(In)equality, politics and leadership: a tale of two headlines

The two ‘headlines’…

Listening to the early morning news on Friday 6th December highlighted a series of telling comparisons and contradictions.  Two particular ‘headlines’ dominated the coverage of the previous day’s events.  First was the passing of Nelson Mandela.  Second was coverage of the previous day in the UK parliament where George Osborne had presented his ‘Autumn Statement’.

The former story was one of exceptional personal sacrifice in pursuit of a heroic political project by an inspirational leader.  That inspirational leadership was clearly demonstrable in the media coverage of Mandela on Friday morning and throughout the weekend as the range of public figures, politicians and world leaders queued up to pay their respects, and now to attend his funeral.  The latter story was of the claims and counter-claims made about the success or otherwise of the Coalition’s signature theme of deficit reduction through austerity.  At least three notable comparisons jumped out.


Ofcourse, Nelson Mandela is characteristic of a symbolic struggle against apartheid inequality, of race in particular.  But Mandela saw racial inequality as one aspect of a broader inequality.  As he explained to a crowd in Trafalgar Square, London in 2005 as part of the ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign: “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings”.  In the famous ANC Freedom Charter of 1955 Mandela and others had clearly made the link between formal political equality and economic equality, stating the objective, as it did, for land and resource distribution and collectivisation.  Immediately on his release Mandela confirmed his support for the Charter.  For Mandela then, at least in principle, equality was the objective and formal political and racial equality were only one part of that.

The actual performance of the ANC in power, including under Mandela, has been less impressive than this rhetoric.  As Patrick Bond recounts in an interview this weekend, economic inequality in South Africa has risen markedly as big business has been protected and the concerns of the poor for access to basic services and living standards have been ignored.

The coverage of Osborne’s Autumn Statement, was also ostensibly about the symbolic importance at two levels.  First, the Statement was met with a debate about the significance of the ‘return to growth’.  Osborne claimed that the Office for Budget Responsibility’s figures symbolically showed that his policy of austerity was delivering dividends, while the opposition argued that the measured growth is feeble, unstable and comes at the cost of living standards.  The whole austerity agenda though is also symbolic. It offers a vision of the future which has been picked up in opinion pieces over the weekend.  These have focussed on the line in the OBR report that suggests that by 2018/19 the UK state will have shrunk, in terms of its slice of GDP, to the same level as in 1948.  It is symbolic then in that it represents a particular trend in global political economy to use the prolonged economic crisis to significantly reduce the state, altering the terms of social struggle decisively against the majority of the population.  Representative of this retrenchment, was the promise in the Autumn Statement to cap welfare spending at a notional limit for all future budgets.  This in the face of evidence of rising poverty, even among those in work.

Both these headline stories provoked the reflection then that the political moment is dominated by a symbolic commitment to formal equality while just as symbolically ensuring that economic inequality not only stays in place but widens.  As Bond reflects on post-Apartheid South Africa, the institutions of global capital, and global capital itself, were quick to act to ensure that the country could not unify the ending of apartheid with the potentially equally symbolic politics of economic equality in the country. The Coalition government here is keen to ensure the symbolic institutionalisation of austerity – the ‘permanent austerity’ promised by David Cameron in his Lord Mayors Banquet speech only a couple of weeks previously. 

George Osborne on budget day. Representative of an out of touch leadership? Image courtesy of The Prime Minister’s Office: http://www.flickr.com/photos/number10gov/4724397422/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Lest anyone misunderstand however, symbolic as the treatment of inequality in both cases may be, both these political projects – in post-Apartheid SA and in contemporary Britain – have real material motivations and consequences. The protection and advancement of material power at the top of the distribution is both the objective and outcome, and it comes at the cost of those at the bottom.

…politics and leadership…

My second reflection about these two stories was about the representation of politics and leadership.  The coverage of Mandela was representative of a politics of inspiration.  It recognised clearly the diversity and rescaling of political identities and claims. The anti-Apartheid movement had (eventually) been an international one and struggles against this injustice had been part of the reorientation of left politics in the west from monolithic class politics at home, to a much more fractured, complex and diverse set of universalist claims for human rights, democracy or against extreme poverty.  Put alongside that, the parochial and outdated conduct of politics as two middle aged white men debated their position by shouting at each other across dispatch boxes, while similarly middle aged and white men bayed, brayed and waved their order papers from their leather upholstered benches, seemed anachronistic and alienating.

Similarly, the two styles of leadership on offer also clashed.  Mandela: generous, humble inspirational and self-sacrificing.  Mandela of the colourful informal shirt and ‘of the people’.  Osborne crowing, self-satisfied and, given his own socio-economic position, potentially self-serving too.  The reason that the ‘plebgate’ affair, stories of kitchen suppers and the controversy over the links between senior figures at News International and the Tory party, have had such a long-run in the public and media limelight is precisely because they resonate with the idea that our leaders are out of touch.  Rather than ‘of the people’ our leaders appear at least to be ‘of the elite’.

Nelson Mandela on his release. Characteristic of Inspirational Leadership. Image courtesy of Marie Claire: http://www.marieclairvoyant.com/hot-topics/21-years-since-nelson-mandelas-release.

Mandela’s style of leadership was so influential because he was able to rise above his personal position, and bring into being a politics of unity behind radical change.  Just such a leadership is now needed once again to create a radical politics of unity to tackle rampant inequality within and between nations and also to find a way around crises of resource usage and environmental degradation.  This is recognised in protest movements in both the UK and South Africa, where, in their different ways, the leadership seem increasingly divorced from the interests of the people. 

Let’s hope that there is another Mandela on the horizon, but that this one can maintain the internal coherence of the project to further equality, rather than conceding economic inequality to secure political equality.


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