“France is in tears, it’s deeply distressed, but it’s strong and will always be stronger – I assure you of that – than the fanatics who seek to attack it today.” This was French President Francois Hollande hours after a man ploughed a 19-ton truck into crowds of people in Nice, killing 84. In recent weeks, a series of stunning events occurred around the world, from a number of terror attacks to the leadership overhaul in the United Kingdom, police killings in the United States and an attempted military coup in Turkey. It is a time when nations are searching for hope and good leadership. This Mandela Day should not just be about charity but the essence of Nelson Mandela. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Speaking at a memorial service for five police officers in Dallas, Texas last week, US President Barack Obama spoke of how police work is a thankless job. Police officers do not expect to hear the words “thank you” very often, he said, especially from those who need them the most. “The reward comes in knowing that our entire way of life in America depends on the rule of law, that the maintenance of that law is a hard and daily labour, that in this country we don’t have soldiers in the streets or militias setting the rules. Instead, we have public servants, police officers, like the men who were taken away from us.”
But this was not a simple tribute speech for officers killed in the line of duty. Obama had to strike a balance between acknowledging the difficulties faced by the police and the spate of killings of black people through excessive force employed by law enforcement officers. It had to take more than Obama’s usual superb oration skills to soothe the fears and emotions of his divided nation.
“I know that Americans are struggling right now with what we’ve witnessed over the past week… All of it has left us wounded and angry and hurt.”
“The deepest faultlines of our democracy have suddenly been exposed, perhaps even widened. And although we know that such divisions are not new, though they’ve surely been worse in even the recent past, that offers us little comfort. Faced with this violence, we wonder if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged. We wonder if an African American community that feels unfairly targeted by police and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs, can ever understand each other’s experience.”
But America’s divisions run deep and it would take more than the rousing words of their president to stop the rash of senseless killings. On Sunday, three police officers were killed and three others injured in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in what appears to be a revenge killing over the fatal shooting of a black man by police two weeks ago. In a live address to the nation on Sunday night, Obama said nothing justified violence against law enforcement. “We need to temper our words, open our hearts. All of us.”
In a time of rising violence, fear mongering and rhetoric, leaders are required to keep their fingers on the pulse of their nations, provide clarity of thought and promote a sense of security. In the UK, former Prime Minister David Cameron completely misread his nation, took a gamble on the Brexit vote and lost. For this he fell on his sword. A new Prime Minister Theresa May was installed last week, with the primary mandate of managing the UK’s exit from the European Union with as little damage as possible. The process is destined to be messy but May must act according to what the majority of voters wanted.
France is observing three days of mourning in the wake of the mass slaughter of people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice on Thursday night. President Francois Hollande has extended the state of emergency and assumed a war-like stance to retaliate against terrorists.
“Nothing will make us yield in our determination to combat terrorism, and we are going to further intensify our strikes in Syria and Iraq. We will continue to hit those who attack us on our own soil, in their hideouts,” Hollande announced in the early hours of Friday morning.
But his government is facing a backlash, particularly from the far right with French National Front Party Leader Marine Le Pen blaming the Interior Minister for the deaths of 250 people in terror attacks in the last 18 months. She also said that France was only in a “war of words” and not taking enough action to combat terrorism.
“Nothing has been done, absolutely nothing – no reintroduction of double punishment, nor depriving people of nationality, nor the closure of salafist mosques,” Le Pen told Le Figaro.
While the world was focused on France, a group in the Turkish military attempted to stage a coup on Friday night. A statement from those involved in the putsch said they made the move “in order to ensure and restore constitutional order, democracy, human rights and freedoms and let the supremacy law in the country prevail, to restore order which was disrupted”. This was in reaction to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s concerted attack on democratic freedoms and quest for greater presidential powers.
Even though Erdo?an has shut down the independent media in Turkey and periodically blocks social media, he realised the importance of communicating immediately through all channels to foil the coup. In an interview via FaceTime, Erdo?an told the Turkish people to take to the streets to protest the military takeover. Thousands listened and overpowered soldiers involved. The popular stand against the attempted coup has strengthened Erdo?an’s campaign against democratic freedoms, with 6,000 people arrested and 2,745 judges removed from duty. He has also suggested that the death penalty could be reintroduced to “cleanse” the country of dissidents.
It is a time of shock events and fast-paced developments. South Africa cannot insulate itself from world events and needs to articulate careful responses as developments unfold. While diplomatic responses suffice on an international level, South Africa is also in desperate need of strong, courageous leadership.
This has been sorely lacking for several years. President Jacob Zuma is applauded for his singing and dance ability but never for saying the right things at the right time. The country has undergone its share of traumatic events with the Marikana massacre and outbreaks of xenophobia but there has been nothing notable that our president has said to capture the moment and give direction.
Some of the most distressing moments were, in fact, caused by the president himself. The firing of former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene caused massive economic turbulence and financial losses for the country. Zuma is still denying responsibility for the chaos, saying last week in reply to a parliamentary question:
“The currencies of countries that have international trade linkages are contagiously linked to both domestic and global temporal events. This is called incidence of speculative attacks. South Africa is not an exception. The analysis of the currency performance shows that the global and domestic events and shocks in the months from November and December 2015 were increasingly having an impact on the ZAR.”
Zuma was given the opportunity to address the nation on the Nkandla fiasco after the Constitutional Court found that he had violated the Constitution in his handling of the Public Protector’s report. Instead of offering a sincere apology for the wastage of taxpayers’ money on his private home and for dragging the matter out for years, Zuma offered a half-baked apology for the “frustration and confusion” over Nkandla. He continues to evade accountability regarding his relationship with the controversial Gupta family and their role in state affairs.
Zuma could possibly be judged less harshly over all his scandals if he were a more attentive president, tuned into the happenings in the country. Last week a horrible tragedy occurred in Durban when a children’s home caught fire in the middle of the night and eight young people lost their lives. The Presidency issued a two-paragraph statement to express Zuma’s condolences to the families.
“We are very saddened by this tragic and painful loss of life and the serious injuries to other children. We convey our heartfelt condolences to all the families who are going through a most difficult period. May the injured recover well both physically and emotionally from this trauma. The provincial government is providing much-needed support to the affected families.”
Surely a “people’s president” could do more to demonstrate his compassion and lead the country in mourning the tragedy. In a country where human life, particularly black lives, is cheap, it takes strong leadership to change the mindset.
The world is becoming a terrifying place and political leadership requires more than populism and rhetoric. South African politics has, for far too long, been defined by liberation-era traditions and rhetoric that have no connection to events in the country and in the world. As the country votes in a few weeks to choose local councillors and then contends with the issue of succession next year, it is important to choose leaders who understand the needs of the country and can respond to the global turmoil. This is not the time to be stuck in a time warp or for presidents to be singing about guns.
Monday 18 July 2016 would have been Nelson Mandela’s 98th birthday. There will be activities in South Africa and around the world to mark International Mandela Day, particularly through charitable deeds. Mandela possessed extraordinary leadership qualities that made him a global icon.
But Mandela was first and foremost a politician – a strong and courageous one. When the situation required aggression, he stepped up, and when the country and the world needed peace, he championed it. How is it that this country could produce a generation of outstanding leaders of his calibre and only to be followed by the weak, compromised and uninspiring set we have now?
Upholding Madiba’s legacy should not only about the annual jamboree to perform humanitarian deeds for 67 minutes. It should also by about developing leadership in society that espouses his values and principles. At a time when the world is in distress, perhaps it needs some Madiba magic – if only to pass on his legacy of outstanding leadership to future generations. DM
Photo: Former President Nelson Mandela smiles as he formally announces his retirement from public life at his foundations offices in Johannesburg, June 1, 2004. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings.
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