South Africa, World

Op-Ed: A lesson for Cyril Ramaphosa, from Hillary Clinton

By David Reiersgord 18 May 2017

Ahead of its National Elective Conference later this year, the race to become the next President of the African National Congress (ANC) is taking shape with Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma emerging as the main contenders. With the provincial support Dlamini-Zuma recently received, ascending to the forefront of the party won’t be easy for Ramaphosa. But, the example of Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign against United States President Donald Trump, could provide a lesson. By DAVID REIERSGORD.

Over the past few months, there have been a number of pieces published that make comparisons between Donald Trump and President Jacob Zuma. These comparisons refer to some uncomfortable overlaps between American and South African politics, but they don’t recognise just how much the success of Trump was shaped by the negative perception of Clinton.

Clinton’s strategy of using her political track-record as a selling point could be instructive for Ramaphosa, whose eyes seem to be on the Presidency, and who will also face a populist in Dlamini-Zuma. Clinton was perceived to represent a conventional version of politics that is out of touch with people’s daily lives. And to the extent that her loss was the result of some of the ugliest compulsions in American culture and history rearing their heads, this perception fed into her inability to energise the broader — meaning rural — Democratic base Barack Obama so successfully appealed to. (See: Iowa Caucasus, 2008.)

On the surface, Ramaphosa and Clinton seem quite different. Ramaphosa is an ANC stalwart of the struggle against apartheid. He got his start as a trade unionist during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he successfully organised a collective of unions together during a crucial point in the process of national transformation. Ramaphosa later leveraged these relationships to forge lucrative business ones, and in the process became one of the most successful businessmen and politicians in South Africa.

Clinton got her start at Yale Law School, and became a successful lawyer in Arkansas advocating for children and education while her husband Bill Clinton, served as governor. In 1992, Bill was elected to the White House, which allowed Hillary to take on a more active role in politics. After her husband’s tenure as president came to an end, she was elected senator in New York, serving two-terms. She then climbed the political ladder to the rank of Secretary of State, during a significant period in the recent history of American foreign policy.

While Ramaphosa and Clinton started in dramatically different roles and under different circumstances, it’s precisely their professional trajectories that make them conventional politicians.

Due to his role in the ANC as both secretary general and deputy president, along with his success in business, Ramaphosa is firmly a part of the political establishment in South Africa. Considering the tumultuous record of Zuma, Ramaphosa has, in many respects, become the “common sense” politician within the ANC. Put a different way: he is expected to help the ANC “rise” from the depravity of Zuma, in ways that compare to how Clinton was expected to protect America from the wanton ignorance of Trump.

In the 2016 election, Clinton pitched herself as the reliable and experienced choice by repeatedly referencing her record in politics. She did so especially in relation to Trump’s lack of one, citing her roles as Senator and Secretary of State to demonstrate why the American public could trust her as President. Her political acumen was meant to be received as a soothing chaser following the harshness of Trump.

However, her political experience failed to resonate with an electorate that had come to scorn conventional politicians and who expected little from government. She was perceived to be part of the problem with establishment politics that so many voters wanted to push back against. To paraphrase George W Bush, Clinton suffered from the flimsy partisanship of low expectations by assuming voters would turn out for her, because they expected so little of Trump.

Herein lies the lesson for Ramaphosa.

In the run-up to the ANC election conference later this year, and looking ahead to the national elections in 2019, Ramaphosa shouldn’t rely on the politics of low expectations that has set in as a result of Zuma. Dlamini-Zuma doesn’t appear to be, with her push towards hard-line ANC policy and the populist impulses of the party. At a time when confidence in the ANC has dropped considerably, alongside of poor education and rising inequality and unemployment, Ramaphosa has the difficult task of negotiating the ANC’s traditional policy platform while also promoting a new conceptualisation of the party that appeals to a young and urban base.

One area that could trip Ramaphosa up the most, is that of the impulsively popular radical economic transformation. There is no consensus on what this idea will look like as policy, though, Ramaphosa has already made it clear we better get used to it. So has Dlamini-Zuma. The two no doubt differ on how they envision the shape of this policy.

Ramaphosa’s interpretation will likely not be “radical” enough to satisfy the populist faction within the party, which, in KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo, have signalled their support of Dlamini-Zuma. Though, the politics of low expectations that have become embedded in South Africa may force Ramaphosa to pursue this flimsy idea as policy. If he continues to push for radical economic transformation because of its political currency, he risks taking significant chunks of the ANC for granted, and isolating even more supporters — again, looking ahead to 2019 — that view radical economic transformation as a political ploy rather than a legitimate development strategy.

While the ANC is in desperate need of reform and accountability, which Ramaphosa has made reference to in recent public appearances and addresses, he will nevertheless face factional resistance getting the party to pivot in the right direction. In order to overcome these challenges, like flushing out corruption, he should consider the lesson offered by Clinton and her inability to energise the Democratic base, and strive to move beyond the low expectations of partisan loyalty that Zuma has normalised, and that have allowed for bad policies to look more suitable than they really are. DM

Photo: Deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa reacts during a Motion of No Confidence in President Jacob Zuma debate in the Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, 10 November 2016. EPA/NIC BOTHMA


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