Picture: GCIS
Johannesburg - President Cyril Ramaphosa’s engagement with white South Africans at a mass meeting in Johannesburg this week was so robust that he decided to stay two hours longer than scheduled to answer an array of pressing questions.

This was one of the largest gatherings of this election campaign to date between the president and white South Africans, as hundreds gathered at the Hellenic Hall in Germiston. Members of the Hellenic, Italian, and Portuguese communities, otherwise known as the HIP Alliance, asked the president tough questions on issues of concern.

Highly respected member of the Hellenic community, Stavros Nicolaou, senior executive at Aspen Pharmacare, hosted the evening, which saw hundreds lined up outside, hoping to get seats.

Inside the packed hall were dignitaries such as advocate George Bizos, ANC stalwart Sophie de Bruyn, author Luli Callinicos, as well as six government ministers and premier David Makhura. Ramaphosa fielded an array of robust questions from the floor about the state of the economy, the need to end greed and abuse of power at our parastatals, and how to ensure job security given the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“Many young people are losing their jobs as a result of their parents losing their sources of income due to South Africa’s struggling economy. Young people find it hard to get job opportunities and are offering their skill sets abroad. Often employers abroad say that their South African workers are among the best. What can be done Mr President?” asked a leader of the HIP Alliance.

One of the celebrated members of the HIP Alliance, human rights defender and environmentalist Catherine Constantinides, made an impassioned plea to the president to do more about violence against women and girls in the country, and highlighted the need for more women in leadership roles, particularly in the business community.

Currently, there are no female chief executives running any of the country’s 40 largest listed companies. The president noted her concerns, saying, “After Maria Ramos, where is another woman who heads a big corporate?”

Ramaphosa praised Constantinides for her activism on women’s issues and efforts to raise awareness of the plight of the Saharawi people.

“I have known Catherine since the days I was secretary-general of the ANC, and even then she would exude humanity. She has just come from running a marathon in the Sahara desert in solidarity with the people of Western Sahara, and sleeps in refugee camps. It is not easy to find South Africans like her,” Ramaphosa said.

Other community members raised concerns about the resurgence of racism and xenophobia in the country, some saying that the public discourse had become divisive and toxic, and that there needed to be consequences.

Members wanted to know from the president how he planned to take this fight to higher levels.

“We are concerned with the number of racial incidents taking place. That is why the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill is so important,” Ramaphosa said.

The bill, when enacted, will enable those who commit such crimes to be prosecuted.

Ramaphosa ended the evening saying that diversity is one of our greatest strengths and we are known as one of the most diverse countries in the world and we have handled our diversity successfully.

“George Bizos has asked me to please ensure South Africa continues to be a country which belongs to all who live in it, and not allow the values of South Africa to be destroyed.”