There must be an explanation for the euphoric expressions of support for public leaders such as former public prosecutor Thuli Madonsela and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. Not since the days of Nelson Mandela have people risen up with such unfettered enthusiasm, bordering on hysteria, in response to leaders doing their jobs.
Both Thuli and Pravin are ordinary people, humble and self-effacing, hardworking and committed to their country. So why the constant “For President” shout-outs, threats of marches through the big cities and endless social media tears when one retires from her job and the other is threatened with his?
In a normal country, Thuli and Pravin would be invisible, ordinary public servants simply doing their jobs well. It is what they get paid to do. Since, in that normal nation, there would be thousands like them, nobody stands out and everybody simply gets on with the business of public duty. But this is, of course, no ordinary country, and that explains the feverish praise and almost idol-like status of these two special leaders.
“Where there is no vision,” says the Good Book, “the people perish.” And South Africans are perishing right now without visionary leadership. Even the leaders we used to have are being trashed, this time by the newly radical youth who, having escaped the horrors of apartheid, feel perfectly comfortable dissing those who made unspeakable sacrifices to bring down that terrible system, like Madiba and the many who lost their lives in the process.
It is, however, the present crisis of public leadership that moves us so deeply in the direction of these two unlikely heroes. What Cyril Ramaphosa or Baleka Mbete would not give for such public adoration. It would certainly help clear their path to the presidency. But they do not enjoy such adulation because they have not done anything to stand out, to challenge the corruption within their leadership ranks or to come out for “the people” rather than for “the party”.
Never has there been a sharper contrast in moral leadership than between these two sets of leaders – Cyril and Baleka, on the one hand, and Thuli and Pravin, on the other hand. I am sure Cyril and Baleka are good people but these are times that call for courage not caution, doing what is right rather than calculating what is safe to do without jeopardising political careers. Frankly, we are scared to death about the state of affairs in the country. If, therefore, the moral conscience of the nation (Thuli and Pravin) falls, we would be left to the political barbarians of our country who would fleece the Treasury and trash the economy in one last bid to take what they can before a change of government.
Whether this rush on the nation’s tills is true or not does not matter; this is what many hardworking people and dedicated compatriots feel, and that explains the public adulation of two ordinary leaders; they are seen as representing the last line of defence against wholesale corruption and the collapse of society.
The real tragedy of this once-promising nation is that there are many Thulis and Pravins out there, but they lie low since they know they represent a threat to the predatory state. How else does one explain the constant attempts to discredit these leaders and to remove them from their positions?
The real miracle is that Thuli and Pravin still stand, despite relentless assaults on their character and persons; and I have no doubt they would have fallen a long time ago had it not been for unprecedented public empathy and support in the small fishbowl of South African politics.
It also explains the emergence of leadership dwarfs such as Des van Rooyen and Shaun Abrahams. But Des and Shaun did not appoint themselves. It takes poor leadership to recognise poor leadership and to put into place morally and functionally diminished men and women who would not be able to get a licence for a spaza shop, let alone obtain appointment at the highest levels of a modern government.
Things are happening now that never happened before. The universities are burning; provinces are running out of water; parliamentary sessions are becoming places of insult, fisticuffs and contempt for the law; and the currency dives with every perceived threat to Revenue, Treasury or Finance. I have too much respect for bananas to even use that metaphor for our republic.
Thuli and Pravin are anchors in a sea of anxiety and hopelessness. And we cling to them, and what they represent, for dear life.