Two old peers, ancient specimens from a long-gone, long-lost world, were standing in the corridor outside the House of Lords’ Royal Gallery, as Guido left, a couple of hours ago. They must have been 70 years old, maybe older, if such a thing exists.
A full house of parliamentarians had just heard South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa deliver his innovative, original, ground-breaking, Head of State speech – and Bufton turned to Tufton saying, “Absolutely dreadful fellow!” He pronounced Absolutely in the old-fashioned way – rendered as Absy. Absy dreadful feller.
How could this be? Mr Ramaphosa is a much-loved and much-loving leader of his country. He was annointed by Nelson Mandela. As a union leader he ran a wonderfully disciplined work force, even supporting the police when 34 miners, his members, were shot dead for disobedience. More than that, he is frugal, prudent and duck-loving. When his holiday house was robbed, it was reported that $4 million had been stolen from his sofa. He had used the bills to stuff his cushions, in place of duck feathers. A head of state so fond of ducks can’t, by any definition, be “absy dreadful”.
The internet says his net worth is $450 million. They pay their politicians properly in South Africa, but even so, that is an heroic feat of personal saving. Compound interest rewards prudence. I’m sorry to use the word, but it feels racist to criticise him for it.
As to the speech itself, the President spoke sombrely in a rich bass, and created a powerful sense that his country was in a pretty terrible state and that it was our fault.
Inequality is a terrible thing, he reminded us. It was essential that we closed the gap between rich and poor.
The worst thing about this form of guilt is that one feels so helpless. We in the Royal Gallery couldn’t even invite South Africa’s slum-dwellers to sit on Cyril’s sofa, to at least give them some sense of the millions they might one day save on a Head of State’s salary, should they achieve such a position.
Access to education and safe water was essential to “end the poverty”. It seems there is only dirty water in his country, and no teachers. If only South Africa had some natural resources they could develop. The inequality, he reminded us, was shocking and the source of great unhappiness – conflict, even.
He told us that his country was suffering power blackouts and that their energy needs are going to increase. This, obviously, “places a responsibility on more industrialised countries” to send much more money in order to equalise things, and by equalising, make the world more equal. More important still, he said, any money we gave “should not be seen as charity but as compensation for the harm done as a consequence of industrialisation that wealthy countries has had for years” and that South Africa wanted itself. That was a little hard to follow – that we should compensate his country for the terrible crime by giving it money to perpetrate the same crime.
The logic was confused but the sense was clear.
Multilateralism was the answer, and the reform of international institutions. He wanted the UK to speak up for and to strengthen the United Nations in all its forms, and probably the World Bank and other global bodies. They needed to be properly funded. President Ramaphosa obviously understands these things better than anyone. But wouldn’t it be more efficient to remove the intermediaries and provide help directly? Maybe we should give the President the money and let him decide where and which quarters to channel it? Would that absolve us from our guilt?
In the end, the President spoke frankly and from the heart. He wanted to capitalise on us. He didn’t want us to linger in the pit of guilt into which he had – inadvertently – taken us. He wanted to “capitalise on the positive.” He wanted to “capitalise on the strength of our relationship.”
He surely does, and if he can, he surely will.