A little bit of over-enthusiasm has a lot to answer for

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on President Ramaphosa's virtual press conference with SANEF


The death of George Floyd at the hands of the police has sharpened the focus on inescapable realities, that American society places a perilously low value on black lives.

It is deplorable that almost 70 years since racial segregation was abolished in America, people of colour are still routinely slaughtered for the colour of their skin. We will not be cowed, to remain silent in the face of the lynching of black people wherever they manifest.

There’s is surely nothing to contradict in the above sentiments. On the contrary, these are admirable and accurate positions to take.

It is the context that makes those words laughably hypocritical. I have extracted them verbatim, albeit without any giveaway quotation marks, from an official statement from the African National Congress.

Yup, that’s the very same ANC that has not yet — not once — expressed the faintest remorse for the deaths of 11 black South Africans during police and military actions to enforce the Covid lockdown.

Yup, the very same ANC that has yet to oversee a single criminal conviction stemming from the police shootings of 34 black South African mineworkers at Marikana in 2012.

Yup, the very same ANC that has yet to deliver justice to the families of 144 mostly black South Africans who died in the 2015 Life Esidimeni outrage because of the actions of its government officials.

Not a single person will ever face a single criminal charge resulting from Life Esidimeni. The national prosecuting authority says there is “insufficient evidence”.

Not a single medical doctor involved has so far faced disciplinary inquiries by the Health Professions Council/ That’s despite the Health Ombud recommending that they should.

While it is true that the governing party has descended to levels of moral contemptibility that few would have conceived possible 26 years ago, it’s pointless blaming the ANC, as an entity, for any of this. Politicians are only human. Their actions are largely determined not by standards and values but by what they think they can get away with.

In South Africa, that gives them a lot of leeway. The electorate doesn’t effectively hold the ANC responsible, nor does the media.

One of the befuddling aspects of Cyril Ramaphosa's lacklustre presidency is how gently the media continues to treat him. Whatever wrath it manages to whip up over the ANC’s piss-poor performance is directed at a handful of ministers in his Cabinet but rarely at the man who appointed those incompetents and sociopaths.

This week the president conducted a virtual press conference with the leaders of the SA National Editor’s Forum. This was surely a dream opportunity, the first chance for the media to pose direct questions to the president after more than two months of national crisis.

But presidential charm carried the day. Ramaphosa was at his disarming best.

The president expressed regret that there had not been an opportunity for media interaction but promised more opportunities in future. He indicated that he would have preferred more congenial circumstances, like having a good natter over dinner, but because of Covid, they would have to take a rain check.

Then followed was two hours of affable tedium. There was none of the cut and thrust of a White House or Downing Street encounter with the press. The few questions that had any mettle were easily evaded by a president who waffled on serenely for 15 minutes at a stretch.

There was, truth be told, not much to challenge the president.

Nobody asked about 11 dead black men allegedly killed during lockdown by cops and soldiers. Nobody asked about a lockdown so harsh that it has elicited United Nations criticism.

Nobody asked why an ANC government opposed a court application by the family of Collins Khosa, killed for the heinous crime of having a drink in his own backyard, that the police and military be ordered to abide by the Constitution. That very same Constitution that he, Ramaphosa, solemnly swore to uphold.

Nobody asked about 230,000 arrests for ludicrous infringements of petty regulations. Nobody asked about the dozens of police officers arrested for trading in confiscated bootleg alcohol and illegal cigarettes.

Most obviously of all, nobody asked the president why, as head of state, he never once during his televised addresses to the nation, directly addressed these matters.

The closest it got to nitty-gritty was a question on contradictory government communications around the cigarette ban. The police demanding a pre-lockdown till slip from anyone stopped with cigarettes, conceded Ramaphosa, was a “graphic example” of “over-enthusiasm”.

He had “very clearly” stressed, including to the police and soldiers, that “we should not go out there among our people as if confronting an enemy. We are not enforcing something that is enforced during wartime, where there are bombs blasting all over.

“It is a process of encouraging our people to act in a way that is going to save lives. Of course, because we are dealing with so many people, there are those whose enthusiasm gets ahead of them.”

This elliptical allusion to security force brutality will be scant consolation to the families of those who are dead. But at least they now know that their brothers, fathers, husbands and sons died not because of poor training, ill-discipline or brutishness.

It was something more benign. It was something captivatingly childlike — an “over-enthusiasm” that caused basically well-meaning servants of the state to “get ahead of themselves”.

The president also went unchallenged when reiterating the claim by Co-operative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma that the backtracking on lifting the tobacco ban was in response to more than 2,000 public appeals. It now transpires that there were only 1,535 public submissions.

Almost half had nothing to do with smoking and almost a quarter opposed the ban. Less than 30% of the submissions supported the ban — just 454.

This anomaly is not because Dlamini-Zuma exaggerates shamelessly or fibs relentlessly. It’s just her natural over-enthusiasm. So cute in a septuagenarian.

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