Dear oldies, it’s time to go

2015-04-27 08:00

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There was a fascinating element to the government’s response to the xenophobic attacks that had little to do with the matter at hand. It had to do with the style of the politicians who were handling the crisis and what it said about our state of politics.

Let us start with the man at the top. In 2008, an unemployed Jacob Zuma led ANC leaders on an on-the-ground listening and talking tour of xenophobic hot spots. He empathised with the victims and spoke peace to the alleged perpetrators. As the lame-duck Thabo Mbeki was ensconced on top of government hill in Tshwane and seemingly in denial about the crisis gripping the nation, Zuma stepped into the breach.

Whether it was opportunistic did not matter. The visibility of senior leadership at ground level was the required medicine.

This year’s attacks saw a different Zuma. One year into his second term and three extra wives under his belt, he was initially an Mbeki.

He hid on the same hill and emerged only to give a lame statement in Parliament.

When he eventually decided to get his hands and feet dirty, he turned up at a Durban transit camp wearing the kind of mauve jacket a best man would wear to a wedding, and spoke in isiZulu of all things to the foreign nationals. It took a while for the penny to drop before he switched to English. Even then, he was unconvincing in his empathy and muttered and mumbled some incomprehensible statements that were jeered by the crowd.

His performance in subsequent events was stilted and forced, as if he was trying really hard to be presidential.

Then there’s the rather comical Minister of State Security David Mahlobo, who doesn’t really make one feel very secure.

The man tends to say exceptionally weird things when he speaks in public. He is mired so deep in the world of conspiracies it is not inconceivable he boxes with his own shadow each night after his family has gone to bed. Be it the bust-ups in Parliament, service-delivery protests or xenophobic violence, our man always sees mysterious forces guiding any process.

He never quite identifies this hidden hand, but is always convinced it is there.

His greatest contribution to the war against xenophobia has been to repeatedly warn the public that phantoms are roaming the land and influencing South Africans to chop up foreigners.

In the same vein is Minister of Defence Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula who – given her almost permanent angry frown – should have been in the front line of the campaign from the beginning. Her stare would have surely driven back the most determined mob. Her being brought on in the 91st minute was a waste of a good frown. When the violent mobs had retreated to base tired and exhausted, Mapisa-Nqakula unleashed the army on the formerly volatile areas.

With that famous scowl on her face, she declared: “It is our responsibility to make sure the entire country is OK.”

If only she had realised that was her responsibility three weeks ago.

From the African Union (AU) headquarters came a voice from the past which, according to reliable information, wants to be a voice of the future.

With the continent appalled by the goings-on in her home country, AU chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma added her voice to the condemnation of the “unacceptable?...?attacks on people”.

She reminded us of the role played by the Organisation of African Unity in “mobilising international solidarity for the end of apartheid” and added the challenges of poverty and unemployment were not unique to South Africa, but were faced by the entire continent. She forgot to remind us she was at the centre of the policy that allowed a neighbouring country to disintegrate, forcing millions of its citizens to jump the border in search of an existence here.

Among the other faces and voices we have seen in this debate was Gwede Mantashe and Julius Malema’s favourite punchbag, Baleka Mbete.

There were other voices speaking out on the violence and purporting to offer leadership. The common denominator was that they were all pretty ancient.

The clearest, most sensible and authoritative voices came from another generation of leaders. With the exception of Mahlobo, the younger generation was a lot more convincing in its leadership and utterances than the ancients.

Gauteng Premier David Makhura and Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba have been nimble, mobile and sensible amid the oldies. Their public statements and actions have given hope to South Africans concerned about leadership ossification.

As has been argued previously on these pages, is it not time the governing party started to take the idea of a generational leap seriously? What this crisis has shown is that the country needs fresh brains, fresh ideas and fresh energy. Not only to solve problems, but to propel us forward.

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