We demand more from our leaders

Ahmed Kathrada was a leader. He was a visionary. He was a fighter. But he was more than that. He was fiercely principled. He was sincere in his beliefs. He remained faithful to the organisation he so loved. 

And he was a unifier. He eschewed the politics of factionalism. And he embodied the ideals of nonracialism in everything he did.

And yet he was also just Uncle Kathy. He was accessible and warm, open and honest. From the sound of the many tributes paid to him this week, he could well have been the uncle of a whole nation.

He gave his life to the cause of human dignity for all South Africans. He was that rare leader who gave so much, with little or no regard for his own advancement.

And he’s no more.

We mourn the loss of the irascible young man who stood up to the apparatus of the apartheid state, staunchly faithful to his comrades and determined to continue until a sense of dignity was restored to all South Africans.

But heavy as this moment is with grief, it is heavy too with longing. In eulogising Kathrada, we remember his comrades and friends: the women and men who stood up to tyranny. Not all of them were Rivonia trialists. Most of them will not have plaques made in their honour. 

They are the nameless and faceless thousands who stood in the shadows of their leaders — resisting by just being. We are because they were.

As we move through this moment of loss, our bereavement is acutely felt. We are also grieving for the loss of so much of the democratic dream that Kathrada and others of his generation represented so strongly — they, who sacrificed so much, along with the fighters of the United Democratic Front generation, to bring constitutional democracy to South Africa, but which is now under threat by a “predatory elite” that has undermined the Constitution and its institutions to cover up their crimes.

The angry words directed at the president at Kathrada’s funeral on Wednesday show us the hard place in which the nation finds itself. We are beholden to a president, and to an entire class of people, whose personal interests are so intricately entwined with the state that it is almost too difficult to understand where one begins and the other ends. 

The ANC must take responsibility for constructing a class of people who depend on corruption in the state for their own advancement.

And, on cue, after months of speculation but only days after Kathrada’s funeral, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma played his hand.

He announced, near midnight on Thursday night, that, amid a big Cabinet reshuffle, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy were fired. Gordhan is seen as the chief figure successfully holding the line against looting of state resources.

When the game is politics, Zuma has never lost. His middle name, which is translated as “The one who laughs at you while physically hurting you”, should be warning enough. He has outsmarted his enemies, time and time again. This, after all, is his party — and he’ll laugh if he wants to.

Amid the shouts of elation greeting Zuma’s reshuffle — mostly from ANN7 analysts and the ANC Youth League — is the understanding that Zuma has now taken back what is rightfully his: the power to determine how public funds are disbursed. He believes it is his democratically given right to do so.

And yes, it is his prerogative as president to shuffle the Cabinet this way and that. And the head of state should be able to trust his finance minister.

But, for JZ, the finance minister is meant to do his bidding — even if it goes against principles of good governance. For Gordhan, his role was to consult broadly, and make decisions in the best interests of a greater South Africa.

Zuma is obsessed with his own political survival. And there is no viable alternative to him as leader in the ANC. We are then trapped in an endless search for leaders to rally around, hoping to restore something missing within us. And yet in our search for messiahs, we forget that the same people we now look upon for decisive leadership are those who are complicit inthese failures.

We all await Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s next move, but we cannot but think that it may be a wait in vain.

For weeks we’ve known that Zuma and Ramaphosa barely speak to each other. In public, however, they have maintained a show of mutual respect.

Until Friday, when Ramaphosa publicly disavowed the president’s decision to remove Gordhan and his deputy from their positions. And yet, listening to Ramaphosa on Friday — and yes, we heard Julius Malema saying he could almost forgive Ramaphosa for Marikana when he heard that speech — we, however, could not help but feel underwhelmed.

Of course he must still keep up the appearance of public support of the president. He is his deputy, after all. He seems to be proceeding in the hope that he will follow Zuma as president, or at least that he’s in with a fighting chance. 

But what exactly is offered by Ramaphosa and his supporters in the ANC that offers us a way out of the current stranglehold we’re in with JZ?

Let us not forget that we are our own liberators. It is now up to us to demand better from our politicians. As heavy as these moments are, this could be the beginning of something beautiful.

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