When MPs treat par­lia­ment as a she­been, Cyril must re­mind them where they are — and lead

Sunday Times - - Opinion - BAR­NEY MTHOMBOTHI

Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa missed a golden op­por­tu­nity — nay, he shirked his re­spon­si­bil­ity — to force­fully re­buke the sheer thug­gery and big­otry which were on dis­play right in front of his eyes in par­lia­ment this week. The vul­gar lan­guage, ex­ple­tives and racist taunts that coursed through the cor­ri­dors of par­lia­ment were not only a be­trayal of the kind of so­ci­ety we want to build, but it is al­most sac­ri­le­gious to ut­ter them in a place that is a tem­ple of peo­ple’s no­ble as­pi­ra­tions. It’s sim­ply mind-bog­gling that par­lia­ment, the pin­na­cle of years of struggle and sac­ri­fice, doesn’t seem to give some peo­ple cause to pause or re­strain them­selves. They couldn’t be both­ered. It could just as well have been a she­been. Af­ter such out­ra­geous be­hav­iour, th­ese hon­ourable mem­bers prob­a­bly go away to high five each other for a job well done. I don’t think they even care whether their chil­dren were watch­ing.

No, our par­lia­ment should not be used as some kind of the­atre where small minds seek to di­vide so­ci­ety into vic­tims and vil­lains and to roil our wounds for short-term po­lit­i­cal gain. It’s nei­ther a bar nor a boxing ring.

Ramaphosa can­not just sit there and en­joy the spec­ta­cle. He may have taken a cue from his pre­de­ces­sor who sim­ply watched and gig­gled; but Ja­cob Zuma was the rea­son for the com­mo­tion. Open­ing his mouth of­ten added fuel to the fire. Ramaphosa did mealy mouth some­thing about ad­her­ing to non­ra­cial­ism, but it was a gen­er­al­ity that lacked con­vic­tion. It was left to Baleka Mbete the next day to re­mind adults about eti­quette and de­cency. They’re un­likely to lis­ten to her though. There’s po­lit­i­cal profit to this may­hem. Boor­ish­ness pays.

At the swear­ing-in cer­e­mony of some of Ramaphosa’s cabi­net min­is­ters in par­lia­ment early this year Chief Jus­tice Mo­go­eng Mo­go­eng, real­is­ing that Ramaphosa was go­ing to pass off the oc­ca­sion with­out comment, took it upon him­self to re­mind the new min­is­ters about the im­por­tance of the oath they were about to take and their obli­ga­tion to so­ci­ety. It was a stir­ring speech; but it’s a lec­ture that ide­ally should have been given by Ramaphosa.

This pres­i­dent was elected pri­mar­ily to sort out an econ­omy wil­fully ru­ined by Zuma and his cronies. That’s his ca­chet; his unique sell­ing propo­si­tion, if you like. But lead­er­ship also de­mands courage — to teach, to guide, to chide and re­buke where nec­es­sary. He’s our last line of de­fence. The buck stops with him. And where wrong things are done, es­pe­cially in his pres­ence, he should speak up with­out any equiv­o­ca­tion. Such be­hav­iour is also tan­ta­mount to a show of dis­re­spect to the of­fice he holds.

Ramaphosa is not given to rous­ing speeches. When he speaks, the words of­ten sound as though they come from an empty place, de­void of emo­tions. He drones. He’s not one to grab you by the gut. He doesn’t pos­sess the or­a­tor­i­cal flour­ish or dex­ter­ity of ei­ther an Allan Boe­sak or a Des­mond Tutu who could move peo­ple to ac­tion — or to tears. Or to laugh. Ramaphosa does not have it in his locker. His words have to be re­spected sim­ply be­cause they carry the stamp of his of­fice.

But lead­ers are, or should be, more than man­agers, ad­min­is­tra­tors or tech­nocrats. Sure, trains should run on time, peo­ple should have ac­cess to clean wa­ter and roads should be main­tained. But apart from giv­ing peo­ple what they want or even as a means to such a pro­vi­sion, they should also have in them, as part of their arsenal, an abil­ity to tap into peo­ple’s emo­tions. We made fun of him, but Ja­cob Zuma had the voice to raise the rafters. And with his char­ac­ter­is­tic chuckle, he was able to dance his way into peo­ple’s hearts. That feel-good fac­tor was part of his weaponry, and he wielded it with aplomb. And while we weren’t look­ing, he robbed us blind.

Nel­son Man­dela’s speech was al­ways im­mac­u­late, de­liv­ered with clar­ity and author­ity. Peo­ple felt com­fort­able in his pres­ence, and he had the knack to say what was in our hearts. A po­lit­i­cal an­i­mal through and through, and yet peo­ple didn’t al­ways get the sense he was giv­ing them a spiel.

Thabo Mbeki was able to cap­ture his own voice in his speeches but they were of­ten about large sub­jects which mere mor­tals strug­gled to un­der­stand. He seemed pre­oc­cu­pied with other peo­ple’s prob­lems. That in the end was his un­do­ing.

Lead­ing SA is no easy task. We were spoiled right from the on­set. We started off on a high, with lead­ers who got us out of a sticky sit­u­a­tion.

Ramaphosa as some­one who was in­volved in craft­ing our con­sti­tu­tion will come to ap­pre­ci­ate its con­straint in that it re­quires the pres­i­dent to be both leader and head of govern­ment. The pres­i­dent thus gets en­grossed in the nuts and bolts of govern­ment to the ex­clu­sion of ev­ery­thing else. Man­dela dumped the minu­tiae of govern­ment in Mbeki’s lap. That freed him to go out and meet peo­ple — and do the odd shimmy.

One could al­most hear a groan of dis­ap­proval to any sug­ges­tion that Ramaphosa should en­trust the run­ning of govern­ment to his deputy. The idea of David Mabuza at the con­trols gives peo­ple the hee­bie-jee­bies.

The con­fer­ences and sum­mits on jobs and in­vest­ment, among oth­ers, are all cru­cial in re­sus­ci­tat­ing an econ­omy that’s al­most on its knees. But Ramaphosa also needs to talk to us about how we can or should move for­ward as a so­ci­ety. Such an oc­ca­sion pre­sented it­self in par­lia­ment this week, and he ducked it.

SA ob­vi­ously has to be fed. But prob­a­bly more than any time in its his­tory, when its so­cial fab­ric seems at risk of un­rav­el­ling, it also needs to be led.

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