His own failings as a thinker and leader have contributed to bringing the country to the brink of civil war. Those failings echo the flameout of the global liberal project, which has resulted in societies so vastly, absurdly unequal that they can no longer be sustained. On a rising tide of righteous and not-so-righteous rage and agony, Ramaphosa now stands at the moment of truth for his presidency.
In February 2018, any wag even suggesting that Cyril Ramaphosa would make a terrible president was dispatched directly into commentator prison. Nobody wanted to hear anything critical of the erudite, moneyed, silver-tongued negotiator par excellence. He would eliminate corruption in the ANC, throw his enemies in a flamming pit and toss in the torch himself, he would unleash big business and its hoards of latent capital, woo investment from abroad, restore the sheen of the Mandela and Mbeki eras, send a man to Mars (hopefully Ace Magashule with the one way ticket), and provide an African antidote to the illiberal ethno-nationalist fuckbags proliferating around the world.
In short, he was a cross between Marcus Aurelius, Barack Obama and Jesus, except with premium livestock. He had the backing of the richest white and black men in the country; he had the support of the foreign diplomatic corps; he had the delirious approval of the mainstream media, who drooled on their sensible shoes every time he spoke. (That last point is a bit confounding, given that Ramaphosa has never been one for unscripted press conferences or direct engagement with the press.)
What was the basis for this euphoria? How did Ramaphosa earn so much respect and admiration? Well, for one thing, he was indeed a committed and brilliant labour leader during the apartheid years. (But never a commie, bless him.) Over the course of the transition period, he helped negotiate the Constitution into being. He led the ANC as democracy was about to dawn, and was (apocryphally, as it turns out), Madiba’s desired successor. Then he became a billionaire after being ‘deployed’ to business, maintaining a reputation for fair-ish dealing until his return to politics, when he was anointed deputy president, deployed to be an adult in the room during Jacob Zuma’s disastrous second term.
You could own Davos with that CV.
And yet, when one peruses this resumé carefully, there are warning signs. His skill as a negotiator — so important in the 1980s and 90s — has proved of little use in the postmodern ANC, which is locked in an internecine zero-sum factional war that offers no space for sensical discourse. Ramaphosa and his advisors genuinely thought that they could negotiate their way into unifying the Congress. This was a whimsically fatal notion, like a four-year-old in an Aquaman Speedo leaping into the Camps Bay undertow, hoping to commune with magical seahorses.
Now, Ramaphosa faces crises on every front. This week alone: a series of violent acts against women and children tipped into an obscene critical mass, culminating in marches and protests across the country. And at the same time: the curiously well-timed and -coordinated murderous rage directed against black African nationals. This is societal meltdown in real-time, but it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise: violence against women and (black and brown) expatriates are hallmarks of South African life.
As it happens, the man responsible for managing this mess leads the ANC, an organisation with a peerless record of protecting sexual miscreants, organised criminals and anti-African rhetoricians. In this, the president cannot be considered blameless. He has spent his time back in the ruling party providing cover for, and covering up, crimes against the state committed by the state. He was as tame as any of Zuma’s so-called opponents during the former president’s tenure, and instead let braver men, like Derek Hanekom and Pravin Gordhan, do the fighting in the trenches. He was quiet during the Life Esidimeni crisis. He said nothing after the Nkandla scandal. And he was, however you read things, at least partly complicit in the Marikana massacre, about which he has spoken very little.
Zuma has been gone for a year and a half, and still not a single ANC apparatchik has been held accountable for any of these tragedies, in which hundreds of people were cumulatively murdered and trillions of rands stolen.
How can this be? Well, the ANC self-regulates on the understanding that every comrade is tainted, and that in every closet there lurk skeletons, smallanyana and not so smallanyana. (Zuma negotiated this reality perfectly. Ramaphosa not so much.) Subsequently, no one has mistaken him for a political street brawler, and within the ruling party he appears to inspire neither fear nor respect. According to the polls, he is (or, until this week, was) nominally rather popular on the streets. But he has no constituency. And unlike Zuma — who knows how to engender loyalty — no one owes Ramaphosa a damn thing.
And while we can perhaps forgive Ramaphosa for not knowing how to run a mafia, he cannot be forgiven for his paucity of ideas. Why does he even want his job? Put another way, what do Ramaphosa and his team have to offer? Shackled to the rule of law, hemmed in by the Constitution they helped draft, all they can provide is measured technocratic solutions to catastrophic problems — problems that have exploded violently and spectacularly over the course of the past brutal week. Now, Ramaphosa is staring down at a population demanding immediate solutions to the breakdown in rule of law.
And he has nothing for them.
The address he made before the nation on Thursday night was a classic example of how not to lead. Let’s deal with the procedural stuff first. He can’t call a State of Emergency, because State of Emergencies are an apartheid thing — and besides, the police are a biiiiig part of the problem. (Boxing champ Leighandre “Baby Lee” Jegels, whose murder helped spark the recent protests, WAS LITERALLY KILLED BY A COP.) He can beef up the sexual assault courts as he has promised, which is both long overdue and a long-term proposal. He can encourage the government to modernise the sexual assault registry, about which ditto. But what becomes clear is that successive ANC-led governments have never taken women’s safety seriously. And this crisis cannot be solved overnight.
The same can very obviously be said about Afrophobia and violence against economic migrants.
Which brings us to the deep failures of modern liberalism as it has been practiced in weak social democracies like South Africa. The country is a one-party state in which a political elite is at war with itself trying to control the economy. In the past decade, it’s toggled from a faux-populist leader who destroyed the country for at least a generation, to a plutocrat who purchased the party under the proviso that he could ‘reform’ it from within.
But Ramaphosa doesn’t appear to know much about the violence and shame that defines everyday South African life. He’s been secure in his bubble for almost three decades, removed from the vicissitudes of everyday life. His inner-circle — the Motsepes, the Radebes, Gwede Mantashe, a banker or two — are not helpful in this regard. Like most of his peers, he belongs not to the people of his country, but to a tiny sect of global plutocrats who have an inviolable baseline belief system: liberal free-market economies, gently regulated (and occasionally guided) by government, can grow infinitely while providing boundless opportunities for their people.
This is manifestly untrue — as a theory, it’s bombing out across the planet. South Africa’s problems of course whittle down to inequality, but also to how that inequality is conceived by the economic elite: as a result of ‘low growth’, not of systematic exclusion that dates back centuries, and is premised on officially sanctioned racism and sexism.
Cyril Ramaphosa has better start taking his job seriously. He needs to crack heads at Luthuli House, get vicious with his enemies blocking the reform process, and go to war with the corruption clogging up the police. His reform programme needs to get nasty, because the patriarchal scum within his party view women as chattel and foreign nationals as sacrificial offerings to the mob. He needs to reinvent the liberal project for a new era, or watch the Constitution he crafted turn to dust in his hands.
He needs to light a very large fire under his own ass, or his advisors need to do it for him.
Ask anyone in his circle, and they’ll swear that Cyril Ramaphosa is the smartest man in the room. But that’s not the same as being the cleverest. Ramaphosa’s first eighteen months have been a pathetic wash. But comes next?
As the political thinker Hugo von Hofmannsthal put it, ‘He who can summon forces from the deep, him they will follow.’ DM