Bullies or activists? Ramaphosa and Mkhari – the interview that wasn't

Was it an opportunity missed or did it send a powerful message?
Was it an opportunity missed or did it send a powerful message?

President Cyril Ramaphosa's sudden withdrawal from an interview with Given Mkhari is analysed through the eyes of Modidima Mannya and Yonela Diko, with the former writing that a great opportunity has been lost for the public to hold Mkhari to account. Diko writes that the president’s move served a critical and worthy purpose.

Once a group’s views are the only ones which must prevail, then public debate has been stifled and opportunities missed, writes Modidima Mannya

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s decision to withdraw from a scheduled radio interview last week must go down in history as the worst non-state form of censorship in the world.

The interview, probably the only one of its kind involving our head of state, would, among other things, have discussed violence against women and children.

Two NGOs put pressure on the president not to participate in the interview, supposedly because the radio station owner, Given Mkhari, had abused his wife in the past.

This approach presents a major problem. In real terms, it means that these NGOs disrupted a government programme and decided when and how the public must hear the president’s views.

In a very arbitrary manner, the NGOs revoked our entrenched freedoms in a way no different from those who protest for a good cause but violate the rights of others.

They also imposed censorship on the citizens and technically took over control of the airwaves, limiting freedom of expression and deciding for the station’s listeners what they can listen to.

In equal measure, they dictated to the president who he could speak to, when and on what subject.

Nothing says Mkhari does not have a right to express a view on that matter. We may disagree with his views which is within our rights. But to take away his right to express his views borders on dictatorship.
Modidima Mannya

Dictating to others

The presidency decided in its wisdom, and correctly so, to accept the invitation for Ramaphosa to participate in the interview.

This interview was very important in light of the pervasive nature of women and children abuse in the country.

Advocacy and education remain the critical pillars in the fight against gender-based violence and other social ills.

There cannot be any better opportunity for advocacy than to have the president engaged in such an interview, which would have had a profound impact and contributed significantly to the ongoing debate about gender-based violence and the abuse of women and children.

Stifling public debate

Media platforms are some of the tools we have in a democratic society to ensure that structured public debate takes place.

Public debate on such platforms is intended to raise awareness and educate the people about critical issues such as this one.

Once a group’s views are the only ones which must prevail, then public debate has been stifled.

We must now expect that another lobby group will prevent another debate from taking place.

We have therefore set a dangerous precedent which must be reversed immediately.

An affront to freedom of expression and thought

Our law imposes specific restrictions on what we cannot express our views on. However, it does not restrict anyone, including those who are convicted of serious offences, from expressing their views.

It may be that the target of the protest acted in a manner which is inconsistent with our stance as the public on issues of women abuse.

However, nothing says Mkhari does not have a right to express a view on that matter. We may disagree with his views which is within our rights.

But to take away his right to express his views borders on dictatorship and is arbitrary.

Balance between the right to privacy and public interest

There should be no doubt that the abuse of women and children is a serious public issue. If it was not, we would not be debating and instituting more serious measures to curb this scourge.

It’s also true that what happens behind closed doors on this issue remains a matter of public interest.

It is by no means a defence that the abuse takes place in the privacy of our homes.

The public does not want abuse to happen at all, regardless of whether it happens in public or in private.

Every abuser is the same and must be treated similarly.
Modidima Mannya

However, it is equally important that there are limitations to the extent the public can interfere in private lives without an invitation from those involved.

One of the real shortcomings of the fight against women abuse in particular is the very fact of our duty to respect the right of privacy of others.

Because part of the abuse involves the privacy of those affected, we are often called on to respect their privacy.

This does not, however, mean we are precluded from expressing our views in public and expressing our indignation at the abusers.

We cannot however dictate how they should relate. We can provide the much-needed support and solidarity without intruding into private lives.

The irrelevance of the public profile of perpetrators

Violence against women and children is a national scourge. It happens everywhere, and the perpetrators are all beneficiaries of the system of patriarchy.

The worst form of this violence affects mostly the defenceless and those without access to resources and services to defend themselves.

It is dangerous to reduce the ongoing fight against this type of violence to targeting celebrities in our society.

They are no different from those who use any form of power and influence to abuse women and children. Every abuser is the same and must be treated similarly.

Our limited resources must be directed at the most oppressed and vulnerable.

Cancelling the president’s interview has deprived the affluent an opportunity to have their consciences pricked so that more people get involved in the fight against this violence.

Embarrassing abusers because of their status does great injustice to the woman and child in rural areas whose cries are drowned out by these NGOs and the glare of the public.

Ramaphosa lost an opportunity to set the tone during the 16 Days of No Violence Against Women and Children campaign
Modidima Mannya

Retribution or correction

The conduct of abusers must at all times be condemned in the strongest terms and the harshest sanctions in law imposed on them if convicted.

However, we must be careful not to convict those we do not like without due process.

Yes, we have the right to convict them in the court of public opinion and make them uncomfortable in our public spaces.

But we must do so in a manner consistent with the primary objective of impacting the status quo.

Those convicted in the courts of law must do time in jail. But even those are given a second chance in life through various rehabilitation programmes.

A lost opportunity

Ramaphosa lost an opportunity to set the tone during the 16 Days of No Violence Against Women and Children campaign.

Another opportunity was lost by the NGOs that used the interview to assert their imaginary moral authority instead of focusing on highlighting the scourge of this violence.

A great opportunity has been lost for the public to hold Mkhari to account. But we also deprived him of a chance to contribute meaningfully if we believe that he offended us.

Advocate Mannya is executive director of legal services at Unisa

Whatever the reasons were for Ramaphosa ditching Mkhari, the president’s actions serve to remind us that there is no glory in abuse, writes Yonela Diko

In August 2012, Archbishop Desmond Tutu made a last-minute dramatic withdrawal from the Discovery Invest Leadership Summit on the day of the conference, citing that he “couldn’t sit with someone who justified the invasion of Iraq with a lie”, referring to fellow panellist Tony Blair.

His withdrawal was met with great scepticism and some limited backlash, not least from Discovery itself, which cited rather indignantly that Tutu had been invited months ago and he knew then that he would be sharing the stage with Blair and had expressed no concerns about the invitation.

Tutu’s unconvincing reply to the backlash was that as the day of the summit approached, he “felt an increasingly profound sense of discomfort about attending a summit on leadership with Mr Blair”.

A media blitz ensued, bringing back memories of the 2003 Iraqi invasion, almost 10 years after it happened.

Suddenly, Tutu’s withdrawal seemed brilliant and strategic.
Yonela Diko

Should Blair and then US President George W Bush have been taken to the International Criminal Court to answer for their illegal invasion of Iraq? Were Blair and Bush beyond the reach of justice?

How would the world ensure that such isolationism and adventurism would never again happen?

Was Blair the right person to be talking about leadership in the land of Nelson Mandela, who risked his own political capital trying to prevent the two world leaders from embarking on the ill-advised invasion?

These were the questions that the world was now seized with a decade after the war. Suddenly, Tutu’s withdrawal seemed brilliant and strategic.

He decided to bring the world in through the dramatisation of that withdrawal with the hope that whatever spin the organisers could attempt, and whatever leadership capital he might shed, he would have shone a much-needed spotlight to the injustice of the Iraq invasion and the lack of accountability of those who led it, an issue that was slowly receding from the world’s attention.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s last-minute withdrawal from the Power FM Chairman’s Conversation and the media storm that followed, the backlash and the ghastly return of allegations of abuse against Given Mkhari, and the ultimate family interview with Thulasizwe Simelane which was cringeworthy, all reminded me of that 2012 incident.

The president shed some leadership capital in the eyes of some, but Mkhari’s deliberate intention to shield himself from public scrutiny was no longer avoidable.

Most importantly, people saw the dichotomy many women are faced with – on one hand enduring abuse from their partners and on the other wanting to keep their families together and protecting the family brand, even if they must lie to do it.

Unless it’s a speech at the UN, there is no rationality in assuming that he had been agonising or indulging in Mkhari’s upcoming conversation.
Yonela Diko

Was the president’s withdrawal strategic and deliberate?

Did he know that withdrawing at any other time, especially at the time of receiving the private invitation, would not have brought as much media attention on gender-based violence and on powerful men?

Was his withdrawal planned or did it result in unintended and perhaps unwanted media attention by a president who many have said is indecisive and has no appetite for hard decisions?

To believe the latter would imply that Ramaphosa was looking forward to the Chairman’s Conversation until he was rudely interrupted by Wise 4 Afrika and the Soul City Institute for Social Justice, which cornered him in the name of 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children.

One must first assume that at the very least the president gets reminded of his media engagements 24 hours before they happen.

Unless it’s a speech at the UN, there is no rationality in assuming that he had been agonising or indulging in Mkhari’s upcoming conversation.

Just in the month of November, Ramaphosa would have been preoccupied with opening his signature SA Investment Conference, attending the 11th Brics summit in Brazil, addressing the second Africa Investment Forum, launching the 25-year review report in Mpumalanga (along with opening the new high court), and hosting the Springboks on their glorious return.

This takes me to the point where some thought that Ramaphosa should have turned the tables on Mkhari, taking the opportunity to confront and expose him on his show.

The idea that an entire state president should have turned himself into an interviewer, played gimmicks and tricks to trap his host is crass and crude.

It suggests that Mkhari matters to the presidency and the country – he does not – or that those who hold such a view possess a certain righteous high, typical of social media microcelebrities who don’t know how to separate the fiction of the flat world of social media from complex reality.

The president had no business being frivolous and engaging in tricks to catch Mkhari. That would have been pathetic and demeaning.
Yonela Diko

Of course, others felt that Ramaphosa was shunning a successful black business owner and possibly crippling his business with his last-minute withdrawal, something that validates the accusations that the president prioritises white businesses and does not care much about black businesses.

This is nonsensical and an insult to black business.

Black people, in all our struggle, triumph, pain and victory, have never been excused from being kind, generous, loving and respectful.

At the core of our journey has always been the ability to retain our humanity in the struggle.

We are an unconquerable people, a royal priesthood, and whosoever claims to be black and demands our support but thinks he is excused from being a gentleman, being kind, being generous, never to raise his hand on his wife whatever the justification, that person can never, and should never, claim to represent blackness or black people.

Ramahosa’s withdrawal would have always been a simple question of logistics, which means he would have had to withdraw within 24 hours in any case because that’s his cycle for such interviews, whether owing to civic organisation pressure, an emergency Cabinet meeting or a last-minute international call.

Leaving it to the wire, of course, could indeed be a Tutuism and an attempt to present the president as someone who is willing to sacrifice even the most powerful on the altar if they have done the nation wrong.

But did he succeed?

The country got to see the microcosm of what the rest of the population is going through via Mkhari’s home, through a family trying to live past a moment of no return.

The chairman did not cover himself in glory, neither do the many men like him.

The president’s move, even outside its intention, served a critical and worthy purpose.

Diko is a social commentator

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