“ARCHBISHOP Desmond Tutu has been our moral compass and national conscience. Even after the advent of democracy, he did not hesitate to draw attention, often harshly, to our shortcomings as leaders of the democratic state.”
These were the words of President Cyril Ramaphosa delivering the eulogy at the occasion of paying final respects to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu on New Year’s Day in Cape Town.
Not only was this statement meant to recognise Archbishop Tutu’s position and status in society, it distinctly pointed to his conviction, and readiness to hold leaders to a higher standard – and rightfully so.
Barely had Archbishop Tutu been laid to rest than Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula stuck his foot in his mouth – reminding us why Tutu, “South Africa’s moral compass and national conscience”, had to ever so often call leaders out when they were failing and falling short.
Mbalula, a boisterous member of Ramaphosa’s Cabinet – while announcing the planned roll-out of the R1 bllion Covid-19 Taxi Relief Fund last Tuesday, knowingly made offensive and embarrassing remarks.
Knowingly because, even before his despicable utterances that should never be repeated anywhere, Mbalula had the nerve to ask journalists in attendance not to report on them.
This is unsurprising as it has become commonplace for the foul-mouthed Mbalula to use profanity in public, including on social media where he sometimes insults people.
The 2021 South African Leaders on Twitter Report released last December by Decode Communications found that Minister Mbalula, with more 2.6 million followers, is the most followed Cabinet member.
Another interesting finding from the report was that, even with this much influence that could be best utilised for engaging citizens, Mbalula’s Twitter growth was mainly the result of his engagement in Twitter wars, vulgar tweets and responses.
In response to Mbalula’s offensive utterances on Tuesday, Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, the general secretary of the SA Council of Churches (SACC), indicated that they would be approaching the government to find out if there were guidelines on how ministers should conduct themselves in public. Owing to the SACC’s intervention, Mbalula issued an apology and withdrew the remarks.
So, the big question is: should South Africans be okay with apologies from leaders like Mbalula without consequences for their errant behaviour?
Fortunately, instruments like the Executive Members’ Ethics Act and Members of Parliament’s Code of Conduct are guidelines to use in taking rogue ministers to task.
However, the SACC’s intervention clearly demonstrates that these instruments do not go far enough in relation to appropriate and acceptable conduct in public. Unfortunately, this gap allows a space for leaders to behave irresponsibly without worrying about accountability.
Since becoming president in 2018, Ramaphosa has had to reprimand a number of his Cabinet members for irresponsible conduct in public. A few examples include Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, who had to publicly apologise for breaching the lockdown regulations, and was put on special leave for two months, of which one month was unpaid.
Also, Minister Lindiwe Zulu had to apologise for a video posted on social media showing her out and about and joking about finding it difficult to stay home during the coronavirus pandemic.
Who can ever forget Mpumalanga Premier Refilwe Mtsweni-Tsipane, who tried to lie her way out of an embarrassing moment when she nonchalantly mingled without a mask at Minister Jackson Mthembu’s funeral.
While the majority of the reprimanded government leaders may not have repeated their offences, two ministers in particular have used apologies as a way of pacifying us.
Even after the president reprimanded former finance minister Tito Mboweni for his altercation on Twitter with Gauteng Premier David Makhura about the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project, he went on to run his mouth off on Twitter on numerous occasions – unnecessarily embarrassing the government. The petulant Mboweni had to be made to apologise again and again.
Thankfully, he’s gone.
Minister Mbalula, another serial offender, besides his recent foot-in-mouth incident, has previously had to apologise to his Cabinet colleague, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, after making disparaging remarks in a Twitter tirade about her and Public Protector, Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane.
Sadly, all these and many other examples of government leaders misbehaving in public are not only a problem for them. They are an unnecessary distraction from governance and service delivery. Imagine how much time is wasted by officials cleaning up behind their political principals and government leaders.
In light of these repeat offences that are often accompanied by insincere apologies, Parliament needs to review the Code of Conduct and the Executive Members’ Ethics Act.
The review should include setting standards for appropriate and acceptable conduct by Members of Parliament to save us from irresponsible leaders. With errant ones like Mbalula, citizens must demand harsh consequences with the confidence that either Parliament or the president will act against them.
Furthermore, Ramaphosa must reflect on how inaction against irresponsible leaders actually encourages them to undermine his leadership.
As our country recovers from the devastation of Covid-19, we need leaders who will inspire the nation through consistent responsible conduct and meaningful action. We also have a responsibility to always support organisations such as the SACC that are willing to raise the leadership bar.