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