Few men and women in South African politics have had as many false starts as President Cyril Ramaphosa has. Since the 1970s and 1980s, when Ramaphosa began to make his name as a student and trade union leader, the president has either been positioned with power within sight or within a few steps to taking it; even though the spotlight has not always been focused on him.
He was always the ‘other fellow’ in the picture. Even when the newly released Nelson Mandela left prison and addressed the curious, excited crowds on the Parade in Cape Town, Ramaphosa was always close by, dutifully at hand to assist.
When he, together with the National Party’s Roelf Meyer, laid the foundation for the country’s post-apartheid Constitution, Ramaphosa was always in the shadow of great men and women. They either trusted him to have a decent, yet difficult, conversation without throwing chairs when things didn’t go his way; or entrusted him with delicate tasks that would define the future of a country, and us.
In more recent years, Ramaphosa walked alongside the former president as his deputy for some five years, ostensibly as if stepping carefully on eggs to avoid breaking them, or toppling the apple cart that he would need much later if he were to become president.
We have been told ad nauseam that Ramaphosa had no choice during the past five years – even though he knew that what was going on around him was not right – but to bid his time. So, he had to quietly watch as his former boss made a mockery of the very Constitution Ramaphosa spent years, in the early 1990s, painstakingly negotiating. This in a climate of regular inter and intra-party tensions, stops-and-goes, sweat and blood in commuter trains, at hostels, and in townships like Boipatong, Katlehong, Soweto, and Mpumalanga.
It has been a strange kind of quiet, often indirect and seemingly unintended grooming for high office indeed. We should hope the wisdom he would have acquired will serve him, and us, well.
The next five years, starting now, will be an opportunity for the spotlight to sit squarely on Ramaphosa; the man who is no longer just ‘the other fellow’ in the picture.
All cameras are on him. The gruelling practice time is over, and so is the time for excuses, whether such excuses continue to be made by the many who have made it their job to constantly second-guess the president, or directly from himself.
We may have voted for a political party, but whom Ramaphosa appoints into his Cabinet – for they will all serve at the pleasure of the president – and how he leads South Africa over the next five years, will cement his own legacy.
We should wonder, what does Ramaphosa want to be known for and to be associated with? What words does he imagine, when he closes his eyes, will be written on his political epitaph in five or ten years’ time? Does any of this matter? Should it matter?
It should matter to us.
South Africa and we, the people who live in it, are tired. We have been massively abused over the past ten years and are longing for positive signs that things will change.
Fortunately, Ramaphosa seems to have noticed this general fatigue and sense of ‘gatvolness’. Many of us got a shiver down our spines when he promised in his inauguration speech that he would be a president of all South Africans, not just those who belong to the party he leads or voted for it.
We all know that he has to juggle two often contradicting hats, his party hat and his country hat, in order to maintain what is clearly a fine balance. But we should hope that the time for paying more attention to party matters than to the more general country matters will soon be a thing of the past.
South Africa is hungry for Ramaphosa’s attention. If he’s not aware of the call made here, I hope one of his advisers will whisper this into his ear.
The choices Ramaphosa must make
Those of us in ‘the rest of South Africa’ have very little influence over who becomes deputy president and winds up the Cabinet. The choices are made elsewhere and will be what they will be; but we should hope that those chosen can be trusted to remember the systemic pain accumulated over the past ten years, and that they will make it their personal and collective mission to remove the remnants of that pain and ensure that none of what brought it about ever happens again. Otherwise we will be lost, and reputational recovery for country will take a lot longer to realise.
Seen from a different perspective, and if it’ll make it easier for them – since parliamentarians and Cabinet ministers in this country strangely believe they’re there to only serve the political parties that sent them there – we should hope they never forget that they’d be there to help President Cyril Ramaphosa finally get to write his chapter in our history books.
Like him or not, fear the political party he leads or not, Ramaphosa will be, at least for the next five years, the only president we have. We should stand behind him and encourage him when he does right for country, and we should support him if he comes under attack from the rogue remnants of corruption and other forms of state capture strewn all over the structures of the party he leads. If he fails, we all fail, because there is no sign, as things stand, of anyone else in the top leadership of his party that would make sure that the good work he has begun will continue, should anything befall our president.
Whistleblowers, independent media, investigative journalists, and civil society in all its formations should remain patriotic, yet vigilant. They should continue to stand for and insist on the country we all know we can still be if led by leaders with vision, balance, emotional intelligence, maturity, empathy, credibility, and a stubborn drive to make South Africa the most attractive country in the world.