Hon­our Man­dela by show­ing more back­bone, Cyril, espe­cially when the Zulu king throws a tantrum

Sunday Times - - Opinion - BAR­NEY MTHOM­BOTHI

Nel­son Man­dela, had he lived, would be turn­ing 100 on Wed­nes­day and var­i­ous ac­tiv­i­ties have been ar­ranged to mark the oc­ca­sion. The hottest ticket in town is un­doubt­edly Barack Obama, who will de­liver the an­nual lec­ture in mem­ory of the great man on Tues­day. That will be the place to be seen, even for those with­out a po­lit­i­cal bone in their bod­ies. South Africa, even in its cur­rent tat­tered and di­lap­i­dated state, con­tin­ues to bask in Man­dela’s re­flected glory.

The ac­tiv­i­ties honour­ing Man­dela come im­me­di­ately af­ter Youth Month, which is ded­i­cated to the con­cerns and opin­ions of our young peo­ple. Adults, like the obe­di­ent par­ent in the new South Africa, tend to take a back seat; we are sup­posed to leave the stage to the young peo­ple to ex­press their hopes for the fu­ture, even their naivety and ig­no­rance. It’s of­ten said that the youth should have a big­ger say in how the coun­try is run, be­cause, af­ter all, the fu­ture be­longs to them. That’s not just a cop-out; it’s rank cow­ardice. But lack of courage seems to be the defin­ing fea­ture of our times.

The pre­vail­ing view that the youth should be the sole au­thors of our fu­ture — and ev­ery­body else should just shut up and lis­ten — co­in­cides with the cam­paign to al­most vil­ify Man­dela by peo­ple who were not even born when he walked out of prison. The fact that things have taken a turn for the worse is all be­cause of him, ap­par­ently. Peo­ple don’t seem to ac­cept the ar­gu­ment that Man­dela — and his com­rades — laid the foun­da­tion and that it is up to us to fin­ish the job of build­ing the house. No, the foun­da­tion was faulty, and that’s why the coun­try’s in a mess, goes the ar­gu­ment. It’s that sim­ple. For­get the in­com­pe­tence and cor­rup­tion that came af­ter Man­dela had left the stage. A man who gave his life to the strug­gle is now the vil­lain of the piece. And very few speak up against such twad­dle.

It’s in­cred­i­ble now to think that for the time he was in prison, hardly any­one in the world knew what he looked like. Pub­li­ca­tion of his pic­ture was banned, as was pub­li­ca­tion of his views. But the in­ter­na­tional cam­paign to re­lease him and his com­rades turned him into a cult fig­ure.

The big­gest con­cern for many of his fol­low­ers at the time was whether Man­dela, once re­leased, would be able to live up to the huge ex­pec­ta­tions. He did.

Now, as then, the coun­try seems to be fac­ing the same chal­lenges. Drums of war are be­ing beaten again. In April 1994, three weeks be­fore the first demo­cratic elec­tions, Man­dela met King Good­will Zwelithini, Man­go­suthu Buthelezi and the then-pres­i­dent FW de Klerk in Skukuza. The meet­ing, amid fight­ing be­tween the IFP and the ANC, was a last-ditch ef­fort to per­suade the IFP to take part in the elec­tions. Then, as now, Zwelithini threat­ened to se­cede. It was in re­al­ity Buthelezi’s words com­ing out of the king’s mouth.

“We here to­day pro­claim be­fore the world our free­dom and sovereignty and our un­wa­ver­ing will to de­fend it at all costs,” King Zwelithini told Man­dela. “Whether we end up as part of one fed­eral state or as a com­pletely au­ton­o­mous state will de­pend on what you and oth­ers in South Africa do to me and my peo­ple.”

Man­dela, who was not even pres­i­dent at the time, held firm. Eight days be­fore the polls, the IFP agreed to take part in them. The party has been in de­cline ever since.

Zwelithini is up to his old tricks again. A few days ago he threat­ened war and se­ces­sion should the gov­ern­ment take away his beloved In­gonyama Trust. And he’s had bet­ter luck this time. Hardly 48 hours af­ter is­su­ing the threats, the pres­i­dent of the coun­try had dropped ev­ery­thing to go and pla­cate the Zulu king. Zwelithini had ev­ery rea­son to be happy. He got what he wanted: the In­gonyama Trust is sacro­sanct.

I hope Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa did not crawl on his belly, as is the cus­tom, at his first sight­ing of the king, be­fore of­fer­ing his apolo­gies. But the cheer­ful readi­ness to heed Zwelithini’s out­bursts is con­cern­ing. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth. That’s not how our pres­i­dent should be­have or be treated; sum­moned like a lit­tle boy or a mes­sen­ger.

We might as well shred the con­sti­tu­tion, sack the gov­ern­ment and the ju­di­ciary and move all the trap­pings of power to Non­goma, Ulundi or wher­ever Zwelithini hap­pens to be in res­i­dence. The pres­i­dent seems to be at his beck and call. He is the coun­try’s ab­so­lute ruler, isn’t he? South Africa is a monar­chy.

It is out­ra­geous that the pres­i­dent should quiver at a re­buke by a tribal po­ten­tate. South Africa is not only a democ­racy; it’s a repub­lic, which means supreme power lies with the peo­ple and their elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives, not with a monarch.

Does Ramaphosa un­der­stand that as pres­i­dent he doesn’t rep­re­sent his own jacket or his party, but that he stands for the hon­our and the very essence of this na­tion? Now that Zwelithini is aware that threats work, he’ll do it again, know­ing Ramaphosa will come run­ning with a white flag. The pres­i­dent’s foes, in­side and out­side the party, have also taken note. And if he can’t stand up to a lo­cal chief, how can he be trusted to con­duct busi­ness with for­eign heads of state?

Ramaphosa has said he wants to run the coun­try the way Man­dela used to. Man­dela was not a weak­ling. He could be hum­ble and gra­cious, but he stood his ground and could be ruth­less when cir­cum­stances called for it.

Ramaphosa, when con­fronted by stiff chal­lenges, should ask him­self a sim­ple ques­tion: what would Man­dela do? Oth­er­wise in­de­ci­sion — kick­ing the can down the road — could well be his down­fall.

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