Workers Day, May 1 2022, offered South Africans sharply contrasting images of President Cyril Ramaphosa and leader of the official opposition John Steenhuisen.

Ramaphosa had a double indignity heaped on him at a rally at Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, North West.

The obvious injury to presidential pride was his forced removal from the keynote event to commemorate the gains of the labour movement which the day embodies. One might note many legislative victories and a huge number of job losses, and the causal connection between them, though of course this went unmentioned in his prepared text. At the event, Ramaphosa had to abandon his speech after workers stormed the stage. He was forced into an armoured police vehicle and left the venue.

The second image flickering from the event was revealed before the workers’ fracas engulfed Ramaphosa. It was the sight of entirely empty sections of the 42,000-seat stadium, with a generous count putting the number of people there at fewer than 5,000. Perhaps the presidential advance party assumed Ramaphosa, his presidential pomp and bling and pioneering role as one-time secretary-general of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) would be a crowd puller. But none of these factors pulled the crowds, nor offset the buckets of misery that have engulfed the mining sector and the economy overall.

It is instructive to reflect that in its glory days the sector which lifted Ramaphosa, as a trade unionist, to political pre-eminence between 1982 and 1991, when he ran NUM, employed about 700,000 people and our gold mines were producing 504 tons from 65 mines. Today the workers engaged are fewer than 465,000 and the metric tons of gold have dropped to about 100 from just 27 operational mines. Of course, the country still leads the world in platinum group metals and workers from nearby Sibanye-Stillwater mines were apparently the cause of the president’s troubles.

Many of the reasons for our country’s fall from favour as a mining destination are due to Ramaphosa’s performance as president and before that as deputy president, and the choices he made or, more precisely, did not make in both roles.

When, last month, the international benchmarking index on mining investment, the Fraser Institute of Canada, produced its annual survey on mining investment, SA ranked among the 10 least attractive mining destinations in the world in which to invest. Eighty-four regions were surveyed. The causes for our fall from investment grace were readily offered by local experts: chaos and corruption in the department of minerals and energy; faltering electricity and collapsed transport and ports infrastructure; anarchy in the workplace and local communities; and an endlessly delayed mining charter regime, mired in litigation.

Many of these maladies relate directly to government and administrative decisions entirely in the remit of Ramaphosa and his ministers.

Sunday’s protesting workers are engaged in a protracted industrial dispute. In an unsuccessful attempt to get a hearing that day, the president assured them the matter would be referred by him to his minerals minister, Gwede Mantashe. He doubled down on this commitment in his weekly newsletter, when he tepidly reflected on his Rustenburg reception, writing: “The wage grievances of the workers at Rustenburg deserve the attention of all stakeholders … as government we are committed to play our part.”

There is no end of possibilities here and none of them particularly reassuring. The most obvious is that if you want to really get Ramaphos’s attention and elevate your industrial dispute ahead of others, disrupt a presidential event.

Columnist Tom Eaton reminded readers that Ramaphosa was not the first democratic president forced by an angry crowd to abandon a May Day rally. It happened to the sainted Nelson Mandela in 1995 in Umlazi, when gunshots forced the abandonment of his event there. The big difference, aside from the gelignite of the IFP-ANC dispute of a previous era, is how Mandela reacted — with hot indignation and fury. He even threatened (unconstitutionally) to “cut off the funds to the province”.

Responding to his ejection from the Rustenburg stadium, Ramaphosa, by contrast, offered not a single word of criticism for the incivility of the mob which forced him to abandon the stage, not a single utterance on the need to respect rules and order, and the right to dissent being bound by strict legal parameters and a spirit of tolerance. The inflammation of grievances and the gross vein of intolerance which courses through so much of our nation and its discourse cry out for a presidential reprimand at the very least. Instead, we are treated to the sounds of silence. If Ramaphosa imagines his “offend no constituency” approach will reap dividends, he might well find himself presiding over an ever-shrinking constituency, just as the sparse crowds on Sunday reflected.

Across the world in a real war zone, Ukraine, was the place Steenhuisen chose to land on May Day.

But there was blowback of a different sort on the home front. Typical of this was Bongani Bingwa of Radio 702, who essentially accused the DA leader of racism and double standards: “How many conflicts has he bothered about here in Africa? His own backyard? Or is this about the skin colour of those being killed in Ukraine?”

Steenhuisen can answer for himself. But two decades back, when I led the opposition here, I made repeated visits to assess conditions on the ground in neighbouring Zimbabwe, the results of which, and our own lack of will to interdict the collapse there, directly impacted SA. Economic and political refugees poured in and our country, with the most direct leverage on the situation there, retreated into what Thabo Mbeki called “quiet diplomacy”.

But the “whataboutism” attack was levelled at me. “Why Zimbabwe?” “What about Swaziland?” “Is it because white farmers are being killed?” These were some of the more printable responses to my many visits across the Limpopo.

SA has chosen to take a direct stance, albeit an indecisive one, on Ukraine. And Ukraine and the widening war there are of direct concern to us and citizens everywhere. It is the most serious land war in Europe since 1945 and the first since World War 2, where the aggressor country, Russia, has raised the prospect of the use of nuclear weapons. Most South Africans spend more of their incomes on public transport and food than any other items, both of which are about to be hit hugely by the economic costs from the war zone Steenhuisen is visiting.

I think a solidarity visit to a country on the front line of the battle between autocracy and imperial nostalgia on the one hand and democracy and sovereign choice on the other is entirely apt for the leader of the liberal cause in SA.

My criticism has nothing to do with Steenhuisen’s internationalism, but discomfort at the DA’s localism, particularly in Johannesburg.

The Gauteng provincial government launched its new township business initiative with anti-immigrant fanfare. Premier David Makhura enthused: “I want to emphasise that this law is meant for businesses owned by South Africans.” Not to be outbid on the populist front, DA MPL Makashule Gana drew particular attention to its restrictive clauses relating to “businesses fully or partially owned by South Africans”.

At the same time, the Johannesburg City Council adopted a policy on informal trading which, according to mayoral committee member Nkuli Mbundu (ActionSA) who serves in the DA mayor’s “cabinet”, “means that trading spaces in Johannesburg will be reserved for South Africans”.

As a DA member indicated to me: “Of course these are political dog whistles aimed to be heard by those who paint ‘foreigners’ as responsible for the economic hardship of others.”

Actually, it’s more a foghorn than a dog whistle. And in its extreme form it leads down a very miserable road of narrow nationalism, racial chauvinism and weaponising “the other”. Precisely the sort of extremities Steenhuisen is seeing elsewhere right now.