’Twixt a rock and a hard place: Who would want to be in Cyril Ramaphosa’s shoes?

By Stephen Grootes 9 September 2019
Illustration image: President Cyril Ramaphosa admitted that he will be addressing the issue of violence against women and children and that a state of emergency should be declared while accepting a memorandum during a gender-based violence demonstration outside Parliament on September 05, 2019. Photo: Gallo Images/Ziyaad Douglas / President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa speaks during a plenary session of the World Economic Forum on Africa at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, 05 September 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA / South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (R) and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (L) shake hands during a press conference in Cape Town, South Africa, 20 November 2018. Photo: EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s real problem is that he, and the nation, don’t appear to get a chance to draw breath and thus to take initiative in any way.

After a week of several storms, it is obvious that one person is by default at the centre of them. President Cyril Ramaphosa has had what one might view as an impossible week. He is called on to answer unanswerable questions and to fix unsolvable problems. He looks like a president under pressure. In some cases, it appears he is unable to do anything, incapable of making any progress. In the medium term, this could weaken him. But he still does have some time to remedy that situation.

South Africa is lurching from crisis to crisis, and every week seems to bring new calamity. Afrophobic violence, the violence against women, the slowing economy, the problems at Eskom, all of them are difficult issues that could take more than a generation to fix.

Each produces a set of circumstances that requires a unique, and forceful, presidential response.

It cannot have been comfortable for Ramaphosa to address people protesting outside Parliament against gender violence. The impression is that he was “forced” to do so. His attempts to tell the crowd that he “knows how you feel” were almost booed down.

These were not his opponents. The demonstrators had a legitimate demand that he had to address.

Questions should be asked about the practical planning of his political diary. The protest had been arranged several days before it occurred. Ramaphosa was forced to address the demonstrators because of his geographic proximity. If the Cabinet meeting had been elsewhere, he could not have been “forced” out to address the demonstrators. Why was the meeting not moved to mitigate against that risk?

There are other questions to ask about the management of the situation on Thursday night. The phrase “address to the nation” suggests a live broadcast, but the president’s address was recorded. It was further marred by a technical problem at the SABC. While this was happening, Ramaphosa appeared to be speaking live at the World Economic Forum Africa meeting. This gives the impression that one issue is more important than the other.

However, Ramaphosa’s real problem is that he, and the nation, don’t appear to get a chance to draw breath, and thus to take over the narrative.

Almost any announcement by him of progress in some kind of reform would once have dominated the agenda, but unfortunately for him, that is not the case now. Any initiative would be overshadowed by the scale of recent developments. He cannot compete with looting and violence, attacks on women by men, and the death of former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe.

The pressures on Ramaphosa are growing. Business leaders are becoming increasingly frustrated, and particularly with him. There appears to be either no or very slow progress at Eskom. This is, to some, hard to understand, considering how important Eskom is to our economy and country. And yet, despite all of the promises of change, there are no public signs of any progress.

The same can be said for some of the other key actors in our economy. SAA last week advertised for a new CEO. The SABC is still, still, awaiting any payment from a bailout that officials said has already been approved.

The issues of Eskom and the SABC are particularly perplexing. In both cases it appears that Ramaphosa has his allies in charge, and yet there seems to be no progress, despite time seemingly running out.

However, while Ramaphosa is under pressure as the leader of our complicated and difficult nation, he is making some headway. He still has an approval rating of 62%, which most democratic leaders would welcome.

Also, it seems that he is winning some battles within the ANC. Ace Magashule, the secretary-general and his apparent prime factional opponent in the party, appears to be on the back foot.

Key moments such as the ANC’s Top Six national officials telling Zandile Gumede that she must resign as mayor of Ethekwini show how the balance of power has shifted from those who supported former president Jacob Zuma, who himself now appears to be reduced to making Trumpian claims on Twitter and then losing the defamation action that is brought as a result.

Even the public protector, Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane, so long a thorn in the side of Ramaphosa and his allies, now appears to be losing support, after a series of court losses (including cases that are not related to politics at all, but do cast light on her competence).

One of the problems Ramaphosa has to confront is a tendency among some South Africans to both want a more authoritarian leader and to be consulted at the same time. The weekend debate is sometimes full of praise for places like Kigali, Rwanda, and some even appear to long for a Chinese solution to our problems. And yet, when Finance Minister Tito Mboweni published a plan specifically for consultation purposes, he was lambasted for not consulting.

This is typical of South Africans’ attitude to politics: we want action, we want it now, and we want it to be the action we want, not the action of anyone else. If we don’t like it, we claim we were not consulted.

This is a problem that Ramaphosa will have to get used to.

But bigger problems await. If, for example, he cannot enforce his will over issues at Eskom or SAA or the SABC now, then can he ever enforce his will at all when it comes to economic, or any other, policy? DM


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