For South Africa to succeed, we need to support Cyril Ramaphosa

By Saul Musker 7 May 2019
President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his State of the Nation Address, 7 February 2019. Photo: Leila Dougan

Reading the voluminous commentary that has preceded the 8 May 2019 election, one would be forgiven for thinking that we live in a failed state. We do not, and we never will — as long as we fight hard enough.

One prominent publication claims in an editorial that “(the) notion of a ‘new dawn’ is the emptiest of promises.” A widely read columnist imagines the worst-case scenario, warning of “volatility, anger, confusion and despair.” RW Johnson predicts, for the umpteenth time, the demise of South Africa as a “leaderless society”.

Of course, as Johnny Steinberg has written recently, “the idea that Armageddon is behind the next corner and that we must do all we can to dodge it is as old as SA itself.”

Still, it is surprising that many columnists and voters alike seem to have succumbed so easily to despair. Yes, Ace Magashule is the secretary-general of the ANC. Yes, Malusi Gigaba and Nomvula Mokonyane and Bathabile Dlamini are on the party’s list for the national assembly. They are all transparently venal and corrupt characters, and should not be anywhere near the public service. We are right to be angry at their inclusion, and it is not something to dismiss lightly.

And yet, at the same time, look at how far we have come. On 17 December 2017, Jacob Zuma was the president of South Africa. His ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, stood a reasonable chance of winning the leadership of the party. Gigaba was the Minister of Finance, a man at the heart of State Capture with his hands on the purse strings.

One day later, on 18 December (which also, only perhaps coincidentally, is my birthday), Cyril Ramaphosa triumphed at Nasrec. Barely two months after that, he was president.

Since that heady time, so much has happened that it is difficult to keep track. Serious commissions of inquiry into SARS and the NPA yielded immediate results, and capable leaders were appointed to the revenue service and the prosecuting agency. Another commission of inquiry continues into corruption and State Capture spanning more than a decade, and is being conducted thoroughly and in full public view.

In two State of the Nation addresses, Ramaphosa restored the dignity of his office and announced a return to sanity and stability. For the first time since 2008, we listened to a president whose message was unifying and whose policy ideas were detailed and coherent. Good people, people with integrity and capability, now occupy the highest levels of power in our country.

It was not always going to turn out this way. There is an alternate universe in which Jacob Zuma remains in power, his allies ready to succeed him. In which the country is bankrupt, its institutions weakened to breaking point, its people demoralised and suppressed.

The difference was not mere luck — it was the determined actions of countless individuals, both within and outside the ANC, who fought hard against corruption and decline and who stood up for an ideal that so many have struggled and died for.

Under the most intense strain imaginable, our institutions resisted the pressure. We survived a decade-long onslaught and emerged intact. These are institutions that we built, the product of a contingent history that was never guaranteed. They are institutions that real people imagined and fought to realise.

The mistake that many of us are now making is to behave as though the future is preordained in a way that it has never been.

Among many commentators, it has become more important to make accurate predictions than to affect the way that things turn out, as though we are powerless to change what happens next and it is simply a matter of calling it right.

The ANC is beyond repair,” they proclaim. “Cyril is powerless! The bad guys are winning! The country is in terminal decline!”

It is entirely possible that the promise of the past 18 months will be extinguished. There is a plausible future scenario in which Ramaphosa fails to uproot Magashule and his supporters, in which corruption carries on unabated and the economy continues to stagnate.

But this scenario will only occur if we make it so. There is an equally possible future in which Ramaphosa wins a resounding victory, receives the recommendations of the Zondo Commission, establishes a special investigative unit in the NPA, and proceeds to prosecute his enemies within and without the party. In which he implements important structural reforms to revive the economy and returns a sense of stability and progress to the country.

Again, the difference is not merely a matter of prediction. It is a matter of action. If Ramaphosa’s mandate is weakened, he will be in a less powerful position to do what he needs to in government. If the EFF enters into a coalition with the ANC in Gauteng, his hands will be tied even more tightly. The decisions of voters in Gauteng and across the country will determine whether this happens.

We all need Ramaphosa to succeed. It should be a source of great relief and encouragement that we have as president a man who is capable, dignified, and a committed constitutionalist. It did not have to be this way.

But he will need the active support of South Africans from every party and every part of our society in order to make his agenda possible. In the future, we will look back on this election and be glad that we gave him this support — or wish instead that we had.

Johnson warns of a return to the Soviet-era world in which “optimism was compulsory”. Of course, in a vibrant democracy, criticism is needed and scepticism is warranted. Indeed, it was our collective indignation that removed the last government from office.

But building a better country requires hope in equal measure. No matter how you cast your ballot tomorrow, do it with hope for the future. After all, South Africa’s democracy was founded on courage and a willingness to throw oneself towards an ideal.

Or else you will discover that it is possible to suffocate a country with cynicism. DM


In other news...

July 18 marks Nelson Mandela day. All over the country, South African citizens devote 67 minutes to charitable causes in memory of Madiba. It's a great initiative and one of those few occasions in South Africa where we come together as a nation in pursuit of a common cause. An annual 67 minutes isn't going to cut it though.

In the words of Madiba: "A critical, independent and investigative free press is the lifeblood of any democracy."

Every day Daily Maverick investigates and exposes the deep rot of state capture and corruption but we need your help. Without our readers' support we simply won't survive. We created Maverick Insider as a membership platform where our readers can become part of our community while ensuring that we can keep doing the investigations that we do and, crucially, that our articles remain free to everyone that reads them. Sign up to Maverick Insider this Mandela Month and make that meaningful contribution last longer than 67 minutes.For whatever amount you choose, you can support Daily Maverick and it only takes a minute.

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