Mondli Makhanya: SA needs a Cummings-like figure to tell us to be our better selves

2019-10-21 00:24

What stood out among the many tributes to legendary congressperson Elijah Cummings, who died last week, was the impact he made beyond the legislative corridors of Washington.

There were many choice quotes attributed to this civil rights veteran, who marched alongside Martin Luther King and easily mixed his legislative duties with grassroots activism.

Those who spoke about Cummings told of how this passionate defender of democracy was moved to challenge the timidity of some of his colleagues, who were unwilling to directly confront US President Donald Trump’s demolition of democratic values.

“When we are dancing with the angels the questions will be asked, in 2019: What did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact? Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing? Did we play games?,” the veteran activist challenged.

On another occasion, during tough talks on the need to bring down out-of-control drug prices, Cummings engaged directly with Trump and reminded the heartless president of the debt that the two of them – as elderly leaders – owed to future generations.

Recounting a private conversation he had with Trump on the subject, Cummings said he had told the president that he (Trump) was in his seventies and he was in his late sixties, adding: “Very soon you and I will be dancing with the angels. The thing you and I need to figure out is what we can do – what present can we bring to generations unborn?”

As the tributes poured in this past week, those who knew him in politics, in the civil rights movement, in the church and in ordinary life kept repeating the same refrain about how he would say “we can do better than this”, “we should be better than this” and “we are better than this”.

Friends and foes alike recounted instances in which, when an argument was reaching a deadlock and the heat was high, Cummings would chide and coerce everyone involved to “be better”.

Even when Trump insulted his Baltimore constituency as “a rat-infested” neighbourhood, Cummings refused to take the bait and stoop to his level.

Going against the urgings of his constituents and everyone else who was disgusted at Trump’s dig, Cummings soared high and rather expressed sympathy for Trump’s lack of empathy for his own citizens, who were living in appalling conditions as a result of government failures.

Instead, he told the people of Baltimore to ignore the insults because they were “better”.

One of the most memorable and touching moments which will immortalise the man was his sympathetic treatment of Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, who had thrown away his moral compass in the service of his wealthy client.

Convicted of fraud and facing a prison sentence, rudely and heartlessly rebuked by Trump and senior Republicans, Cohen was a lonely and broken man when he appeared before a congressional committee to tell the truth and take personal responsibility for what he had done for Trump.

Cummings, who was chairing the committee, chose to show the disgraced lawyer the importance of his remorse and belated honesty, and assured him that even though he would be suffering the consequences of his actions – including going to jail – this episode would hopefully produce a better Cohen, a better Trump, a better America and a better world. Better.

So passionate was he about people being their better selves that even though he was regarded as one of the most militant Democrats on Capitol Hill, he was one of the few people there who reached out across the aisle to create common ground with Republicans he had nothing in common with.

So much so that one of his best friends in Congress was arch-conservative Republican Mark Meadows.

Cummings was no naive idealist who just believed that things would be better because people professed they would be.

He worked for it. He took physical, mental and emotional strain in his lifelong fight for the betterment of humanity.

Elements of the DA want the party to be an instrument for entrenching racial divides instead of being a progressive force in society.

How we could do with a Cummings in this country right now.

With the levels of toxicity so high, it has become anathema for anyone to try to rise above the cursing and yelling.

The governing ANC, once the leader of society, is embroiled in its own destructive wars that make it impossible for any of its leaders to lead.

Its president, who also happens to be the head of state, is being taken less and less seriously as a leader with each passing day.

He has ceded ground to venomous pythons who want to turn the clock back on the nation-building project.

Elements of the DA want the party to be an instrument for entrenching racial divides instead of being a progressive force in society.

This plays nicely into the hands of the venomous pythons in the governing party, whose work would be made so much easier by a DA that had taken a triple dose of Khanyi Mbau’s skin-lightening medication.

READ: Editorial: The DA’s puzzling cul-de-sac

The EFF is something else. The party that seemed to be maturing into a militant but intellectually astute formation has elected to be the prime dispenser of the toxic gases that pollute our political atmosphere.

It has convinced itself that in order for it to maintain its steady growth, South Africa needs to be an angry and hateful place.

On the far right, the Freedom Front Plus is capitalising well on the toxicity and benefiting from misplaced white fear and anxiety.

In society there is growing despair, feelings of marginalisation and resentment of the other.

While the clergy has been willing to show leadership, the political sphere has been content to keep fanning the fires.

It is in times like these that we need a Cummings-like figure to emerge and tell us to be our better selves.

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February 23 2020