What delegates could look for in next president
Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a say in choosing who our next president will be?
If that were so, we could be having a vigorous national debate about the qualities we would like that woman or man to have and, come election time, we could measure the candidates against those requirements.
The reality is that the South African majority has delegated the responsibility of choosing our leader to about 3500 delegates who will attend the ANC's Mangaung conference in December.
By a rough calculation, each of those delegates, most of whom are in Midrand this week at the ANC's policy conference, will decide on behalf of about 14000 South Africans or 6850 registered voters.
It is true, as the ANC would argue, that those delegates are sent there by provinces as the democratically mandated representatives of regions and branches and that anyone could get involved by becoming an active member of one of those branches.
But politics at that level of intensity appeals to relatively few people. For many of them, it will be seen as a route to employment or economic empowerment by other means - and for some as an extramural passion, as soccer, gardening or service clubs are for others.
Regardless of how they get there, the vote will come down to those 3500 delegates in the end because their branch and provincial mandates are not binding.
They can be canvassed, persuaded or simply bought on the floor of the national conference.
It is not written in stone that the president of the ANC will become the next president of the country in 2014, but it might as well be.
Thabo Mbeki tried to break that link when he sought a third term as party leader while knowing the national constitution prevented him from serving a third term as head of state. Had he succeeded, the ANC would have had to present a candidate to parliament other than their party president.
For as long as one party holds a simple majority of the seats in parliament, that party has the right to impose its choice on the nation as their president.
That's the way it is in many parliamentary democracies and it is unlikely to change here in the foreseeable future.
So, whether those ANC delegates will vote in Mangaung for what they perceive to be the national good or for the improvement of their personal circumstances is not for the rest of us to say.
They will be swept up in the drama of the occasion, they will sing and dance on behalf of their preferred candidate and they will celebrate their victory or mourn their loss as though it was the World Cup.
But if we could tell them how we wanted them to vote, if we could say we want a leader like this or that, what mandate would we give?
William Buckley, founder of the conservative US National Review, once said: "The office of the presidency is so staggeringly complicated that nobody, nobody, can be a good president." But someone has to do it, so he or she had better be the best the nation has to offer.
Karl Rove, the political adviser responsible for some of George W Bush's best and worst moments, said: "A president who succeeds makes us feel that the nation can succeed." Think Nelson Mandela.
So, it is a difficult job, but critical to the wellbeing of a nation.
The People Management Association of the Philippines adapted business leadership qualities to distil five attributes of a good president ahead of the 2010 election.
The group said the leader should be a decisive and intelligent "navigator" who knows how to steer the country towards a just and humane society, a "mobiliser" who can build a national consensus; a "servant leader" who puts the public interest before vested interests; an "inspirational leader" who can work with communities and the press to inspire unity, trust and optimism; and a "guardian of the national wealth" who can make and defend unpopular decisions for the common good.
That's an adequate starting point. Hedley Donovan, editor-in-chief of Time magazine for 15 years and briefly a White House adviser, listed 31 attributes of a great president in an article in 1982.
"The presidential bedrock must be integrity, perceived and real. Integrity includes an honourable private life," he wrote.
"A president must offer the country vision, and he must animate his administration with purposes larger than the enjoyment of office," he said in a line that could have been written for South Africa circa 2012.
Donovan also writes about the complexity of the president's job, but insists he does need to take responsibility for every aspect of it.
"It is not enough to say a president can hire managers. As he delegates, he must know how to keep track of the delegated work, he must understand what his managers are managing," he said.
There is a mountain of academic work out there on the topic of good political leadership.
I would suggest, for now, that we could focus on the integrity to know and do what is right in every respect; the vision to imagine where this increasingly polarised country needs to go and how to get there; the intellect to analyse South Africa's challenges in a local and global context; the wisdom to make difficult personal, economic and social decisions and to stick to them; the courage to believe in something and stand up for it; and the empathy to understand on some level the struggles of ordinary lives and to care about them.
The rhetoric we hear along the road to Mangaung will tick all these boxes. We can only hope that some of it will be real.