I am often asked why I’m passionate about politics. I don’t like the power games politicians play and despise the lies and corruption that are so often part of the political fabric.
Yet, I’m passionate about politics.
Listening to Barack Obama last week at the Wanderers I was reminded why.
He reminded us that politics answer and determine some of the most fundamental questions that people ask. Every day, people all over the world want to know one thing and that is whether they are going to be OK.
They want to know if they will have somewhere to live, if they will be able to secure food for themselves and their children, if they will be able to get medical services when they are sick and if their children will be able to get an education. They want to know if their lives will be OK and, if not, whether they will be made better in future.
When it comes to these fundamental questions people look towards politicians for the answers. This is because politicians, through their actions, determine the positive or negative outcomes to these questions.
So, the first duty of politicians through their words and actions is to give people hope.
Secondly, politicians – and in particular, top political leaders – have a responsibility to help nations create and define their collective identity. Why is this important? Because collective identity holds enormous power.
If the right identity is created it mobilises nations to do the right things the right way – it even allows nations to speak to the world and mobilise them in some way. Cultivate the wrong identity and things go very wrong – think Rwanda, apartheid South Africa and even the United States at the moment.
In South Africa in 1994 we experienced a titanic shift in our nation’s history during which our collective identity changed almost overnight from a divided, racist nation to one that embraced and celebrated being the rainbow nation.
We believed we could be the best of the best, that we shared a common humanity, that we were going to behave differently from those who came before us and that we were going to be moral and ethical as a nation. With that identity shift we not only became a symbol of hope in the international community but also individually and collectively felt enormous hope for the future.
That was largely (although not exclusively) thanks to the extraordinary leadership of Nelson Mandela, who embodied so much of these values.
But a lot has changed since then and to put it mildly, not all for the better. Particularly during the Zuma era our collective identity started to change again and like a thief(!) in the night the idea of a racially fragmented nation took hold yet again. The moral fabric of our nation also started to deteriorate once more as politicians and citizens started to follow their leader’s example.
Just as we got to the cliff and stared into the abyss of hopelessness we thankfully pulled back and a new leader was elected.
For the first time in almost nine years we again have a leader who believes in humanity, compassion and justice and someone who can be in the company of Barack Obama and not embarrass us. Someone who demands that things should change again and that we should re-knit the moral fabric of our nation.
Yet, many of his detractors in the ANC and opposition want to get rid of him. They exploit the needs of the poor to argue that he doesn’t care and is in the pocket of big capital. They are trying to set him up to fail when it comes to reforming some key policy issues (such as land), hoping that in their never-ending hunger for power and corruption the masses will support them in getting rid of the president.
I hope that Cyril Ramaphosa’s detractors were watching the event at the Wanderers last Tuesday. It was extraordinary to experience the people’s reaction to him. When he came on stage the crowd of 15 000 people went crazy and gave him a lengthy and very loud applause. Every time his name was mentioned during the event it happened again. When he finally got up to speak, the crowd burst into song and it took a long time before he could continue with his speech.
Yes, Obama was the main event of the day, but what became very clear is that if those trying to move against Ramaphosa think they will be allowed to do so by the majority of people in the country, they will be making a big mistake.
Some would argue that the audience at the Obama event was a fairly selected audience. That might be true of the VIP section, but certainly can’t be said of all the people filling the stands. Even if it is true, opinion polls tell us that Ramaphosa’s personal approval ratings are around 76-79% – numbers that only Madiba had reached before.
It is clear that Ramaphosa, as a good politician should, has given the majority of people a flicker of hope for a better life again and has stirred the memory of how we can once more aspire to be moral and principled.
Which is why the crooks who want to defeat him will increasingly find themselves isolated from the majority of people in this country.
– Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.