In 1843, Lord Thomas Macaulay, an English politician and historian, wrote: “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.”
Substitute the ANC government and update it to present times, and you achieve a neat fit for the crowing and posturing of President Cyril Ramaphosa and his ministers. This follows the highly equivocal judgment of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) last Friday on the genocide case initiated by this government against Israel.
Still, one must admire the purposeful activity, swift energy, and singular devotion to the principle which both the president and government have displayed on this matter.
Party trumps nation
Hitherto, on matters great (for example, indicting and expelling ANC corruption accused members, ending load shedding, fixing the water supply, and job creation) and small (inter alia – filling potholes, eliminating pit toilets at schools, publishing lifestyle audits for the Cabinet) Ramaphosa’s administration and its municipal outposts take its cue from another administration from a far-off time.
Here American columnist Walter Lippmann’s characterisation of the presidency of Calvin Coolidge (1923 to 1929) seems a good description of the overall lethargy, decision-ducking and risk aversion, in most matters great and small, which has been the hallmark of Ramaphosaism to date.
Coolidge, whose policies initiated the Great Depression in the US in 1929, is rated by some scholars to be among the three worst (out of 45) presidents in US history.
Since the democratic era dawned here, we have only enjoyed five chief executives, but even in this small field, many would adjudicate Ramaphosa second from the bottom of a very short list.
Just to extend the Coolidge parallel for a moment: in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression in the US, unemployment was recorded at 24.9% of the total workforce. After five years of Ramaphosa at the national helm, the Quarterly Labour Force Survey of Stats SA tells us that unemployment in SA stood at 31.9% of the working-age population in the third quarter of 2023.
Strangely though, the incontestably worst of the lot, Jacob Zuma, was this week, in another uncharacteristic burst of morality and activity, suspended from the ANC by unanimous decision of its national executive.
That well-known “ethicist” played the morality card, Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula, when he advised us that Zuma’s decision to back the MK Party in opposition to his former political home “impaired the integrity of the ANC”.
For example, Mbalula (and Ramaphosa) and his comrades not only brought to power this scandal-plagued rogue. They protected him in office, allowed him to pillage the public purse, vandalise the Constitution, and appoint corrupt ministers, while Justice Minister Ronald Lamola even trumped up a false, life-threatening medical emergency to subvert Zuma’s court-mandated imprisonment.
Decoding the ANC message here is easy: it’s fine to impair the dignity of the presidency and disgrace the public trust. However, threaten the electoral prospects of the ANC and you are out.
It is a neat reminder of the order of things in today’s Republic – the party trumps the nation every time. Even though, by curious dint of irony, last weekend the ANC announced that it would fight the election on the platform of ‘defending the gains of freedom and constitutional democracy’.
Defend the party and stuff the country, might be a more honest slogan.
Ramaphosa’s newsletter missive
But back to the other burst of newfound moral purpose. The case against Israel in the ICJ.
It is not entirely clear whether Ramaphosa writes his own newsletters, or even reads them carefully.
His latest offering, however, has gifted many future hostages to verbal fortune and is a marker of current and future endeavours unencumbered by an inconvenient past.
He commences the 29 January letter advising that due to our apartheid past, “we have a particular obligation to stand up for justice and fundamental human rights for all people, everywhere”.
You don’t need a DSTV decoder to demolish the first sentence. Just add in the words ‘except when we don’t’.
We don’t stand up for the Uighurs in China, the Christians being slaughtered in Africa, Muslims in India, protesters in Iran, Ukrainians in Ukraine, the Sudanese in Darfur, Zimbabweans in Zimbabwe, Venezuelans, Syrians and Cubans under the vicious tyrants’ heel.
There is an almost endless list of oppressed people across the world “where the history books”, as Ramaphosa puts it toward the end of his missive, will record that “democratic South Africa shut its eyes or claimed they didn’t know”.
amaphosa claims that on the single issue of Palestine and Gaza, SA was “not among those who shut their eyes or claimed they didn’t know.” That part is true.
This one-eyed approach is deliberate myopia, even willful blindness, further in his note.
For example, he claims in the same letter:
The first part of that sentence is partly absurd and demonstrably untrue. Space prevents inconvenient reminders here of this government’s defiance of its own court order to detain the “butcher of Darfur” Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir and granting spurious diplomatic immunity to Grace Mugabe after she had assaulted a local citizen in a Johannesburg hotel.
Sympathy, then, for victims of oppression is entirely determined by who is doing the oppression and who the oppressed are. Little wonder then that so many here and abroad (such as Stephen Sackur’s grilling of Lamola this week on BBC Hard Talk) wonder about why Israel, practically alone in the world of ANC demons has been singled out by Ramaphosa for such exemplary attention.
Still, in Ramaphosa’s version, this is not the case at all. We have if he is to be believed, “been consistent in condemning Hamas since 7 October.”
Except, of course, we haven’t.
After the brutal Hamas slaughter of over 1200 Israelis inside Israel on 7 October, Ramaphosa was utterly silent. However, his party spokesperson was not.
On 8 October, ANC national spokesperson, Mahlengi Bhengu-Mostsori announced that the events the day before “were unsurprising”. She stated that this was “a decision by Palestinians to respond to the brutality of the settler Israeli apartheid regime”.
No word of condolence, no condemnation of the regime of terror unleashed against entirely innocent civilians, no notice that the attacks were not in “occupied Palestine”. In other words, the Jews had it coming to them, and the victims of these atrocities were somehow responsible for the horrors perpetrated on them.
This incidentally is where moral indignation on SA’s case arises. As Israel’s ad hoc judge in the case Aharon Barak wrote in his judgment:
“South Africa came to the Court seeking the immediate suspension of the military operations in the Gaza Strip. It has wrongly sought to impute the crimes of Cain to Abel… the court has reaffirmed Israel’s right to defend its citizens and emphasised the importance of providing humanitarian aid to the population of Gaza. The provisional measures indicated [and he concurred with some of them] are thus of significantly narrower scope than those sought by South Africa.”
It is worth a sidebar to note that the sites of the Hamas carnage were. for the most part, at places where the inhabitants were, as members of socialist-leaning Kibbitzes and attendees at a rave music festival, for the most part, keen supporters of the peace process and opponents of the extremist government of Israel headed by Benjamin Netanyahu.
But in line with the Hamas view that all Jews and Israelis are justifiable targets, it made no difference.
Ramaphosa maintained his silence for nine days after 7 October until he offered an equivocal, difference-splitting, temporising remark that:
Doubtless, he waited until Israel had begun its right to self-defence (not impeded but tempered by the ICJ judgment) against Hamas which did, inevitably and sadly, entail many civilian deaths, until he felt emboldened to say anything at all, truly terrified that any word of support hitherto could be conceived as diluting his government’s pro-Palestinian credentials.
The SA case against Israel also did manage to insert one paragraph in an 80-plus page submission, of the condemnation of Hamas. That is more or less the exact weight of the overall South African response.
Morally and financially bankrupt
But since we are now irrevocably committed, by word of the president, to the “consistent application of international law” doubtless his justice minister’s threat to haul Israeli government ministers before the International Criminal Court (another international body we were once about to leave), this list will be accompanied by a long charge sheet against the Hamas leadership too. Don’t hold your breath.
In the meantime, of course, International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor found time to phone the Hamas leadership; their emissaries were accorded a full court press here by the ANC leadership and Pandor, again, rushed off to have a photo opportunity with the fermenters of a widening conflict in the Middle East, the Iranians in Tehran.
On that visit, a new cottage industry sprung up, suggesting beyond diplomatic niceties with some seriously nasty people in Iran, our recent dalliance with Tehran and Hamas has miraculously coincided with the disappearance of the R100 million funding crisis, which threatened the liquidation of the ANC.
No evidence has been offered to advance this thesis. Still, the ANC has declined to take us into its confidence about how the edge of bankruptcy has been averted in a matter of weeks, and the party is fully funded for the most expensive election campaign ever.
Perhaps it should, or else the legal maxim “the absence of evidence is not always the evidence of absence” will go into overdrive, alongside, our latest fit of morality.