To insert thread through the eye of a needle is the basic, though skilled, accomplishment of every seamstress.

In politics, a needle-threader is someone who can pass something through a narrow space between two often diametrically opposite impulses or ideas.

In the US, president Richard Nixon was regarded by some as a needle-threader extraordinaire: he rose to prominence as a red-baiting Californian conservative.

Yet he opened the path to normalising relations with China in 1972 and pioneered détente with his country’s implacable Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union.

Nixon, before being felled by Watergate in 1974, was described as a “feinting, flexible conservative”.

An early supporter of civil rights before the issue was adopted by his electoral opponent John F Kennedy in 1960, he learnt the bitter lesson of his defeat that year by pivoting eight years later to his so-called “Southern strategy”. This barely coded appeal to the white segregationists in the old Confederacy helped him eke out a presidential victory in 1968.

Cyril Ramaphosa is our local version of a needle-threader.

Just this week in a leaked audio clip — cheerfully provided by one of his many factional enemies — the hitherto public face of the fight against corruption was revealed to be something else entirely behind closed doors.

He suggested, in the not-so-private enclave of the ANC national executive committee,  that he “would rather fall on the sword” than allow public revelation of public money being used to fund his opponent’s internal campaign for the ANC presidency.

But he did reveal what he has also offered in public: given a choice between the party and the national interest, the ANC will always get preference over the country. Or as he pithily advised the comrades: “The image of the ANC is what I am most concerned about.”

Two other former leaders of the Ramaphosa vintage, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, had their own version of needle-threading: they referred to their various political pivots as “third way politics” — branding a Left agenda for social services to the iron heat of the market economy.

They also junked a great deal of their respective parties’ orthodoxies in the process and angered their core supporters with their triangulations around public policy issues.

Ramaphosa has neither their economic prosperity nor their partisan flexibility. He plods on, now as head of a party out of power in most metropolitan areas, over a destroyed infrastructure, decayed public services and a hollowed-out state.

But he sticks to the dying carcass of his party, however out of love with him certain of its components are.

On December 12, in the nave of the oldest place of Christian worship in SA, the Groote Kerk in downtown Cape Town, I witnessed Ramaphosa’s attempt to square the circle on the thorny issue of the legacy of the late FW de Klerk.

On the one hand, he showed up and delivered a eulogy. And in stark contrast to every other speaker at the event, bar De Klerk’s son Jan, he offered some thoughts in Afrikaans.

Not even the NGK dominee who spoke thought that a tribute to the last Afrikaner leader of SA might be sprinkled with some words of comfort in the late president’s mother tongue.

And in contrast to his public lashings of De Klerk while he was alive, Ramaphosa did find some words of praise for him in death: “Courteous, respectful and committed … FW de Klerk had the courage of his convictions … the courage to steer a different course for his people.”

He carefully listed atrocities from Sharpeville to Boipatong, but, as one guest caustically remarked, made no mention of Marikana.

Yet, as another observer said to me, “it was an impossible speech to make”. On his best days, Ramaphosa makes the impossible seem possible.

Perhaps that is why the media, especially the Afrikaans newspapers, were generally laudatory about Ramaphosa’s careful words of tribute. “Born of the African soil … let us release him to his rest,” might be the best-remembered line of the speech. Presidential certification, then, for the minority not being foreign sojourners on the continent or in the country.

I was struck though by a lesser aspect of the five-hour event, one which went unremarked by the legion of media present.

It could be that we are now so hard-wired for state incompetence and embarrassments that any further minor instance is deemed un-newsworthy.

But given the excruciating and much larger faux pas of the gibberish sign language offered at the Mandela memorial in Soweto in December 2013, one would have hoped some lessons had been learnt.

Apparently not. One of the scheduled speakers at the De Klerk event was Nobel Prize winner David Trimble, the peacemaker from Northern Ireland.

Our audience was advised by the programme director, minister in the presidency Mondli Gungubele, that his lordship would be beamed to us via a video feed from the UK.

Given that the state had many days to prepare the event, it might be expected that the link could have been tested. Or that the Windows program used would not have the imprimatur “not for public use” on it. Apparently not.

And so, Trimble appeared first upside down, and then was removed entirely from the picture and only his audio link was played. As the audience strained to hear, it became clear that it was unintelligible. The link was severed and nothing more was heard of it.

A small footnote, but perhaps with wider meaning. Happy holidays.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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