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Of wigs, bell-bottoms and eavesdropping: A day at the presidential inauguration


Busani Ngcaweni is Director-General of the National School of Government, South Africa. He writes here in his personal capacity.

In the final analysis, beyond the pomp and ceremony of the inauguration, this Africa Day called for a new cadre in the public service – the mandarins who give practical meaning to the idea of the new dawn.

And so, the dawn cracked and we propelled automobiles to the park-and-ride facilities in Tshwane, where we packed buses destined for Loftus Stadium (I really struggle to spell, let alone pronounce, the second name of this home of the once-mighty Blue Bulls).

Steadily, the enthusiastic crowd, coming from far and near, congregated to bear witness to the inauguration of President Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa as the sixth democratically elected President of the Republic of South Africa. The colourful affair promised to be as spectacular as the sixth democratic elections held on 8 May 2019, which pundits blurted were “closely contested”. We in the battle-of-ideas battalion foresaw the outcome; maybe we were too confident: Ramaphosa was to emerge and take forward the dream of a better life for all.

Like a true eagle, he was destined to fly high, fast and see the future, building on the foundations, walls and platforms already cemented by his predecessors. Yakhela ngamaqubu enye, elders would tell us, which literally means “birds build their nests from other birds’ feathers”.

The 30,000-plus spectators braved the chilly breeze on a cold Saturday morning on Africa Day to witness this passing of age: The ushering in of the sixth administration, which coincides with the 25th anniversary of democracy in South Africa.

There was song and dance aplenty, complemented by some jaw-dropping dress code, glamour and glitz. Inaugurations are disruptive occasions for members of high society: Ball gowns and tuxedos are usually evening attire in heated halls, not necessarily for plastic blue chairs in the morning chill of the Jacaranda City.

As we moved past suddenly multi-sex ablution facilities (rugby stadiums are sexist, with fewer female toilets), a slightly tinted wig fell in front of me. Instinctively, I rushed to pick it up, like the rand.

Excuse me!” The gentleman walking perpendicular to the wig owner reprimanded me. “I was merely trying to help,” I retorted mildly, handing the headgear to him.

It was a non-event, so I thought. Ecstasy it turned out to be, though, for those witnessing the incident. “How can you be so insensitive?” I thought. The last I saw such an incident was at a dinner table in Washington DC where my colleague’s wig fell into a bowl of mushroom soup. I promised never to tell.

But here we were in Tshwane, united in a common purpose of jubilation and celebration. I later saw the lady, who was politer than that gentleman. She gleefully acknowledged my gesture. I wished I had a moment of rejoinder, I would have told her that for three hours of my four-plus decades of post-natal existence, I was a wicket-keeper. She would have appreciated the origins of my catching instinct.

For the sake of cohesion, this shall remain unknown to the mother of my children, who was a step ahead of the incident.

Since we were there so early, we could scout for the best seats with the drop-off zone for dignitaries and the stage in a clear line of sight. Like a Soweto derby, the movement was restricted to zones according to accreditation levels. Eventually, we sat in front of the diplomatic corps’ section.

It proved to be fruitful. Apart from exchanging pleasantries, I could eavesdrop on their chit-chat. Most remarkable was agreement that this occasion was more than just an inauguration.

This is like an African Union summit,” they concluded, “with such a powerful contingent of heads of state…” They came from as far afield as Cuba, Venezuela and Egypt. Kings and queens were well represented, from the Middle East to the recently renamed eSwatini kingdom.

Furthermore, the diplomats remarked about the organisation of the event. They had never seen such precision, especially with such big crowds involved. Starting on time and ending on time. Wait, the president spoke earlier than planned on the programme and for as long as he was given. Perfect!

This is a country of many talents and surprises,” a foreign correspondent nearby commented. “I have no drama to write about,” he told his companion.

Oh, the DJ! The fellow’s instincts are faster than the speed of the Gripen fighter jet piloted by Major Mandisa Mfeka. He swiftly stopped Ringo’s Sondela song upon realising the crowd’s negative response.

I wanted to say something about the fellow with a perm seated in front of me. Fearing he was eavesdropping, I could only mumble to myself, “Herman Mashaba is still relevant in some families”. I took a picture of this late 20th-century hairstyle and innocently looked straight ahead. Fortunately, the weather was hospitable and the free umbrellas offered shade. The thought of hair oil melting into the collar of his white shirt was too ghastly to contemplate. In this era of decolonisation, where “black like me” trends as a statement of asserting black being, this perm hairstyle is pen-worthy – all puns intended!

Then came a moment in the programme when a strong group of Congolese nationals joined the party. They were so jubilant you would be forgiven for forgetting that we have temporary moments of insanity where we see brothers from other countries as our enemies who take our women and jobs. If you thought Amazayoni churchgoers can beat the cowhide drums, wait until you see the Congolese in action. We truly have common ancestry: The spirits rise when they sing and make circular movements. But the Burundi group took the cake. Only the Masai can jump higher when in action.

Then I thought, here we are gathered in our racial diversity, forgetting all our petty jealousies, united in song and dance, to say Amandla! President Ramaphosa. Why can’t we use the same spirit to forge a common future?

Of course, song and dance are not enough, sharing the land and wealth is the strongest glue that can bind us. Anti-black and anti-immigrant sentiments are always possible in an unequal society. As the president proclaimed in his inauguration speech, this is the time to end poverty and inequality. It is the time to transfer and share the wealth among all South Africans. Our Constitution demands so.

Before I forget, did you notice that the presidents of our neighbouring states received loud cheers from the grandstands on their arrival? Yes, they are popular here. So, next time you use xenophobia when the demon of pettiness engulfs us, think again. It is competition for resources that undermine cohesion, not a deep-seated dislike of our brothers and sisters who originate from elsewhere in the continent.

This was indeed a grand occasion, so dress choices were a major part of the fanfare. Hence one can’t miss writing about the couple in royal blue bell-bottoms.

It has been a while since I last encountered bell-bottoms. I mean, we are into this thing of skinny and slim-fit outfits. Oh, they looked so regal! Sons and daughters of Africa, taking us back down memory lane. You can’t dress like that and sit down on plastic chairs. Like at the Durban July, you have to walk around to make a statement. Surely, the brother and sister did. It was splendid. I just wondered whether dry cleaners charge the same amount as ordinary pants to clean them. Or, like at Woollies, they charge more for bigger sizes.

Did I tell you that the brother wore what looked like furniture shoes (the ones with wooden platform heels)? For the born-frees, please ask your grandparents. Even Google might have missed these types. Their popularity coincided with the glory days of songbirds Mercy Phakela and PJ Powers. Only that I never knew there were male versions too, until this Africa Day, in the Jacaranda City, under royal blue bell-bottoms.

Brothers and sisters, we are in the new dawn. If you thought not much has changed, think again.

Think of those young women who spectacularly showed off the country’s military might by flipping supersonic jets as if they were not born into poverty. Think of Captain Vusi Khumalo, South African Airways’ chief pilot and his colleagues, who manoeuvred those jumbo jets at dangerous altitudes as if they were playing tin-oil guitars in a maskandi festival.

Think again, the whole occasion was orchestrated by public servants, not some super project management agency from across the Atlantic. Even that great food served to heads of state was cooked by public servants from the military.

It begs the question: with these superb project management and execution capabilities displayed on Saturday, can’t we use the same organising capabilities to serve the people of South Africa better, with pride and purpose? The answer is yes, we can!

The new dawn is essentially about that: The era of serving with excellence, giving South Africans the best service they deserve. We already produce smart identity cards in less than two weeks. Apart from the construction-sector greed exposed by the Competition Commission, everyone agrees that the 2010 Soccer World Cup proved our capabilities. We have built superhighways. Millions of citizens drink clean water.

There are men and women in blue who are arresting and investigating people who are successfully prosecuted. The thousands of youth going through our tertiary institutions are being prepared for a future free of poverty. We have a number of rural and township schools producing the best maths and science students in the country. We are winning Grammy awards. We are breaking Olympic records. Very young black women are becoming neurosurgeons and nuclear scientists. We are even summiting the highest and most dangerous mountains in the world. All the hallmarks of a free and democratic country.

As behavioural psychologists say, what you imagine is what you become. It is time, I argue again, that we in the public service should reimagine our role as the mandarins whose principal task is national transformation. We should imagine our work beyond strategic plans and annual performance plans. Surviving Scopa should not be a sign of fortitude.

We should solve the problems of the citizens, and treat the people with care and compassion. We have seen well-managed, expanded public works interventions lift families from abject poverty. We have seen entrepreneurs thrive when we give them efficient business development support and affordable finance packages. We have seen tourists return when they are better served by customs and immigration officials. The elderly live longer and happier when healthcare services are provided with diligence. Imagine the millions of lives saved by diligently dispensing ARVs. Think of the smallholder who supplies vegetables to schools daily.

In the final analysis, beyond the pomp and ceremony of the presidential inauguration, this Africa Day called for a new cadre in the public service – the mandarins who give practical meaning to the idea of the new dawn.

Successive generations of public-sector leaders have either achieved or squandered their civilising mission. Some built the democratic state institutions we have today. Others sold their souls to rent-seekers.

For this generation, with or without wigs and bell-bottoms, failure is not an option. DM


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