The Sunday Times published a very good front page editorial, entitled “You are the government now. Start acting that way” It was a fairly good, reasonable, concise missive directed to the ANC leadership. Agreeing with the decision to remove Thabo Mbeki as president, and setting aside their reservations about Jacob Zuma, the paper asks the ruling party to rise to this historic occasion, and govern.

They got [at least] one thing wrong.

The ANC should not rule. No party should.

Govern yes. Lead yes. But rule?

We must change our way of thinking about political leadership. We do not need a ruling party. We do not need rulers. We need public servants.

There is an important difference between these two paradigms of leadership. The public servant is elected by the people to serve the interests of the nation. The public servant is animated by the desire to serve the people. They serve at the pleasure of the public, a principle reinforced not only by elections every 5 years, but constantly throughout. They are accountable to the people, and while they are expected to use their judgment and intellect to make decisions on behalf of the people as their duly elected representative, they are at all times to take into consideration the will, concerns, wellbeing, and opinions of the public into account, and be responsive to these.

A ruler is all powerful. They serve at their own pleasure, and are accountable only to themselves. A ruler need not necessarily be a despot. A ruler can be undemocratic, while doing good things. But a ruler will always, on balance, be regressive. As the famous, though insufficiently heeded, quote goes: ‘Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

It is my opinion that in South Africa, by and large, we have rulers, not leaders, and certainly not public servants.

Take for example, the two examples of presidential leadership we have known. It has been said that Mandela was a saint, and Mbeki was a philosopher-king. Perhaps the more important difference, was that Mandela was a public servant, and Mbeki was a ruler.

Nelson Mandela, by all accounts, did not see himself as a ruler. From what I can tell, he saw himself as someone who had been elevated by the people to lead and serve.

Thabo Mbeki, seemed to rule from a perspective of, ‘I rule, because I alone, know what is best.’

I know I am being presumptuous by saying this, but that is how I perceived him as a leader.

Any man who aspires to lead a nation, must have a degree of belief in their own intellect, judgment and ability, which would have to be described as extraordinary. So this is not about being an egotist. It is likely that all aspirants to high office could be described as egotists to some degree.

What is most important is that the leader, and party, in a position of power see themselves as public servants, custodians, entrusted by the people with public offices and resources to govern on their behalf, and serve the people, not rule them.

We South Africans think we are special, exceptional. We believe we are not like the rest of Africa. We are better than them. We will not deteriorate into military coups, one party states, and dictatorships. Or so we believe.

Do you really think our brothers and sisters in these countries planned it that way?

We have seen two successive terms of an autocratic presidency which stifled debate.

We have seen corruption become commonplace.

We have seen politics as industry, where being politically connected is a sure route to money and influence, sought-after jobs and contracts.

We have become jaded about the concept of meritocracy. We now accept that who you know is more important than your ability.

It is a slippery slope to the Nigeria’s, the Italy’s of the world. To being a place where things work, but only barely. Where PHD’s would rather drive cabs in other countries than be back home because they have accepted that merit no longer has anything to do with achievement in their own country. Where corruption is a fact of everyday life.

It does not have to be this way. But, we are not owed anything. Nowhere is it written that South Africa must be a prosperous, dynamic, thriving democracy, a place where human potential is valued, empowered and fulfilled. We must make it so. We must do the work to fulfill our potential, no one will do it for us.

Modern African history is filled with stories of illustrious leaders- and parties- that came to power with the hopes of a nation, but squandered that historic responsibility, after beginning to think and act like rulers accountable only to themselves. Kwame Nrumah. Sekou Toure. Robert Mugabe. Great men, who became rulers rather than servants.

What will become of us? Will our party of liberation break out of this tragic pattern, which has played itself out all over Africa?

Will you leave it all up to a ‘ruling party’? Or will you demand leaders who serve?

We get the leaders we deserve.