We should all be Iman Rappetti

Given Mkhari, chairman of Power987.
Given Mkhari, chairman of Power987.

When Iman Rappetti stood up to Given Mkhari and Johann Rupert during the Chairman's Conversation at her own expense she did what others in the room failed to do, writes Tshidi Madia.

"Walking like a one-man army, fighting with the shadows in your head, living out the same old moment, knowing you would be better off instead if you could only say what you need to say…" 

These are lyrics from American singer and songwriter John Mayer's hit song "Say what you need to say"; words that crossed my mind as I watched Power987 presenter Iman Rappetti take a stand and confront blatant racism playing out in front of seemingly pleased black professionals laughing at every possible insult and stereotype coming out of business mogul Johann Rupert's mouth.

Rupert was being interviewed by Power987 chairman Given Mkhari on Tuesday in the second instalment of his Chairman's Conversation.

In spite of my own misgivings based on the inaugural Chairman's Conversation last year, I tuned in anyway and sadly realised when Rupert responded to Mkhari's introduction with "Is that the Shangaan in you?" that it would be a downward spiral. But, like with a train wreck happening in front of you, I couldn't help but watch.

To say I was upset, shocked and disappointed would be an understatement. I am not mad at Rupert. Based on his mannerism and remarks, he obviously sees himself as rich, generous, and, by extension, somehow better than others. 

READ: Rupert schooled in the art of talking but not listening

I am angry with the middle class folk in the audience who couldn't help but laugh and clap hands at every awkward moment of the tortuous interview. It is the young black professionals we are meant to aspire to, putting out a hand asking for help from the rich white man I cannot reconcile myself with. 

It is the host, who instead of challenging a powerful man perpetuating harmful ideas about wealth, hard work, youth and blackness opted to laugh, bow his head and dismiss certain claims, who I have a problem with.

Rappetti was in the audience and first expressed her views on Twitter, asking, "Am I the only one feeling a tinge of insult in the way Rupert is engaging with Mkhari?" She eventually stood up, doing for South Africa what Mkhari and many in the Sandton venue failed to do. 

"Sitting here and listening to the conversation myself, I feel like am I in the wrong place. Am I in the wrong room?" she asked.

"What would you say to South Africans for whom your message jars in the way in which you deliver, who feel that the message you are communicating is that white people have to be caretakers of black people in our country?"

Rupert had to explain his comments. Her question addressed the elephant in the room and we have to applaud her for standing up and doing the necessary.

The fact that she cloaked her rebuke of the Richemont chairman as concern over what many, myself included, were tweeting while watching the "conversation", has been read by some as cowardly. Some feel that it would have been more impactful if she was explicit in describing her own feelings. But they forget the words of Nelson Mandela, the country's first democratic president: "courage is not the absence of fear, it's the triumph over it." And that, you can't take away from Rappetti. 

When she stood up on Tuesday evening she would've been mindful of the power dynamic that exists between her as a woman, Mkhari as her boss and Rupert, a privileged white male. But she subdued this fear and spoke her truth regardless of the consequences.

She did so in a room where guests noted that "money was arrogant" but still, nevertheless, cap in hand asked for lessons and resources from a paternalistic Rupert.

Gauteng's Education MEC and the ANC's provincial deputy chairperson Panyaza Lesufi later walked out of the event, afterwards tweeting that he was "deeply disappointed" as Rupert missed an "opportunity to take the country forward".

I was one of the many who believed the event was unnecessary. But, in the end, I must admit it's of critical value to continue with conversations like this as they are a constant reminder of how sectional divisions still persist in our so-called rainbow nation and that we need to seriously interrogate the obsession with social cohesion that's void of restorative justice.

*The irony of quoting Mayer is not lost on the author.

- Madia is a senior political reporter at News24.

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