The Ukrainian leader is ready to sacrifice his life for his country, but our political vultures think only of themselves
Until recently, Volodymyr Zelenskyy was a minor politician from Eastern Europe known mainly for being caught in the middle of a US scandal in which then president Donald Trump pressured the poor man to find dirt on his electoral opponent, Joe Biden. Biden and his son once had business dealings in Ukraine and Trump withheld nearly $400m (now about R6.2bn) in military aid to get the non-existent dirt out of Zelenskyy. For his efforts, Trump was impeached by the US Congress.
People inside Ukraine knew the 44-year-old as a comedian who appeared in the televised finals of an oddly named programme called Club of the Funny and Inventive People. Well, nobody’s laughing now because in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine emerged a world leader who has won the respect and admiration of people across the planet.
As always, a crisis reveals a leader. In this case it manifested Zelenskyy as a man of incredible courage and commitment, and Russian President Vladimir Putin as a ruthless, mendacious autocrat who might well discover the futility of imperial overreach in the 21st century.
What makes the Ukrainian president such an admired leader worldwide is the contrast with feckless leaders on the world stage, including our own president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who the Sunday Times reported was upset with one of his departments for urging the withdrawal of Russia from Ukraine.
What is it about Zelenskyy’s leadership that could teach South African political leaders a lesson or two? To begin with, he stands with his people in a crisis. As the Russians marched towards the capital Kyiv, the Americans offered the Ukrainian leader an airlift out of his troubles. His response was one for the record books: “I am here. I need ammunition, not a ride.” Using his social media account to optimal effect, Zelenskyy regularly posted pictures of himself in army fatigues, surrounded by fighting soldiers and encouraging his people to stand strong in the face of Russian aggression. Where was our leader in the July 2021 riots? On the ground? Communicating with us? Strengthening our resolve? Nowhere to be seen.
Missing from finance minister Enoch Godongwana’s budget speech was a column of provisions for corruption; at least it would have been an honest budget.
Slowly, more and more images of a selfless leader emerged. One of my favourites, from his inaugural address in 2019, is this: “I really do not want my pictures on your walls for the president is not an icon, an idol or a portrait. Hang your kids’ photos instead and look at them each time you are making a decision.” Next time you walk into a South African government department or some rural schools and see those huge, overbearing photos of the president and the premier, and any number of local wannabes, think about Zelenskyy’s view of leadership: it is not about me. He does not need a humungous photo to impress his authority on the people of Ukraine; he simply needs to serve them.
Which is the third lesson: sacrificial leadership. This is what real leaders do. They sacrifice their own lives and those they love for a cause greater than themselves. As I stared at a beautiful photo posted of Zelenskyy, his wife and two young children, I realised that this man and his family would probably go down together for the sake of their country. Lesser politicians would at the very least have airlifted their families to safety and hid themselves in a bunker. He surely must know Putin’s murderous plans: take out the head and impose another pro-Russian puppet president. Yet Zelenskyy and his wife must have pondered that outcome and decided to stay put. There is a principle at stake here and that is sacrificial leadership.
What a contrast with Mzansi. We have exactly the opposite: “our time to eat” leadership, where every movement of state monies is fair game among the political vultures lined up along the way. Missing from finance minister Enoch Godongwana’s budget speech was a column of provisions for corruption; at least it would have been an honest budget. Putting your life on the line for the people you serve is the last thing on the minds of our venal leaders. They should hang their heads in shame when watching Zelenskyy.
Instead, what do ours do? They had a fellowship with the Russians at their consulate in Cape Town this week to celebrate 30 years of ties. In the middle of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
I lie to you not.
Jonathan Jansen is an internationally renowned expert in education, who in 2009 became the first black rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State. He is a regular newspaper contributor, known for his views on transformation, peaceful reconciliation and unity.