Opinionista Ryland Fisher 25 March 2013

SA politicians: Diamonds on the soles of their (dancing) shoes

South Africans seem a lot more enamoured with politicians’ personalities than their policies. And one of the primary indicators of ‘personality’ seems to be the extent to which a leader will sing and dance for the public. Is there any hope for Mamphela Ramphele to escape the trend?

South Africans have strange requirements from our political leaders. One of these requirements is the ability to sing and/or dance.

President Nelson Mandela perfected the public dance routines and his legendary ‘Madiba Shuffle’ became the envy of leaders throughout the world. President Jacob Zuma has taken singing and dancing to a new level, using it not only to gauge the mood of his supporters, but also often to set the mood of his supporters.

Who will be able to forget how Zuma confirmed his popularity at the ANC’s conference in Mangaung in December by introducing a new theme song that caught everyone by surprise but had become, by the end of the conference, a song that everyone knew?

Even Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille has learnt that to attract a significant number of South African votes, you have to sing and dance, and so she does it, albeit with great discomfort.

Now I don’t know if I’m looking forward to the day when South Africa’s latest potential political leader, the prim and proper academic Mamphela Ramphele, will be singing and dancing to win our votes.

A few weeks ago, through this column, I advised Ramphele against entering party politics because, I believe that as a civil society person, she could retain some kind of moral high ground which she will lose once she enters formal politics. Party politics is all about chasing numbers and I have seen, especially in the past 20 years or so, how formerly committed comrades have changed completely, often forsaking the values that they held dear during the struggle years.

Loyalty to good values has been replaced with loyalty to a political party, irrespective of whether the party advances these good values or not.

I am not saying that this will happen to Ramphele, but I am only going on past experience.

I sincerely hope that Ramphele will prove me and others wrong and that she will be able to engage significantly in party politics without falling victim to South Africa’s fickle electorate who care more about whether their leaders can sing and/or dance than what policies they champion.

I hope that Ramphele will set new standards for politicians. For instance, I hope that she will follow in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela, who forfeited a significant part of his salary in order to promote the rights of children. He used part of his pay to establish what has now become known as the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and a host of other charities.

It would have been wonderful if more politicians – not only from the ANC but also from opposition parties – had followed Mandela’s example, forfeiting part of their pay and using it to promote various causes. South Africa has any number of causes that desperately need funds and there is a limit to how much the Lotto can fund civil society.

It would also have been wonderful if more of our politicians had forfeited the trappings of power and influence that come with being public representatives. I know that there is always more than one party involved in any bribery situation, but business people are only bribing our public representatives because they know that they can be bribed.

It would have set a fantastic example to civil society if public representatives did not set out to use their first pay cheques to buy fancy houses and cars.

And can you imagine the example it would have set if all public representatives were only allowed to use public facilities, such as schools, hospital and transport?

The policies of political parties are often meaningless because they are mere words without any real intention to back them up with action.

If Ramphele decides that she will not go the populist route but that she will lead by example, by not accepting the huge salary she will get if she becomes a member of Parliament, by encouraging her party’s members to do the same, by encouraging her party members to use public schools and health facilities, then she might let people sit up and take notice.

However, if she takes off her high-heeled shoes and replaces them with takkies in order to dance and sing better on stage, then we might have the continuation of much of a muchness in our politics.

The fact that almost all political parties have now adopted the National Development Plan, which is set to become the country’s blueprint for the next two decades or so, means that political parties will have to find other ways of differentiating themselves, apart from policies.

Setting a new ethical and practical behavioural pattern for politicians and public servants could be a good place to start. I’m really hoping that Ramphele will lead us in this. It might inspire our other politicians to follow suit. And that will be good for the entire country. DM



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"The soul is known by its acts" ~ Thomas Aquinas