaps one example of the type of things we can do make Madiba’s legacy part of our culture and our identity. Of course we need more than that but this is a good place to start.

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