By Themba Mkhize
Time and again, for my own purposes, I have re-examined what it means to be a leader.
In an August 24 address to the nation, Prime Minister, the Most Honourable Andrew Holness, briefly digressed from the topic of COVID-19 restrictions to explore the broader role of government leadership in Jamaica. In essence, he framed it as a sustainable system of plans and strategic action which fortify the nation, making it resilient to all forms of shock.
Quality leadership, then, must reproduce a vanguard of model Jamaican citizens from which our youth can choose role models with integrity, must inspire citizens to take constructive action in their communities, must have a presence which is responsive to the needs of all levels of our society, especially the most marginalized, and, must inform the nation constructively – and not divisively – even in hard times.
In other words, the brand of leadership that Jamaica needs is very different from the brand we have grown used to, but it is not impossible for us to change this. I am convinced that some of the challenges faced in Jamaica may be better addressed if our leaders were more willing to call a spade and spade, and reprimand some of their own supporters strongly when it is called for.
As we are in the electoral season, the festivities of local politics have been ramming against the railings put up in response to COVID-19. As interviews from Factions vox pop series “Jamaica Says” showed, the tradition of normalizing misguided reasoning masked in the excitement of tribal politics lives on, though hopefully not for much longer. Some of the interviewed supporters from both parties were brave enough to publicly suggest that the pandemic was a relatively minor issue – considering that elections were around the corner – and that they had little regard for the protocols put in place to minimize social interactions and disrupt the spread of COVID-19.
Historically, there have been instances where politicians have fanned such flames, encouraging polarization, or left harmful, incendiary dialogues to run their course because it was convenient, when the principled stance to take would have been to denounce such action. This time around, the policies implemented by the government and those suggested by the opposition are not so extremely different, nor as volatile, but on both sides, there has not been strong enough reprimand for campaign violations thus far.
From forming large gatherings, to campaigning without masks, to disregarding social distancing guidelines, the excitement of campaigners over the past weeks was predicated on both faulty logic and loose enforcement. Though restrictions on physical campaigning are now tighter, the underlying issue of poor independent decision making remains.
Our leaders have a role to play in this respect. Leaders must guide the wayward among us, including their own supporters. Those of us who are misguided in our thinking must be cajoled towards more constructive engagement with all citizens, and all should show more respect for government policies, or face reprimand. If we cannot look at the others among us whom we love, respect and want to build the future of Jamaica with, and tell them when they are wrong, then there is little hope for a speedy transition out of tribal politics.
Leaders must no longer depend on the ignorance of their supporters, the unthinking tribalism and the apathy of the disgruntled, but instead encourage their supporters to be more critical. It is not enough for leaders to win favour at the polls; the most important element of leadership is construction of better lived realities for all.
Leaders first need to have the credibility to advise others, though. As they navigate the back offices and front lines of community development, interacting with the plagues of subversive and perverse sub-cultural elements, their opinions and behaviours are teaching Jamaicans how to behave. Their silence is not unlike the silence of witnesses who never come forward when a crime has been committed. And each time an official betrays the oath they take to uphold our ideals and advance Jamaica, each time they take a high-handed approach which undermines their accountability to the nation, they have taught Jamaicans that Jamaica is a place where anything goes.
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