My journey to understand the man who is busy completing Jacob Zuma’s unfinished presidential term continues. This while he leads the party to whom they both belong, to what promises to be another watershed general election in 2019.
Several months after he managed to urge Zuma to step aside so that he could launch a promised ‘new dawn’, I still haven’t quite figured out the best way to read Ramaphosa. And I’m sure that I’m far from being the only one in this frustrating ‘no man’s land’ of confidence.
Should I simply listen to his speeches and look for consistencies and inconsistencies in the messages he communicates?
Does he change the content and emphasis of what he says on the basis of the audience in front of him at different times and in different places?
Or is it best to ignore what he says and focus my attention on what he does or allows to happen?
What about the company he keeps, both chosen and inherited? Is that where I should be looking for signs of who this man is; at the men and women he is surrounded by?
Is it really true that his hands are tied, like they apparently were during the years he served as a supportive deputy to a president to whom we should never have opened our doors? Can he really not remove the growing number of truly discredited individuals in his Cabinet and top party leadership team? Must the price he must pay to keep his party more or less united continue to be a burden on our country and the rest of us?
And if so, why should the price he has to pay be imposed on the rest of us? Why must South Africans repeatedly be made to pay for the acts – many of which already smell of clear criminality – of a small group of politicians, none of whom should be deemed indispensable?
The galloping pile-up of prices seems unstoppable: increased VAT, ever-spiralling fuel and other costs of living, the economic ramifications of the negative reputational impact of state capture, hundreds of millions of rand in state guarantees to incompetently and unethically managed state-owned entities, etc.
Can the Ramaphosa I’m still trying to figure out be the man to undo the mess on our behalf?
The president, son-of-the-soil
One thing is certain. Ramaphosa comes across as quite comfortable in his skin. He also seems accessible, quick to see a joke and even laugh at himself in front of others. He doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously.
He has also, on numerous occasions, shown that he can tell jokes in that down-to-earth ‘son-of-the-soil’ way that can make both a person in the street and one in the boardroom genuinely laugh with him. All of these are rare qualities in a leader.
But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself here, because several people have already pointed out that Ramaphosa’s down-to-earth style is not much different from Zuma’s. They argue that Zuma too knew how to crack a joke and laugh like he was being paid to do so. They reminded me that many people also loved Zuma in the beginning because he wasn’t Thabo Mbeki. He too was accessible and very sociable.
And, unlike Mbeki, who had been accused by many of consulting only with a very restricted kitchen Cabinet, Zuma was more collegial in his approach and allowed representatives of the tri-partite alliance – hitherto alienated by Mbeki – a say and influence in his decision-making.
That is how what used to be described as ‘the coalition of the wounded’ – comprising the SACP, Cosatu and the Malema-led ANC Youth League – coalesced around him after Mbeki fired him as Deputy President and made sure he became the next president.
The unreadable Ramaphosa
So, who is Cyril Ramaphosa? What goes on in his mind when he looks at people like Bathabile Dlamini, Nomvula Mokonyane, Malusi Gigaba, Gwede Mantashe, and now, more recently, Nhlanhla Nene?
What about Ace Magashule, Jessie Duarte, and David Mabuza? Does he sit alone and think of ways to make decisions that would be good for South Africa but bad for these people without involving them? Where do country presidential decision-making processes start and when do ANC party presidential decisions processes stop?
With whom must Ramaphosa consult before appointing a permanent National Director of Public Prosecutions, as instructed by the courts of our land in late 2019?
What will inform such a decision when it finally gets announced, assuming that it has already been made?
Would it be one informed by country presidential responsibilities, or service to the party? Will this be the “Ace” (pun intended) that will finally help him show his commitment to clean governance and the restoration of lost credibility to our country’s institutions or one that will demonstrate to South Africans that the dizzying political joy-ride is far from over?
Finally, when the discredited ministers finally leave – not just Nhlanhla Nene – will Ramaphosa look for credible, educated, ethical, and experienced replacements in the broader, racially diverse, South African talent pool, or will he continue the mad tradition of recycling tired and overused comrades who ceased long ago to have new ideas to contribute?
Who, really, is Cyril Ramaphosa?