As the winner rose to her feet and made her way through the crowd to the stage, a thousand plus people rose as one to their feet and roared their unfettered approval. The night belonged to her, and her fans – each and every one of us in that room – were not going to let her victory pass quickly or quietly.
As she made her way through the tables and up onto the inordinately long runway leading to the stage, the adulation of the crowd got louder and louder; “This is what being a rock star is all about,” I thought as waves of emotion swept the auditorium leaving many – the night’s very glamorous hostess included – wiping back the tears.
But this was not a music awards evening and this woman taking away the nights most prestigious award is not a rock star. She’s an advocate; very gracious, very dignified – but an advocate nonetheless. Now I ask you – what kind of advocate receives an ovation fit for a mega-star? What kind of advocate stirs the emotions of South Africans to such an extent?
Thuli Madonsela – accustomed to being in a very different kind of spotlight – stepped tentatively towards the microphone. You could tell that she hadn’t countenanced being named the overall winner of the South African of the Year awards: “South Africa never ceases to amaze me,” she quipped with characteristic humility.
24 hours before our Public Protector was named the South African of the Year, a dinner was held for all nominees of the competition across the various categories. It was a glitzy red carpet affair at the Inanda Club in Johannesburg. As the guest of honour made his way into the beautifully decorated ballroom a booming voice-over instructed all guests to rise to their feet. We did as we were told. A smattering of applause could be heard from a largely disinterested audience of several hundred of us. What guest of honour receives such a lukewarm welcome?
As President Jacob Zuma stepped confidently towards the microphone the audience continued to enjoy their starters. He spent most of his 15 or so minutes on stage eulogizing about the main sponsor of the South African of the Year Awards – 24 hour news channel ANN 7 referred to by Tokyo Sexwale as “Gupta TV”.
Two back-to-back gala events; arguably South Africa’s two most powerful citizens. One clear winner: hope.
When you meet Thuli Madonsela (I have long wanted to say that) you are immediately filled with a sense of hope; hope for the present and hope for the future of South Africa. This is because she exudes those human qualities so lacking in many of our leaders; humility, integrity, wisdom, vulnerability and trustworthiness.
But the crowd – from the great and the good of South African society on the one hand to Cathy and I on the other – the crowd added to the sense of hope. For in stark contrast to our reaction to the guest of honour the previous evening, we were all on our feet whooping and cheering – not for our Public Protector per se – but for humility, integrity, wisdom, vulnerability and trustworthiness. These values – embodied in Thuli Madonsela – were the real object of our praise and adulation. The wildly contrasting reactions to the two night’s honoured guests could – in my humble view – be seen as a bellwether for the future of South Africa.
Am I saying that Madonsela should be President? No. She would be wasted in that role. What I am saying is that the values she displays will likely be in some evidence in our next President. I know that because as a people we are celebrating – and celebrating wildly – those who model such values. Our reception of those who don’t is cool at best. It is a matter of time before we insist on such values being in evidence in our elected President.
Now the Eeyores amongst us will disagree – but hold your horses. The South African of the Year awards was made possible by our incumbent President’s besties the Gupta’s. Given her current spat with JZ over Nkandla you would have thought that Thuli Madonsela would be the very last person to win the Gupta’s talent contest wouldn’t you?
But here’s the thing – she won by public vote; the public insisted that humility, integrity, wisdom, vulnerability and trustworthiness trump political power and influence. The public – ironically made aware of the competition and how to vote largely via Gupta TV and Gupta News aka The New Age – are those who will determine who runs this country going forward.
It should be unnervingly evident to the ANC that it must act quickly and decisively to give humility, integrity, wisdom, vulnerability and trustworthiness the No. 1 position in South Africa because if they don’t – someone else will. Either way, South Africa is the winner.
Hope Springs Eternal.
This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysen: gang raped, mutilated and murdered