There has been hand-wringing by many in the commentariat, and ordinary voters, about the alleged lack of leadership by President Cyril Ramaphosa. Time and time again he has been called on to lead. In South Africa, this can be difficult. There are multiple actors leading different constituencies that want different outcomes. Things happen fast here, and often.
That will not stop Ramaphosa from trying. It may be difficult, but the future of his presidency could hinge on his actions – and of late he has been taking action.
It started with the announcement that Ramaphosa would not attend the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. Political leaders love to go to this event. Foreign affairs is often a welcome break from the difficult diurnal details of domestic politics, and appearing at a big event like this ensures that you lead your news bulletins back home and look powerful. For Ramaphosa to give this up was an explicit message that the home issues are more important than anything.
Then came the apology for the violence and looting Ramaphosa made at the funeral of former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. It may have been difficult for Ramaphosa to do, but he did apologise and now he can move on.
After that, on Monday 16 September, Ramaphosa went to the conference of the textile workers union SACTWU. There, he spoke at length about how SARS would stop the huge volumes of counterfeit and illegal clothes coming into South Africa and being sold here. He appeared to be speaking directly to the people most affected by this problem. This allowed him to be perceived as acting against a problem caused by foreign nationals without being seen as encouraging xenophobic attacks against foreign nationals.
Also on Monday, the Ramaphosa show moved to the Eastern Cape, and Lusikisiki. There, he opened a clinic that is one day supposed to be run by the national health insurance (NHI). He said the NHI had a good future ahead of it. Again, he was speaking directly to the needs of “ordinary people”, people who don’t have proper healthcare.
All of this came after the announcement that he had called for a joint sitting of Parliament to discuss the attacks by men against women in South Africa. This is the first joint sitting of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces outside of a State of the Nation Address since then-president Thabo Mbeki fired Jacob Zuma as deputy president in 2005.
While it is unlikely that a combined brain and morality force of all our MPs together would be able to come up with a solution to a problem with such deep-seated causes as this one, the symbolism is important. It allows Ramaphosa to say he has done something that others before him have not.
During the sitting itself, Ramaphosa made several important points, all setting out how he sees the situation regarding foreign nationals and gender violence. He said the “majority of foreign nationals are hard-working”, and that when it came to drug dealing, “the majority of the people involved in this are South African”.
He also said there is a thin line between attacking foreigners and attacking each other. This is important, in that xenophobic violence leads to a situation where South Africans from a different language or racial groups could end up fighting one another. He was also, perhaps, making a point about the ANC: the party has, since the mid-1980s, been a movement for everyone. It does this to retain power, but also knowing that if it does not, it could quickly slide into maelstrom spun by the identity-based politics.
All of this suggests that Ramaphosa is now determined to take charge. He is explaining what he is for, and what he is against.
Real political power can sometimes come from the ability to frame the debate. This is where EFF leader Julius Malema has excelled. Whether it was his first use of the phrase “economic freedom” in 2011, or his ability to take charge of the narrative around Caster Semenya at the same time, or his behaviour now in quoting Mugabe that “the only white man you can trust is a dead white man”, Malema has been able to frame the question.
Contrast this with the DA and its failure to frame the debate.
This is the problem that now confronts Ramaphosa – to be the ultimate person who decides what the nation is talking about.
However, he has the same problem as the DA in doing this. He has to appeal to a wide constituency, while Malema has been effective because his constituency is so limited.
Ramaphosa’s big advantage, of course, is that he is the president and has the power of what the Americans call the “bully pulpit”, the ability to command attention wherever he goes. But this can be overused.
To control it well, Ramaphosa needs to speak at certain moments, define the national agenda, and then step back.
The next set of debates are likely to revolve around Eskom and the economy. Cabinet is expected to announce decisions about Eskom soon, while the period for public comment in response to Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s economic proposals closed at the weekend. Both of these are crucial debates with no easy answers.
While the Eskom problem can be sent to the lap of Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, the economy cannot. Here Ramaphosa will be very closely watched.
Ramaphosa has been able to dominate much of the discussion of the last week. He appears to have built up a head of steam. But he needs to maintain the momentum if he is to make real political progress. DM