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Ramaphosa’s deafening silence on things that matter speaks volumes about a bereft government flailing in the dark

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Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

It is a painful fact, but President Cyril Ramaphosa now heads a government that stands for nothing. It is a presidency which, at best, equivocates and, at worst, remains silent on what matters.

This past week, we watched as Limpopo Health MEC Dr Phophi Ramathuba stood at the bedside of a Zimbabwean patient in a hospital in Bela-Bela, smirking and berating the woman. The words are now well documented:  

“You are supposed to be with [Zimbabwean President Emmerson] Mnangagwa; you know he doesn’t give me money to operate. And I’m operating with my limited budget. When you guys are sick, I’m hearing that you just say, let’s cross the Limpopo River, there’s an MEC there who’s running a charity department.”  

The casual use of language and the callousness with which the first person is invoked tells a story all on its own. As she left, Ramathuba said, “Sorry sisi, but you won’t be discharged until you settle your bill. You must charge her.” 

And those around her laughed. 

At the weekend, Ramathuba, not chastened by media coverage, declared that she would repeat the words, given the opportunity. Ramathuba’s justification was that “91%” (sic) of Limpopo residents would support her actions, given the parlous state of health services in the province. On this basis, presumably Ramathuba and the ANC would support the death penalty, given that research has repeatedly shown that South Africans would support its reinstatement, given the high crime rate. 

All around us the state is in collapse as a result of poor governance, corruption, State Capture and disinterest. The lack of care in our society is pervasive. In a week in which we remembered Babita Deokaran’s murder for exposing PPE corruption in the Gauteng health department in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, we heard that R500,000 was spent by a Tembisa hospital on “skinny jeans”. The suspended CEO, Ashley Mthunzi, said it was a “typing error”. This sort of corruption is commonplace and, with or without foreigners, this government does an abysmal job of protecting the vulnerable in our society. 

Ramathuba went on to claim that those who objected to her comments have access to private healthcare. The latter is a cheap argument when Ramathuba presumably continues to draw her MEC salary, together with its perks and a “blue-light brigade” thrown in for good measure. 

But Ramathuba’s insouciance has its roots in her lack of fear: she has no fear of sanction from the political party she represents. So bankrupt is the ANC, so bereft of ideas, that the only way it thinks it might be able to secure future electoral victories is to find a scapegoat. Scapegoating is hardly a new political trick. The environment in our country, with its high levels of unemployment and inequality, is ripe for exploitation by opportunistic politicians. And there is no shortage of opportunistic politicians ready to blame “the other” for appalling social conditions of their own making in the case of the ANC or, in the case of the opposition, to gain an electoral foothold. 

Earlier this year, when members of Operation Dudula staged violent marches against foreigners, ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe condoned these actions while President Cyril Ramaphosa meekly condemned such “vigilante-type activity”. Yet, what serious police action was taken as members of Operation Dudula prevented foreign patients and workers from entering the Kalafong hospital in Atteridgeville this week? 

If no one is arrested for such illegal activity and if leaders are either silent or, worse, complicit, it emboldens xenophobic utterances which have now become part and parcel of our political discourse. A few days ago, Gayton McKenzie of the Patriotic Alliance said he would switch off the oxygen of a foreign national to save a South African patient. These crass and cruel words are hard to fathom. 

The Zimbabwean Exemption Permit scheme (ZEP) is due to come to an end in December. That decision — now the subject of litigation — was, it is worth reminding ourselves, a decision of Ramaphosa’s Cabinet. It is easy to blame Aaron Motsoaledi, the minister of home affairs, whose intemperate displays have hardly injected wisdom into the debate, but this was not his decision alone. 


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Madiba’s calm words

In times of uncertainty, leadership matters. Words matter. Who could forget the day of Chris Hani’s assassination when Madiba’s calm words on national television surely brought us back from the edge of the abyss, or Madiba’s words in Durban shortly after his release to a crowd of 200,000:

“My message to those of you involved in this battle of brother against brother is this: take your guns, your knives, and your pangas, and throw them into the sea. Close down the death factories. End this war now!” 

It was a brave speech, only able to be delivered by Mandela, with his gravitas and his understanding of the reach of history in (then) Natal (it is a speech worth revisiting). 

Today, no such ethical leadership exists within the ANC, a shadow of its former self. Instead, the likes of Ramathuba crudely foment violence and hate. 

On Tuesday, Ramaphosa answered parliamentary questions and attempted to address the issue of xenophobia. He said only that Ramathuba had raised an important issue but could have done so differently.

There was no public sanction of Ramathuba, no words to say that her actions do not represent our constitutional values. Referring to migrant labour, Ramaphosa said only that there should be a balancing of labour laws and, “We cannot do these things at the expense of our people [sic].” He went on to say, “We are not a xenophobic nation. The leadership of the party I lead are not xenophobic.” As foreigners are hounded out of their homes and businesses razed, and an MEC humiliates a sick woman, one wonders if the President truly believes what he says sometimes. 

There was no enlightening word on the ZEP matter and no acknowledgement of how this policy decision may serve to further label and strip foreigners of their dignity and provide a free pass to those who seek to scapegoat the other. 

It is these sorts of comments by the President which continue to undermine his authority even as the Presidency itself suffers from a lack of credibility, particularly after the extended silence on the Phala Phala allegations.  

In Parliament on Tuesday, Ramaphosa faced a three-hour barrage of questions from the opposition on the issue. It was an unedifying spectacle of silence. Ramaphosa is well used to adjusting his sails according to the political winds and has, on the Phala Phala forex theft scandal, hidden behind process and so as citizens we are none the wiser. 

On Tuesday he said: “I have responded, and will continue to respond, to all the questions that have been put to me by the relevant authorities. While there are clearly individuals and organisations that seek political mileage on this issue, the most appropriate response is for the law to take its course.”

Except citizens do not seek political mileage, they seek truth and accountability. All Ramaphosa succeeded in doing was cement the lack of trust between himself and the people while feckless ANC MPs cheered him on. 

Added to this, last week, Russian oligarch Igor Sechin, chairperson and CEO of Russia’s largest oil company, the state-owned Rosneft (said to be close to Vladimir Putin), visited South Africa amidst a cloud of suspicion. Scorpio reported that Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, denied that the two men had met or even that the President was aware Sechin was in the country. The Department of International Relations referred all queries to the Presidency. 

More silence. We simply do not know what to believe any longer.  

It is clear that Ramaphosa will tinker around the edges, being sure to cause offence to no one until the ANC conference in December.  

So, we should prepare for more deafening silence on the things that matter as this government, bereft of values, bereft of solidarity for those on the margins, and bereft of imagination, continues to flail in the dark, using the dangerous diversionary tactics of xenophobia and hate, sprinkled with lies. 

Shame on them all. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Wilhelm Boshoff says:

    Judith you said it well. Shame on all of us.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    And despite all that, Judith, which is 100% true, we, the stupid people, will ask them to do it all over again. Viva, ANC, Viva.

    • Malcolm McManus says:

      True story. Its not the African democratic way to vote for positive change. If we are unhappy with our leaders we just sing struggle songs and dance during the warm up, then go out and smash up, or steal what little still works. Last year was a prime example of how we achieve change with the looting and violence. Like Pule Mabe quoted in his open letter to the President earlier this week he mentioned “Barbaric people”. I see the letter appears to have been deleted. If I recall correctly, I think the word “Black, may have been used in the quoted sentence.

  • Anthony Akerman says:

    Excellent article, Judith. And what an indictment on a government that came into power with a mandate to bring liberty and justice to the country after four decades of tyrannical, racist rule and now you constantly hear people – and these are not white supremacists – saying things were better before 1994. Of course, they weren’t – but people see infrastructure collapsing everywhere, politicians and their friends stealing and getting away with it … It makes the cynics among us – and our numbers are growing – wonder if, when the ANC said in the 1980s they were going to make the country ungovernable, they’d meant they needed to be the government to do so.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    The Ramaphosa regime is worse than that of Zuma. With Zuma we knew what he stood for, lying, deceit and stealing. Ramaphosa stands for NOTHING!

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    There is one clear action that the media can take. THIS IS A DEMOCRACY. So publicize the truly democratic parties! We have a whole big basket of parties here, some obviously democratic, others are one-person-wonders with unknown agendas apart from promoting their “leader” to Parliament. Others are just plainly not democratic at all.

    So support the democrats and don’t support the duds. Support the parties that deliver and don’t support the duds.

  • Malcolm McManus says:

    Cyril doesn’t run the ANC. The ANC runs him, and this will always be the problem with the cadres. They don’t understand the need for management and discipline, nor do they seek it.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    The ANC just doesn’t care! They are so morally bankrupt that they don’t even hide this fact any longer. So much for Ubuntu. Zumas tenure was the start of the rot – he should have been held accountable right at the beginning with the Arms deal. There’s no going back now.. the way out is the way through!

    • Alan Paterson says:

      The origin of the Arms Deal was very much pre-Zuma. Its origin was at the time of Mandela’s first cabinet. Joe Modise, Fana Hlongwana, Tony Yengeni, Siphiwe Nyanda, Stella Sicgau, the Sheiks (Chippy and later Shabir) to name some of the list of beneficiaries. Then, obviously, the Zuma/Shaik partnership thereafter. Only Shabir and Yengeni saw some justice although Shaik was paroled and is arguably still considered terminally ill 13 years later, maybe Zuma syndrome?

  • Roy Haines says:

    Brilliant piece – thanks Judith, but all very sad that the ANC government and SA have stooped so low.
    CR definitely does himself no favours with his continued silence and we all expected so much from him after the Zuma years, but unfortunately he is proving to be as bad as the rest of them which doesn’t bode well for our future. I fear that the 2024 general election will bring total anarchy to our beloved country.

  • Confucious Says says:

    What do we expect when most of the ministers went to school until the age of 8?

  • Sam van Coller says:

    Yet another outstanding piece by the writer

  • Tim Price says:

    You would have thought that the revelations around state capture, the Zondo Report and numerous court judgments would have stimulated change in the ANC but predictably they haven’t. A criminal organization clinging to power so the plunder can continue…

  • Oblivious Traveler says:

    He has proven to be a damp squib, i.e. a person that fails to live up to the high expectations that followed his election to the highest office in the country.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    Very good article based on proper analysis.

  • Eulalie Spamer says:

    Indeed. Shame on them all!

  • Luan Sml says:

    Thank you Judith for an excellent article on the current state of leaderless ANC governing…. Thus their only hope now is consorting with the likes of EFF and Patriotic Alliance to cling to power, using any means to keep feeding at the trough as is the situation in joburg now!
    Voters be damned, this is all about power!

  • David Purnell says:

    Sadly, we are where we are. But where do we want to be in 5, 10, 15 years time? In a barren, broken land with high walls between us and the rest of Africa (Trump-like) – or part of a pan-African world where high-value countries are actively contributing to stability and growth in their surrounding countries?
    Leaders, with vision, charisma, courage, organisation and skill are needed now – to articulate a new future and build the resources to allow it to happen!

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Unfortunately the majority of our politicians are just children playing a grown up game ….very badly. There seems to be an evolutionary gap somehow… it’s going to take a while for Democracy, morals and ethics to actually sink in!

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