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It's not about Portia

BY GRACE VIRTUE

Wednesday, November 07, 2012    

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IN a scene from Invictus, the acclaimed Nelson Mandela biopic, the new South African president is nonplussed by his daughter's abrupt cancellation of a visit.

She showed up later and lashed out at his approach to governance of the state that had held him prisoner for 27 years. She was especially angry that he was reaching out to the captain of the rugby team - a powerful vestige of the oppressive apartheid regime. The captain reminded her of one of the policemen who drove the family from their home, she said; she could not bear the symbolism of her father shaking his hand. "You are being very selfish," Mandela responded, his tone measured. "This is not about you; it is about a whole country."

Mandela recognised a profound truth that eludes most of our politicians - that transformational leadership cannot be about the narrow agenda of any one individual. For him, the struggle was about black South Africans first, denied their basic freedoms under a system of racial segregation conceived in the minds of fools. After that, it was about all of South Africa - a vast ethnically and culturally diverse country. In the United States, Martin Luther King's struggle was about blacks and other minorities, also subjugated because of race, but it was also about forcing America to live up to its promise: "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men (people) are created equal." In Jamaica, the struggle for people like Marcus Garvey was for social justice for the majority and the upliftment of people of African descent everywhere. In India, Gandhi's struggle was for the freedom and dignity of every citizen, and by extension, colonised people all over the world.

We venerate these leaders today for the impact they have had on millions of people. All were deeply invested in their causes; all made extraordinary sacrifices. Mandela spent more than a quarter century in prison. King and Gandhi were assassinated, and Garvey suffered ridicule and rejection in his own country and imprisonment abroad. In like manner, leading Jamaica to a better place requires sacrifices - the suspension of egos and personal agendas, perhaps the most important of all - and nothing compared to what Mandela had to endure, for example.

Transformational leadership cannot be about Portia, Peter Phillips, Peter Bunting, Andrew Holness, Audley Shaw or any other individual who, overtly or covertly, might want to be the next leader of the PNP or the JLP for no other reason than that they want to, or feel entitled. It cannot be about the next stop on anyone's résumé or anyone's overwhelming need to access the spoils of power, from which they can fatten themselves, their wives, mistresses, and every member of the old boys' club.

Leadership must be about every citizen for whom government has a responsibility to ensure the basic pillars of a civilised society so they can live in dignity, freedom and safety. It must be about those who live in conditions of extreme vulnerability - women, children, little rural girls - one in five of whom will be sexually assaulted by age 15. It must be about the elderly, the disabled, the destitute and the working poor.

It must be about correcting ineffective state apparatuses which stymie economic growth and too often render life frustrating and unpleasant. It must be about demonstrable understanding of the challenges of the day, nationally and internationally, and the capacity to manage them in a way that will benefit the people.

Michael Manley, former maximum leader of the People's National Party and prime minister of Jamaica from 1972 to 1980 and 1989 to 1992, gave us a reasonable framework to analyse power and its use.

All organised societies depend on a power system, he said, and politics is the business of power, its acquisition and its use. According to Manley, there are three primary approaches to power: (1) those (majority) who want to acquire it for its own sake; (2) those who want it in order to make minor adjustments to society; and (3) those who want it in order to make fundamental changes in the society.

So, where does Portia fall?

Let' see.

If she merely wants power for its own sake, she will be content to have shattered the glass ceiling to become the first woman prime minister of Jamaica. She will happily cut ribbons, kiss babies, give perfunctory speeches, sign a piece of legislation now and then, and generally go through the motions until she retires or is voted out. If she is interested in making minor adjustments, she will launch JEEP, move around a few personnel in the public sector, increase the housing stock, and mandate some improvement to some of the country's infrastructure or things like that.

If she is interested in fundamental changes, she will recognise that the design of government is fundamentally flawed and she will take the steps to make it efficient and responsive to the needs of the people and the times. She will lead a review of the entire range of public policy issues and effectively manage our transition from a society where policies matter minimally, to one where good policymaking and implementation are critical tools of governance. She will strengthen the office of the contractor general, for example, and establish a zero-tolerance policy for corruption in the public sector. She will mandate cost-effective management of her ministries and establish clear benchmarks for ministers relevant to their portfolios and development goals/needs. She will identify and articulate a path, where, rather than being dependent on the International Monetary Fund for payday loans, we will produce and trade our way to prosperity. Most important, she will advocate a society where all life is valued and the dignity of the individual is paramount. This will be the guiding principle undergirding all our activities.

There will always be much to admire about our current prime minister's personal accomplishments. However, the needs of the country go beyond that and it is imperative that we all make these distinctions.

Otherwise, hopes for progress and talks about growth and change will remain nothing but crapshoot - now and for the foreseeable future.

Grace Virtue, PhD, is a public affairs specialist, social justice advocate and independent scholar based in Washington, DC.

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