Two encounters with remarkable women revealed a glimpse of a future in a “better South Africa in a better world”, to adapt the slogan of our Department of International Relations and Co-operation.

First was an interaction with the first Hispanic woman ever appointed to the US Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor.

Sotomayor, an appointee of Barack Obama to the most powerful check on the impulses and impulsiveness of any US president, was at the University of Cape Town to deliver the annual Rabinowitz lecture.

She does not view her uniqueness as the only Latino ever to grace a bench dominated by older white men as her most important characteristic.

When asked by former Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs whether she felt she carried the burdens and expectations of this large, hitherto excluded minority community in the US, she gave a subtle and illuminating answer.

She acknowledged with pride that she was, as it were, the first of her tribe to grace the court.

But then she added: “I hope that people don’t just see me as a Latino woman. I was also a public prosecutor, then a private corporate lawyer. I have argued in favour of the death penalty and I have also in other cases opposed it.”

What she was telling her capacity audience at UCT is something our constitution acknowledges in theory, but which we all too often violate every day in practice.

Her race and ethnic identity are core to her life and career. But they are not the only characteristics that define it. Compare that to SA’s growing chorus of race warriors – from Black First Land First to Jimmy Manyi. In contrast to the high-flying Sotomayor, they practise and preach a zero-based race fundamentalism. Any inquiry, from the identity of their mystery funders (located in Saxonwold), to their batty policy prescriptions are met with one answer. For the sake of brevity it can be tweeted as “I’m black, you’re white (or a token), go to hell.”

My more recent encounter with another, though local, woman of excellence was when I chaired a discussion addressed by business flamethrower Magda Wierzycka. Her back- story is as remarkable as her stellar career at the forefront of SA’s financial industry. And as the scourge of the corrupt and those who sup at the Guptas’ table of state capture. Just ask her former auditors, KPMG. She’s in the process of doing to them what the DA did to Bell Pottinger.

Wierzycka told our audience she arrived in South Africa as a refugee from eastern Europe in the 1980s with no advantages. Her desire to save our country from the looters and plunderers is informed by two simple premises: “I love South Africa and don’t want to be a refugee again.”

She told us better leadership is the key – a new president who promotes “sound economics, job-creation and education”. That would mean, at the outset, appointing strong boards of directors to state enterprises and returning experienced people to the National Treasury. And, most tellingly, that “those involved in plundering the country can be brought to justice, one by one”.

Wierzycka had the advantage of overcoming her previous disadvantage courtesy of a good education at white government schools in SA in the 1980s. Sotomayor overcame her deprived New York background helped in part by affirmative action programmes aimed at disadvantaged minorities.

But Sotomayor would never have risen to the judicial height she occupies today without huge amounts of hard work and ferocious talent.

Wierzycka – a qualified actuary – converted her company’s asset base from R2-billion to R162-billion in just 10 years. White monopoly capital? No, in reality, union and workers’ pension funds invested wisely win healthy retirements for all their members.

Sotomayor is a strong liberal voice in Trump’s illiberal United States.

Neither of these women, of course, are on the ballot to be the next president of the ANC, and so to determine our country’s destiny. But their ideas and personal examples are just the tonic we need.

One member of the ANC, however, has picked up the tattered banner of the rainbow nation here, once proudly held aloft by Nelson Mandela, whose power of example is today disparaged by our neighbourhood tyrant, Robert Mugabe.

Stripped of high office for daring to vote with her conscience in the no-confidence motion against Jacob Zuma, Makhosi Khoza said after her decision: “We’re all in it together.”

Saving our country and securing its future depends now, more than ever, on people and sentiments exactly like that.

  • Leon (@TonyLeonSA), a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London
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