THE BLOG
20/03/2018 11:55 SAST | Updated 20/03/2018 11:56 SAST

Drop The Banana-Republic Convoy, President Ramaphosa

It will win you massive kudos, but also open you up to the conversations of the ordinary – to the voice of your people.

Rodger Bosch/ AFP/ Getty Images
Cyril Ramaphosa leaves Tuynhuys on February 8, 2018, in Cape Town.

On Friday, I was headed to Centurion on the six-lane N1 at mid-morning. There was no gridlock and traffic was flowing so smoothly, it would have made traffic-man Aki Anastasiou grin joyfully.

Then the whir of blue lights in the distance and traffic cops on motorbikes started to push drivers from the three right lanes to make way for a VIP convoy. The outriders were rude – gesturing wildly for drivers to move left, to make way for an outsized convoy of nine cars to move through at a speed that would get most of us put in jail by traffic cops.

Was former president Jacob Zuma back in town, I wondered? Toward the end of his time in office, Zuma had ballooned his convoy to 11 shiny black machines including an ambulance.

His securocrats had added about 12 outriders, six in front and six at the back.

It was true banana-republic stuff to witness, and spoke to the mindset of the president in his final days in office. At last year's ANC policy conference, Zuma moved around with a security detail of about 20 bodyguards.

At a function at the presidential guesthouse in Pretoria a few years before, I noticed they even accompanied the president to the toilet when he needed a comfort break.

Besides being a bully pulpit, convoys also suggest something far more pernicious: that leaders are above the law, and that they do not have to keep to the dictates of being punctual and timeous or driving at the speed limit.

To be honest, as a citizen, I profoundly detest convoys. They suggest an "us" and "them" distinction between leaders and the led that I thought the ANC would steer away from as a movement of the people. Years ago while visiting Harare in Zimbabwe, I had been aghast when Robert Mugabe's screaming convoy brought the capital's afternoon traffic to a dead stop as soldiers pushed drivers and commuters to a halt.

"That will never happen in my country," I thought naively. Well, it did. And, clearly, President Cyril Ramaphosa has caught the bug. That convoy on the highway last week was his, and I do hope he will drop it as a visible part of the new dawn which promises a return to servant leadership.

Besides being a bully pulpit, convoys also suggest something far more pernicious: that leaders are above the law, and that they do not have to keep to the dictates of being punctual and timeous or driving at the speed limit. It also means that they begin to live in an echo chamber, never exposed to the inefficiencies imposed on all of us through poor transport planning and policies.

With the convoys come the bodyguards (each car has at least an occupant or two and they all become security detail) – and there is every danger that the bodyguards don't protect you from danger but insulate you from your people.

When there are so many flunkies around, they tell you what you want to hear, and so "the people" become an abstract or a thing you fly past as the blue lights whirr.

Drop the convoys, Mr President – and perhaps try flying commercial too. It will win you massive kudos, but also open you up to the conversations of the ordinary – to the voice of your people.