Opinion Piece

Judith February: Ramaphosa’s walkabouts with the disgraced and flirtations with the demagogic

It happened on one of President Ramaphosa’s “lifestyle walks”. Gauteng Premier David Makhuru and former Johannesburg Mayor Parks Tau joined Ramaphosa on his 5km walkabout in Soweto on Saturday. While their presence was unremarkable, it was former Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu’s presence at the forefront of the walk that has caused controversy. And rightly so.

Let us cast our minds a short way back to the Life Esidimeni tragedy.

If we are searching for a story which indicates the state’s callous disregard for the most vulnerable in our society then we need look no further than the tragedy that left 143 patients, many of them mentally ill, dead. These patients had been transferred to NGOs once the Gauteng Department of Health had terminated the public-private partnership with Life Esidimeni hospital.

What happened to them thereafter was the subject of a report by Health Ombudsman Malegapuru Makgoba. That report recommended an arbitration process that was presided over by former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke. There was no one better suited to deal with the raw emotion as well as the complexity of what happened to these vulnerable patients.

The stories are heart-wrenching, with some patients loaded onto the back of vans as they were being transferred to “NGOs” clearly not equipped to deal with the patients assigned to them. On a few occasions, the former MEC for Health, Qedani Mahlangu, seemed missing in action when called to testify before Moseneke. Her arrogance was astounding as she tried to evade the hearings because of her “studies in England”.

When she eventually appeared before Moseneke, his frustration was palpable. She spent much of her testimony trying to evade responsibility for what happened on her watch and continued to spin a web of deceit when questioned. Her modus operandi was to shift the blame onto health officials. After some penetrating cross-examination by advocate Adila Hassim on behalf of the victims’ families, Mahlangu eventually offered them an apology. That was too little, too late. Their relatives are dead. That’s the cold, hard truth.

The Life Esidimeni scandal stands equal to Marikana in its disdain for the victims and their families and in the scale of death at the hands of the state. It is democracy’s shame.

When asked about his curious choice of walking partner, Ramaphosa defended the decision by saying (and his words are worth quoting verbatim), “Qedani Mahlangu, like any other South African, is a person who must be treated as a citizen of this country. She is a comrade and whatever we have done, it does not mean we have to treat people with hatred and rejection and with total disdain. She is just a human being like all of us are.”

Ramaphosa added that the ANC was serious about disciplining its members given that Mahlangu was hauled before the Gauteng ANC’s Provincial Integrity Committee.

You must never think that we sweep things under the carpet, particularly in this new era… Going to subject herself to the integrity committee of the ANC in the province shows that this ANC we are dealing with is not the ANC that will run away from problems, we will deal with problems head-on...”

Clearly Mahlangu did not feel chastened enough to hang her head in shame and eschew appearing in public – even a few months after her disastrous testimony. Worryingly, Ramaphosa also said that Mahlangu had been held to account since she had appeared at the arbitration and had resigned.

Has any other hardship been visited upon Mahlangu and has she received full benefits upon resignation? Besides, what choice did she have but to appear before Moseneke?

It is our right as citizens to demand such accountability and Mahlangu’s duty to heed the call of the arbitration to appear. Ramaphosa’s assertion that she should not be “treated with hatred” is disingenuous. His first and foremost concern should be what message such a walkabout with Mahlangu sends to the victims of the Life Esidimeni tragedy. Not seeking her presence is not “hatred”, it’s called empathy for the most vulnerable in our society. And dealing with Mahlangu is not “rejection”; it’s called political accountability. Indeed, she deserves society’s opprobrium and disdain in much the same way that former President Zuma and his corrupt cronies do. There is no other way to sugarcoat the Life Esidimeni tragedy.

Everyone understands the balance of forces within the ANC at present. Ramaphosa left Nasrec in December with the narrowest of victories. That means that his position is not as cemented as he would wish it to be. Thus, compromise is required. In his State of the Nation Address, Ramaphosa appealed to the better angels of our nature. If a country lives by its myths, then South Africa is proverbially the “place of the second chance”.

Ramaphosa knew that Thuma Mina! would speak emotively to a country battered and bruised by years of Jacob Zuma’s corruption and by State Capture. So he has largely been given the benefit of the doubt.

We saw the need to compromise early on when the so-called ‘transitional cabinet’ was announced. After all, Ramaphosa not only has to fix the state, he also has to win an election next year with a party that is unified – even if that unity is tenuous at best.

More recently, the handling of the land issue has been clumsy, and while Ramaphosa is clearly trying to champion a measured debate, he has allowed things to slip somewhat. Land is a fraught, emotive issue and debating it will require strength of leadership to push back against scaremongering, hate speech and lawlessness. While there has been much sturm und drang around the land question, South Africa will probably end up with some form of compromise after the parliamentary process. Also, the ConCourt will surely adjudicate any amendments to the Expropriation Act.

The trick will be to manage the politics in the interim and to ensure that the rule of law is withheld. On that there can be no compromise. The problem for Ramaphosa of course is the EFF and Julius Malema – the original enfant terrible. Let’s be clear, Malema is not arguing for expropriation without compensation but rather nationalisation of property. He is a dangerous and unprincipled politician.

At the weekend, Ramaphosa and his deputy DD Mabuza said that Malema would be welcomed “home” and the “ANC would love to have him back”. It was never beyond the realm of possibility that the expelled Malema could one day find his way “back home” to the ANC. After all, politics is mostly about opportunism.

But again, while Malema understands very well the power of optics, it’s worth remembering who he is. The corrupt tenders he benefited from in Limpopo, all of which is detailed in the Auditor-General’s report of 2010/2011, are testimony to the looting which took place in Limpopo during Cassel Mathale’s premiership.

Despite the ConCourt cases brought by the EFF against former President Zuma, Malema himself is an opportunistic defender of the Constitution. His position on land and his ready slogan, “If you see a beautiful piece of land, take it”, is incendiary, and he knows it. Malema’s duplicity makes it hard to believe what he says – the Gucci lifestyle with unexplained sources of income was raised as far back as 2010. While lamenting the public education system he has happily announced that he will continue sending his son to private school because the state system is “poor and dysfunctional”. He and his colleagues are thus able to buy themselves out of the chaos they cause.

If Malema returns to the ANC, Ramaphosa would be allowing short-termism and pre-election panic to trump principle. Malema’s EFF represents less than 10% of the electorate, after all. Surely Ramaphosa’s focus should be on cleaning up the mess Zuma left and not creating a fresh one?

His and Mabuza’s strategy may be to neutralise Malema by luring him back into the ANC with a Cabinet position and thereby solving the electoral challenge the ANC faces, but they may well regret it. Given the fluidity of our politics at present, it’s hard to predict what will materialise. However, Malema’s cavalier conduct may pose new threats within the ANC and create a monster that one cannot tame.

Ramaphosa may not be as in control of the Malema overture within the ANC as he wishes to be, but on the Mahlangu issue he ought to have had crystal-clear clarity. The “new dawn” requires no ethical equivalence on such a sensitive issue.

Ramaphosa made a clarion call for society to rally behind him in fixing our desperately broken country. As citizens we understand the need for political compromise but there will be limits to our understanding if the likes of Mahlangu go walkabout – literally and figuratively. And we will be equally cynical if a demagogue like Malema finds himself ensconced within the ANC again.

Ramaphosa should know that political honeymoons are very short. DM