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A South African justice’s decision models principled leadership for the long term, says Brunswick’s Itumeleng Mahabane.

Much is said about responsible, principled leadership in our world. Yet examples are rare—a natural reluctance given that principled leadership sometimes requires decisions that prove costly in the short term, notwithstanding their necessity in terms of long-term value.

Our short-term culture exerts a constant pressure, making values-based leadership harder. Yet, in an increasingly complex world where the social and the commercial spheres collide, principled leadership matters.

This conflict need not be seen as a trade-off. In many cases, principled decisions are recognized and applauded, bringing the leader respect far greater than any short-term discomfort.

On a cold winter morning, June 29, 2021, Sisi Khampepe, South Africa’s acting Deputy Chief Justice, ordered South Africa’s former president Jacob Zuma to turn himself in to serve a 15-month sentence for contempt of court. She gave him 48 hours. Failing that, she ordered the Minister of Police and the national police commissioner to arrest him within three days.

She knew that what she was doing could provoke strong reactions. It was an exercise of the maxim, “let justice be done though the heavens fall.”

Less than 10 days following that judgment, a range of actors unleashed urban chaos in Johannesburg, Durban and Pietermaritzburg, three of South Africa’s largest metropolitan areas. Debates continue as to whether the riots were organic uprisings or a coordinated insurgency by the former president’s loyalists. The orgy of destruction overwhelmed an underwhelming police force, leading citizens to take “order” into their own hands. More than 300 people died, supply chains from fuel to medicines were thoroughly disrupted. President Cyril Ramaphosa mobilized the largest domestic deployment of troops since the end of apartheid.

Yet, while society and legal minds were divided about the sentencing, no one blamed Justice Khampepe for the fallout—the opposite, in fact: She is celebrated. The judgment is seen as one that will likely serve as an important precedent, potentially changing the way the country regards the Constitutional Court.

Her clarity of purpose seems to demand the rest of society step up where leadership is concerned. The judgment was crucial in signaling the importance of a rules-based Constitutional democracy. While it has come with the short-term costs of disorder and lawlessness, it is likely to prove critical to the country’s long-term resilience.

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Itumeleng Mahabane is a Brunswick Partner based in Johannesburg.

Illustration: James Yang

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