Justice Malala: Country faces crucial period

If you have, at some point or other, attended state functions then you will be familiar with the practice. The master of ceremonies will announce that “the dignitaries” are about to enter and so “please stand up for the president [or] premier, etc”.

The gathering would then stand up, clap for the man of the hour and he – with his entourage – would swoop in and plonk themselves at their table.

I have seen this happen many times at numerous functions. The applause is perfunctory.

I once asked an event organiser why it was necessary to stand up for the Transport MEC of the Free State, where the roads are absolutely shocking, and was told it is protocol.

Whenever this piece of protocol is carried out I wonder where exactly it comes from.

Without doubt in Swaziland the masses stand up when their priapic, kleptocratic king swans in. That is a “royalty” thing, handed down from centuries past.

But in democratic systems? What is that about?

Then there are other times when the standing and the clapping is not perfunctory or jaded or a duty.

I have been in rooms where Thuli Madonsela, the outgoing public protector, has walked in.

The room erupts with applause. People stand up to be in the light of this great woman. Young people beg for pictures. She is mobbed like a movie star.

Last week, I was at the Open Book Festival where a packed Fugard Theatre started clapping because Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan had walked in. They stood, they whistled, they stomped their feet.

It is exactly the sort of thing that happens all the time when Madonsela walks into or out of a room.

The MC does not have to instruct the room to stand up for the dignitary. It happens without prompting. It takes over like a huge wave of admiration.

It happens because you cannot fool all the people all the time. Whoever we might be, we know the difference between right and wrong. We know the difference between integrity and the lack thereof.

Crucially, though, we all know what leads to progress and development of our nation. We know that at the apex of development of South Africa and its rise to being a great country has to be leadership based on values, selflessness and integrity.

The country yearns for such leadership. That is why, when it sees it, it claps and stomps its feet and gives five- or 10-minute standing ovations.

However, you will not see standing ovations of this nature for the president of our republic. When he enters a room the MC has to instruct people to stand up.

The last time he entered a public function – the release of the election results in Tshwane on August 6 – the EFF walked out in disgust and four young women staged a protest in front of him to underline rape culture.

There was no standing ovation for him, no admiration.

He was an embarrassment at the conclusion of a great election. He is now a burden we carry through to the 2019 elections.

It is because the president has displayed none of the integrity and leadership that society demands of those it puts in positions of power.

Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi – a man who behaved outrageously throughout the Nkandla matter – said something profound this past weekend.

His words should be a warning to the ANC if it does not find its way back to its values-based leadership. He said: “We are at the crossroads. We will either fundamentally restructure the organisation, elect new leaders, emerge with new policies, abandon e-tolls, end slates and factions, and deal with corruption and tenders; or we will risk losing our leadership role in the 2019 general election.

“History will judge us as a group that displayed an atrophy of vision and despoiled the gains of liberation due to crass materialism and self-aggrandisement.”

These are not empty words. One day one of us will turn to them and say to an ANC that will be sitting in the opposition benches: “This is the result of ignoring your own people.”

The next few years will be crucial for our institutions in South Africa. The new public protector – will she be a woman of integrity, or will she follow the steps of the likes of Berning Ntlemeza at the Hawks? Will she be a lackey of the Presidency as some ministers did or will she follow the path carved out by Madonsela?

Various other institutions are on a similar knife-edge. The Treasury is under assault from groups associated with the Gupta family. Will it continue to withstand the pressure it is under? Will society protect it?

It will be up to us to stand up, protect and applaud those who protect our constitution while we resist and condemn those who aim to plunder and loot.