A few weeks ago, President Ramaphosa stated that the 2019 general elections will be more important than the historic, racially inclusive, elections that ushered in our post-apartheid democratic order, in 1994.
I disagreed with him then and I still do so now. But I will agree to a point if what he meant was that the 2019 elections will offer an opportunity for South Africans to “un-pause” our country’s developmental trajectory, after it had been placed on “pause” by the ANC-powered wrecking ball of its former president, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma.
South Africa as a brand
You see, beyond the need to have a clear vision (direction) and set of values (how) to inform their corporate or organisational culture, all brands also need strong leaders (who) to lead from the front. Political brands are no different. It doesn’t take much to realise that many brands that have failed, stagnated, or succeeded – irrespective of the field they operate in – have done so because of, in large part, the conduct and or public utterances of the people who lead them. In the era of social media that we live in, even private utterances and conduct easily make their way into the public domain and, often, irreparably damage reputations.
When South Africa began its process to dismantle apartheid and usher in a new order, South Africans had been massively polarised, especially on race. Many decades of racial segregation under apartheid had ensured that each racial group – developed in large part apart from all the others in racially stratified cities, towns, townships and suburbs across our land – had a set of pre-conceived, misleading, ideas and views of the others. Many people were on edge and were easily angered by things said by others even when such things came from a good place. Whites were, on the whole, apprehensive and Blacks were hopeful. One group had fears and the other had expectations.
For the first time in its history, the country needed a unifying leader, almost like a biblical Moses, to keep all South African calm, believing in a shared vision and set of ideals, and in the possibility that they could work together to realise such a vision.
Mandela – aided in part by his own political trajectory and, no doubt, personal values – had already lifted his hand to be such a leader; few will disagree that he did a brilliant job keeping South Africans focused and believing in a shared journey while he was president. The country’s Vision and set of values were enshrined in its Constitution – brilliantly summarised in its preamble – and Bill of Rights.
In Mandela, South Africa had a leader who understood and appreciated the historic significance of the role he was to play. He also understood that on his shoulders lay the expectations for a better life for millions of Black People, on one hand, and on the other hand, the hopes of white South Africans that he would hold their hand too, assuring them that South Africa would always be their home, albeit a better shared one with others.
South Africa needs to recalibrate
The arrival of Cyril Ramaphosa into office in early 2018 brought sparks of hope for many South Africans from across the country’s vast political spectrum.
He became interim president – ahead of the 2019 elections – at a time when South Africa, the country brand, had gone through almost a decade of being led astray, far from the path of the vision that was set in 1994, enshrined in the 1996 Constitution, and the values that were to underpin the country and nation’s rebuilding and development project.
Having a Constitution and Bill of Rights with a clear vision and a set of inspiring values is not enough if the conduct and lifestyle of the person elected to lead such a brand are in direct contradiction with the ideals that had been set. Jacob Zuma provided us with a clear example of this. We should hope that historians will tell us, in time, how a man like him could have been elected – despite having a raft of corruption allegations and criminal charges hanging over his head even when he entered office – and then got shielded by his party to remain there for almost ten years even when it had long become clear that he lacked every quality needed to lead a country as diverse as South Africa, and with a history such as ours.
Zuma failed dismally to appreciate the significance of the leadership baton that had been handed down to him or, rather, one that he yanked by force from his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki’s hands.
His lifestyle and the values he lived by were totally out of sync with those enshrined in our country’s founding documents; and he lacked empathy, emotional intelligence, balance and vision. He led like a man obsessed only by the need to satisfy his own immediate personal desires at the expense of the country he was mean to lead. Sadly, the party he led made sure that he did all he did with impunity, knowing that no one, including our country’s weakened criminal justice system, could lay a hand on him.
Ramaphosa could be the man, but…
Going by his conduct, the things he says and his general demeanor, President Cyril Ramaphosa possesses the wherewithal and the temperament needed to help South Africa correct course. The question is, will his divided party let him put South Africa’s interests ahead of its own? And, will he, at some point ahead of the 2019 elections, start leading from the front by removing from his cabinet the ministers – supposedly still serving at his pleasure – who have been seriously implicated in criminal wrongdoing?
Ramaphosa’s beautiful oratory will only fool some of the people some of the time, or perhaps a few of the people all of the time; but it will not mislead all of the people all of the time, unless he starts acting like the leader he is expected to be, the leader he promised to be, by removing criminals from the team that must work with him as he sets out to implement the ambitious plans he has so clearly outlined in his recent State of the Nation Address.
All eyes are on Ramaphosa because he leads the biggest political party in the country and because he is the de facto Chief Executive Officer of SA Inc., the country brand. The leaders of the next two parties are either still too untested and not quite clear on the alternative policy offering they want to sell to the country’s confused voters – in the case of Mmusi Maimane – or too angry, emotional and totally lacking in the temperament needed to lead a country as diverse as South Africa – in the case of Julius Malema.
It remains to be seen if the 2019 elections will see the emergence of other leaders to help South Africa continue on its trajectory of building a true home for all its children, devoid of all prejudice.