Who can forget his public appearance at the 1995 Rugby World Cup finals at Ellis Park stadium donning a green Springbok jersey? Or his highly-publicised courtesy call to drink tea with the widow of the architect of grand apartheid? Or his call on his comrades in KwaZulu-Natal to throw their weapons into the sea at the height of a low-intensity civil war?
These and many other encounters are often used as anecdotes when people talk about the late Mandela’s knack for using symbolism to reinforce his message of national reconciliation and cohesion. The politician who brought me these thoughts about grand gestures is not Nelson Mandela, but our current deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa.
There he was coming to appear before the Marikana Commission—to explain his role in the few days leading to the fateful killing of 34 workers and the maiming of scores of others—accompanied by an all-white team of lawyers. The symbolic rejection of the principles of black economic empowerment and transformation engendered in that moment was completely lost to Ramaphosa until Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza questioned him about the lack of racial diversity in his team at the end of the first day.
It went like this:
Ntsebeza: “As a parting shot, I am going to say you must look at your legal team. When you procure those services, we must see a reflection of a South Africa in those services. Today, all those friends of mine are not representative. They are not what you were speaking to in terms of black economic empowerment. You agree with that?
Ramaphosa: “I don’t know what you mean exactly.”
Ntsebeza: “I am talking about my friend there Dave and my friend there Mike. Your legal team is not reflective …”
Ramaphosa: “Mr Chairman, does this have any relevance?”
Ntsebeza: “It is….you look at legal teams there. Ninety percent of them are non-racial.”
He must have had an epiphany in a split second that he made his billions on the back of BEE, and that he had been one of transformation’s outstanding champions, for he did say he “understood”.
The conversation might have lasted a minute or two, but it was poignant. It was one of those rare moments in the gruelling cross-examination where the consummate politician and negotiator seemed at a loss for words.
I wondered what must have gone through his mind when he briefed an entirely white team of lawyers.
Did he think race no longer matters?
Did he think being a high net worth black individual renders his world “post-transformation”? Did he perhaps reckon that insisting on a using a representative team of professionals is something he is expected to do only when he is donning his official cap as a public representative?
This faux pas on the part of Ramaphosa was unfortunate because Marikana carries its own symbolism for him. Those who are opposed to him succeeding President Jacob Zuma have often cited it as the reason why they deem him unfit to ascend to the highest office in the land. Arguably, Marikana is to Ramaphosa what Nkandla is to Zuma, or what the arms deal was to Mbeki. It’s an albatross he will have to shrug off his neck if he wants to ensure political longevity in these uncertain political times.
His appearance at that commission was, in some sense, a symbolic trial of his political fitness for office. That is why comparisons were often drawn between the young firebrand who led the 1987 strike that crippled apartheid mines and the BEE tycoon he was when those workers were shot down by the police. It was like the rival lawyers, most of whom happened to be black, were questioning whether there is an ideological break between the Ramaphosa of 1987 and that of 2012.
As it became evident in the sporadic heckling that accompanied the hearing, political opponents were keen to paint him as a revolutionary who had sold out the course of the workers.
So it must have stung like a jab when Ntsebeza and Dali Mpofu made snide remarks about his choice of lawyers. It was a reminder that politicians do not always walk their talk!
While Ramaphosa’s defenders have argued that merit and skill mattered more than the levels of melanin on the skins when the deputy president selected the team he was probably paying with his own money, the risk was that gesture somehow suggested that blackness and merit were mutually exclusive.
The opponents of transformation in the private can always cite Ramaphosa—who ironically once chaired the BEE commission and championed its stance on empowerment—to argue why the status quo is desirable for the economy. And that does not bode well for progress.
By Sabelo Ndlangisa