8 September 2019
Our daughters live in fear and the nation burns, yet you’re silent, Mr President
My first-born daughter, Lethabo, is doing her first year at a university away from Joburg, but in a city equally badly affected by femicide and wanton destruction of property.
At the height of threats on social media by marauding gangs to kidnap girls to avenge for the xenophobic attacks against African immigrants, she said she does not know whether it’s safe to attend classes, which are situated away from her place of residence.
Her mother sent me a three-word message that read: “Please, protect Lethabo.” She didn’t know how I must do it, and neither did I.
She is, like many girls her age, in another city on her own. My partner, on the other hand, asked me to be on the phone with her as she drove into the Joburg CBD, fearing a wrong turn could lead to an ambush by a mob of angry men, be they taxi drivers, truckers or foreign nationals.
So I write this as a father who was terrified, a partner at his wit’s end about the mayhem that unfolded in our country in the last few days.
As groups of angry mobs unleashed violence in our cities, women and girls looked up to President Cyril Ramaphosa to say something. Women and girls are not only vulnerable, they are the targets.
The intensity of attacks, with police failing in most cases to control gun-and machete-wielding, blood-thirsty gangs, ensured the fear and anxiety became, as it ought to have been, a broader societal problem.
It was not merely about men being trash. It meant fathers needed to worry more than they ever did about the safety of their daughters at universities and elsewhere.
Uyinene Mrwetyana was not just a name, a statistic. She represented a spectre that affected families, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers and broader relatives who yearned for leadership from the Union Buildings.
The more Ramaphosa kept quiet, the more fear and anxiety gripped our nation, making us feel leaderless. The degeneration into lawlessness conjured up television images from war-ravaged countries with opposition leaders considered rebel leaders. Ramaphosa remained silent.
He can’t claim to have been under a rock because even the nation’s dailies screamed for his attention. “It’s an emergency,” The Star declared. “Death Penalty an option,” cried The Citizen. “O kae molao,” asked the Sowetan.
Car dealerships were doused with fire, buildings set alight and – outside our country – South African businesses, especially in Nigeria, were targeted for destruction.
Throughout all this, social media churned out hilarious memes, with one saying “e thole relationship o kare ke Ramaphosa!”, making fun of our president caricatured as “Nokuthula”. Fake news also gained traction because of the void left by our reticent leader.
From a communication and marketing point of view, it is clear why Ramaphosa dithered. The important investment community was arriving, as the country was going up in flames, for the much-vaunted World Economic Forum (WEF) in Africa meeting in Cape Town.
It is at this meeting that Ramaphosa was hoping to sell our country as a stable, investment-friendly, sophisticated economy with a functioning democracy. The stakes were high.
But Uyinene supporters were having none of it, marching to WEF correctly asking how he could have time for so-called investors but not for the families feeling the pain of femicide and the general degeneration into chaos of our country?
Like any president, Ramaphosa surely hoped that the country would put forth its best image for the visitors with funds to create jobs, which will help all of us to reverse the state of helplessness that gives rise to xenophobia.
Being silent and allowing the paralysis of leadership to show was no strategy, however.
Instead of addressing the nation live from the Union Buildings at 7pm when most families are home and watching, he opted for another rehearsed recording. The clip showing him smile and being playful made it worse, creating perceptions that he’s too casual about the crisis.
What Ramaphosa needed was to talk to the nation, not send us recordings looking tired. He needed speaking notes but no prepared speech. He would have won many hearts if he spoke from the heart like a father concerned about what is happening to his daughters, spoke from his heart and shared stern words for looters, telling us how he has unleashed the cops to arrest and bring about law and order.
Indeed, South Africans needed harsh words against xenophobia. Foreigners needed harsh words about calling South Africans idiots whose girls must be kidnnaped and raped. Above all, we needed a president who would speak to us with energy, show he is on top of the situation and give us hope that even as MTN and Shoprite stores are destroyed in Nigeria, this is a temporary setback.
When you keep quiet, Mr President, when you wait until it’s too late, Mr President, that is when you become President Nokuthula.
This is not a vote of no confidence in you, Nokuthula. We raise our voice because we know you can and must do better.