THE BIG READ: Let's learn from Brazil
'The biggest legacy of my presidency is not the programmes that took 30million Brazilians out of absolute poverty and created 15million jobs. It is the accountability of the public institutions and the real partnership with business, labour and civil society that brought hope to the people. We put the needs of the people first, not ours."
This was the fundamental point that former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva made when we met this week. It was a meeting that will be difficult to forget.
"I was not the president. The people were the president. The foundation of the 'Brazilian Miracle' is not mine. It is that of the people. If I failed my people who elected me, it would be the people failing, and the poor would be proving their critics right that we did not have what it takes to rule," he said.
The challenges of his first term were tremendous. Faced with hyper-inflation, an unfriendly bureaucracy and a suspicious military, the Lula administration faced difficult choices. The Workers' Party, led by Lula, represented only 17% of the members of a fragmented and chaotic congress dominated by powerful vested interests that would more often than not oppose his policies.
He recognised the need to stabilise the macroeconomic environment through pragmatic policies that established stability. But he did that through a transparent dialogue, even with his fiercest critics.
Lula is the antithesis of the "big man" syndrome of political arrogance that dominates so many governments. He criss-crossed the country; engaged the landless movements, trade unions, civil society and social movements.
His first term was defined by the launch of the "Zero Hunger" campaign, with a commitment that every Brazilian family should have a meal three times a day.
The Zero Hunger programme covers more than 12million families, a quarter of Brazil's population of 190million; it provides conditional direct cash transfers to reduce short-term poverty and places an obligation on parents to ensure that their children are in school and vaccinated. Breaking the inter-generational cycle of poverty was the hallmark of the Lula presidency.
But the long-term goal was to improve the human capital. Lula is convinced that the right to quality education and social inclusion are the most important tools for building a globally competitive economy for any country. He prides himself on creating the most universities and technical schools.
"By tackling poverty, improving skills and investing in education, the government was critical in accelerating the rise of the poorest to decent jobs and to the middle class."
One of his first actions as president was to set up the presidential advisory body Consea, in which civilians were integrated into the design and implementation of the Zero Hunger programme. It allowed non-state activists to influence government policy.
Special credit lines to small farmers, who account for 70% of food production, grew an entire industry around tractors for small farmers, and facilitated their access to seed, finance, water, land and fertiliser.
Consea lobbied Congress to pass a bill obliging local governments to buy at least 30% of the family farmers' produce and linked them to the government's schools feeding programmes, thereby boosting family farmers' income and giving them vital access to markets. The immediate effect was the improvement in health, education and nutrition of their children.
The trade unions negotiated a special programme with state banks of responsible borrowing against pay cheques, which cut out unscrupulous money lenders and avoided a debt trap for millions of workers. For the first time, countless Brazilians saw hope and opportunity materialise, and consumption grew in the economy as lifestyles improved. A staggering 50million people moved up into the ranks of the middle class.
The current president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, replaced the previous head in 2006. She unified social programmes, instituted management systems and centralised monitoring, planning and accountability.
Lula's second term was defined by the Growth Acceleration Programme, a project of more than $350-billion which aims to remove barriers to growth and drive infrastructure development.
The leading roles of the Brazilian National Development Bank and other parastatals were critical in taking the risks that drove an industrial and infrastructure strategy that opened up new sectors and crowded in private capital. In 2011, the national development bank disbursed close to $100-billion.
And what happened when Lula left? In office for two years, Rousseff has taken a tough line, firing seven ministers for corruption, misuse of funds and influence peddling. She has exceeded Lula in popularity.
As the political temperature rises at home as we approach Mangaung and the next general election, I hope Rousseff's no-nonsense approach to governance will be instructive for those wanting to learn from the "Lula Moment".
Lula is not a saint. There are legitimate criticisms of his failure to implement a more radical agrarian-reform programme and for not being tougher on corruption.
But as I listen to the instructive voices from Brazil, I understand what it takes to be a servant leader. Such a leader unifies a hurting nation, listens to the desperate voices of the marginalised, and lowers toxicity in public debate while maintaining the robustness of public discourse. It is a return to the spirit of service, reconstruction and development that inspired our nation at birth, guided by our oath to deliver a better life to all our people.
And the servant leader in South Africa could push for our own Lula Moment. The steps are not so difficult to formulate: we need to make transparency our starting point and priority, then make a social contract to establish trust between business, government and unions. Only then will the forgotten sense hope. And only then will we bring the best and brightest among us to serve this hurting nation and pull it out of the morass that is South African reality today. When do we start?
- This article was first published by the Daily Maverick: www.dailymaverick.co.za