Perhaps only a tragedian playwright of ancient Greece can do rhetorical justice to the leadership legacy of Nelson Mandela. Sophocles wrote: “One must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been.”
Last Sunday, shell-shocked South Africans, some in the midst of the rubble and disaster of a five-day looting spree which rocked the country, celebrated the 103rd birthday of Mandela, its most famous son and consequential leader.
In his 95 years of life Mandela embraced many different roles and, politically, he evolved from militant revolutionary to reconciler-in-chief. It is tempting to use a range of templates from his life to justify current positions and policies after his death.
Thus, we have the depiction of the saintly Madiba bestowing his benediction on his previous enemies and oppressors. Or the Invictus moments from the 1995 Rugby World Cup, emblematic of a winning country at peace with itself and enjoying the admiration, even the envy, of the world itself.
Last Sunday, Mandela’s embattled successor Cyril Ramaphosa invoked another aspect of the outsize Mandela persona.
At a human level it is impossible not to feel sympathy for Ramaphosa — his cabinet is at war with itself, his security and intelligence services are hopelessly compromised and essentially useless. And while Mandela had Joe Slovo, Thabo Mbeki and Mangosuthu Buthelezi in his cabinet, Ramaphosa must make do with Bheki Cele, Ayanda Dlodlo and Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.
Mandela enjoyed the admiring gaze and adulation of the world and its news media; Ramaphosa suffers from its concern and even its pity.
Witness this week’s editorial in the Financial Times which chided him for “a bad habit of timidity” and called for him to “take the battle” against those in his ranks who subvert the constitution. There is no place for them “in the party of Nelson Mandela” the FT advised.
Yet instead of drawing a line against the saboteurs and underminers in his own ranks, Ramaphosa last Sunday preached the gospel of party unity. The very quest of keeping together those who support Ramaphosa and the rule of law and the restoration of institutions on the one side, and the enemies of constitutionalism on the other, has led us to the very brink.
If Ramaphosa is to draw back from the precipice he would do well to recall the speech which Mandela delivered to us in parliament in February 1995. There was no unity message for law-abiding and lawless in it, no smothering of hard truths with worn platitudes.
Instead, Mandela told us and the country in a blistering 73-minute speech that “those who wear the mask of anarchy will meet its match in the government”. He chided the “culture of entitlement” and he harangued us on the evils of seismic events then which by the benchmark of today seem very low key.
Nevertheless, Mandela called out such “totally unacceptable practices as the murder of police officers, the taking of hostages, the blocking of public highways, vandalisation of public and private property and so on”.
Interestingly, last Sunday and with an understandable moral imperative, Ramaphosa – head of the most indebted government in our history – spoke of the need for a basic grant for the poor.
Yet he provided no clue how he plans to fund it, along with the multibillion-rand National Health Insurance, state bank and pay hikes for civil servants.
Just a pity we did not listen hard enough or act decisively enough to these presidential warnings from 26 years ago. Or offer today plain speaking along with the lofty rhetoric.
Mandela’s entire presidency was not only studded with some significant and gifted leaders from within his own ranks to assist his governance. He was also obligated under the interim constitution to include ministers from the larger opposition parties in his cabinet.
But it was not only the imperatives of the constitution but his personal preferences and political antennae which led him to seek the counsel of those far outside his party’s inner circles.
Instead, today, Ramaphosa seeks his cabinet picks and obtains his economic and political directives almost entirely from the ANC national executive committee. It is alas a very thin pool of talent encumbered with Zuma holdovers, state-pillagers, convicted criminals and party hacks, along with a few independent and uncompromised spirits.
Ramaphosa follows the party line while Mandela, a fierce ANC partisan to be sure, sometimes made key political decisions alone. He obtained the buy-in of the party after the event at critical moments.
Now is the time, indeed while there is still time, for Ramaphosa to reach beyond the party insiders who have so conspicuously failed him and, far more significantly, let down the country.
During the Mandela presidency the acronym of power was the GNU (government of national unity). Ramaphosa should now widen his gaze and untether a GOAT – a government of all the talents.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
Featured in The Sunday Times