Former chief justice Arthur Chaskalson. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Former chief justice Arthur Chaskalson. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

THE country has recently lost some of its most imaginative leaders who each made an immense contribution to the establishment of the new South Africa. Not only did they fight tirelessly against the apartheid order, but they also remained fearless in advancing the principles of justice and constitutionalism when the ANC started to veer off track.

I think of Neville Alexander in education; Jakes Gerwel in higher education, one of the intellectuals of the Mandela era; and Arthur Chaskalson, who played a constitutive role to establish our constitutional democracy.

These three leaders were all part of the struggle, but they got something right that very few liberation leaders can: they remained true to their moral vision and principles and could make the transition from struggle leaders to leaders in the rather different context of a democracy.

In her most recent book, Conversations with my Sons and Daughters, Mamphela Ramphele discusses this difficult transition from being in the liberation movement to leading a "normal" democracy. I interpret some of her ideas quite freely:

A liberation movement draws the very reason for its existence and its energy from the fact that it has a clear enemy and believes it holds the moral high ground. The nature of the struggle requires unity at all cost and a guiding philosophy that you either stand for the struggle or you are an enemy of the struggle. The dividing lines between "us" and "them" must be drawn sharply. There must be no confusion over who is who.

If the enemy disappears and liberation leaders enter a normal democracy, they have to find new enemies. Their very self-understanding has been shaped for years around the theme of "being against" some people. They quickly find a new "them": white people who are untransformed; past colonial powers who still determine global relations; rich people who should not earn millions; capitalism that always exploits the workers; or foreigners who engage in crime or steal our jobs.

Stuck in this paradigm, a consensus-seeking unity is difficult to realise. After Mandela, the idea of the rainbow nation disappeared as former president Thabo Mbeki kept talking of "two worlds" and of an Africa that stands against the rest who try to discredit us with HIV/AIDS.

Then followed President Jacob Zuma, who deep down does not like a constitutional democracy with its freedom of expression, its rule of law and its correction of deeply held African cultural beliefs that stem from the chiefdoms in the 19th century.

This is the same reason why the ANC struggles to handle true political diversity. In a struggle, there is not much room or time for differences. Differences only weaken the struggle, as there is little respect for political competition versus the old hegemony that shaped the struggle for decades.

The fiasco around elective conferences tells us the story loud and clear. The almost secretive lobbying for leadership is another sign that open competition is not actually accepted. The unwillingness to allow MPs to vote according to their conscience is another symptom of the same illness of intolerance; and the vilifying of those who dare to step outside the party line reminds one of the iron discipline "to fight them".

The other perennial problem is for liberation movements to understand that the loyalty to struggle comrades must not undermine the meritocracy required to run a country. A director-general of science and technology, for example, must not be appointed according to struggle credentials, but in line with proven technical competency.

The same applies to municipal managers who run complex metropolitan budgets and governance systems. It is a disaster for both the individual who is set up for failure (but still walks away with millions in a severance package) and for the inhabitants who slowly see how things crumble right before their eyes.

The other matter that liberation leaders struggle with in a democracy is the rule of law. Because they held the moral high-ground for so many years, there is an entitlement that they, "the good ones", are above the law. Ramphele calls this "equality before the law versus protection of comrades".

We have seen this so often over the past decade: from corrupt friends of the president; those who benefited from the arms deal, to police chiefs and heads of the National Prosecuting Authority. When it comes to the president, it is very clear that, unless forced by a court of law, he would lie low and claim innocence for himself or for his comrades, family and friends. Action without being compelled is out of the question. "We do not stand on a fallen comrade," they say in true ubuntu spirit.

So let us pause and be deeply thankful for leaders who could indeed make the transition to a new South Africa because, for the next five years, we will have to be vigilant in protecting our freedoms and our constitution.

• Naudé is the former head of the business school and currently deputy vice-chancellor: academic at the Nelson Mandela Metro University in Port Elizabeth. He writes in his personal capacity. This article is to inform and educate, not to advise.