South Africa


Ramaphosa holds our future in his hands, but can he do the right thing?

Ramaphosa holds our future in his hands, but can he do the right thing?
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Rather than another well-meaning overly cautious display of lukewarm leadership, decisive and urgent action is necessary in six areas if this ship is to be kept afloat.


Greg Mills and Ray Hartley are with the Brenthurst Foundation.

A country in flames. The destruction of value and supply chains. A breakdown of law and order. A police service tottering under the weight of mass lawlessness. Future income from regional and national exports endangered. The list is now, seemingly, endless.

A mortal wound — or the moment that the country picks itself up, turns itself around and ascends?

The answer: It depends entirely on how the government led by the president responds.

This frenzy of looting and violence will eventually fizzle and stop. Its after-effects — broken logistics, destroyed infrastructure and the destruction of businesses — will be felt for a very long time. What will also last a long time is the impression that the government is weak, chaotic and hopelessly out of touch with the state of the nation.

There is no escaping the president’s personal responsibility and authority. There is no collective to hide behind this time. No amorphous, promissory investment conference will paper over these cracks, given the loss of life, damage to property and graphic images on international screens. It should not be forgotten that this six-inch nail was landed at precisely the same time that the World Bank warned that, “Should South Africa not use the crisis as an inflection point, it risks suffering another lost decade.” Per capita income is now, once more, at 2005 levels.

Rather than another well-meaning, overly cautious display of lukewarm leadership, decisive and urgent action is necessary in six areas if this ship is to be kept afloat:

  • Communicate. Don’t be the invisible president. Be out there in the public eye, continually transmitting the government’s plans, intent and control. Overall, make it clear that there is a plan, and that you are sweating it.  Put on your hiking boots and get out there on the streets to console those who have lost everything and to smell the smoke of the disaster for yourself.
  • Admit and abandon failed policies. The opening up of the ports and energy sector to private investment is a good, if late, start. Don’t delay the deep economic reforms that everyone agrees are essential for another day. It takes leadership to admit failure.
  • Secure. The parlous state of our police and armed forces has been exposed. So insipid, after-the-fact and unconvincing has been their response to the country’s largest security crisis that citizens have had to arm themselves and step up to stem the tide of thuggery. The police and military have been hollowed out by decades of appalling leadership, but they look good by comparison to the intelligence services. Never has there been an outfit so mistakenly named. They failed to see the headlights of an oncoming train and the joke doing the rounds is that Mr Bean has a better intelligence network. Heads should roll, starting with the minister of police who has been cruelly exposed as all hat and no cattle.
  • Prioritise. Clarify the priorities of the government in the short, medium and longer term.
  • Isolate and arrest the criminal elements, and those calling for political unrest on social media. This is the time for special courts that dispense justice quickly. Issue arrest warrants, globally if necessary.
  • Include. This has two fundamental components. First, to come up with an understandable and comprehensive plan to address inequality through growth, one that avoids the fantasy speak of the planning ministry and the dirigisme of the demands in reaching across the aisle — politically and racially. The time for playing racial politics is over. We are all in this together. Acting on this realisation involves more than the platitudinous “My fellow South Africans”, to encompass asking business and other sectors of society for help in the national endeavour, and to take their advice, not least in declaring a State of Emergency.

What is disappointing is that this advice has been offered time and time again by the best economists, by global institutions and, frequently, by local business leaders. But there are a thousand reasons why such advice has been ignored. Most frequently, however, the key factor standing in the way of decisiveness is the ANC’s dysfunctional internal politics which prohibits it from deviating from ideological orthodoxy that has long passed its sell-by date. The Berlin Wall came down more than 30 years ago. Yet the ANC remains a prisoner of its past and unable to pivot towards the future as the world changes at a rapid pace all around it.

A dramatic new path is the only possible course given the dire record of liberation politics and the current inexorable slide to failure.

Leadership is about displaying commitment. But it’s also about realising when you need help and not being too proud or prejudiced to accept it.

Politicians are generally defined by ambition and, in some exceptional cases, service. Sometimes fear can motivate them too; a fear of losing power, and a fear of the worth of their legacy.

If Ramaphosa knows better, let’s see that plan, the necessary commitment of resources and a timeline. Failing that, as Cromwell said to the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation: “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Rg Bolleurs says:

    Great article. I fully agree. Well said

  • C. M. says:

    well said!

  • Jeannine Ibbotson Ibbotson says:

    Great analysis

  • Derrick Kourie says:

    While the situation does indeed seem dire, commentators seem to have ignored one remarkable and so far unexplained feature: the composite index of the SA stock market has not plunged. Instead, since the 8th, it has steadily climbed by about 3% from 65094 to 67088. What is this saying?

    • Charles Parr says:

      Unfortunately the JSE is divorced from reality and the climb in the ALSI simply reflects a lack of other investment opportunities. Foreign investors were poised to drive it higher but now they’ll scatter in every direction.

      • Derrick Kourie says:

        I suspect that the climb (which has continued and was just under 68000 when I last looked) has more to do with the decline in the rand, meaning that mining and farming exporters are doing even better than before in rand terms. My point, however, is that a systematic and authoritative analysis, rather than your or my gut feeling, would be interesting.

      • Louis Potgieter says:

        The strength of the rand better reflects SA’s standing. Equities are going up because of resource demand (mining) and because a weakening rand makes our exports more competitive.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Greg & Ray for President!

  • Linda Schwartz says:

    Excellent advice. Please take note, Mr President, and step up and out.

  • Tony Reilly says:

    Hopefully someone with access to Cyril will read this.

  • Andrew Gunn says:

    Unlikely that he will heed your advice, does he have the courage to do what is right for the country at the risk of splitting the ANC? I hope so!

  • Alan Mitchell says:

    An article that eloquently expresses the exact opinion that many of us hold. The “all hat and no cattle” name is so apt, and it reminds me of the “moment makes the man” cliche which is all too relevant at this time. This could be a turning point for president Ramaphosa, it could be his great triumph over his detractors, it could be his chance to mature the ANC from a liberation movement to a Governing party, and it could be the moment he restores the affection and admiration of the world for us that Nelson Mandela initiated.
    I hope he’s listening, sincerely.

  • Wendy Dewberry says:

    Great points for action most would agree.

    When I read this and other articles aiming criticism at Ramaposa for his style, I wonder if that is a valuable or fair basis for critique. Not everyone has a flamboyant personality like Malema, or Zuma, or Hitler, or Jesus. I think that makes my point.

    My personal experience is that educated people tend to let the words suffice, and that words are chosen carefully for their percieved gravitas.

    Perhaps we should be grateful for a leader who’s quiet deliberation is deeply meaningful and diplomatic rather than firebranded rhetoric which is mostly ever used to stir up rank and file.

    • Charles Parr says:

      Wendy, I hope you’re right about him being a quiet leader but I’m afraid he hides it well. Since the beginning of Covid he has had so many opportunities to take a leadership position but he has just not been able to rise to the occasion and he has allowed other people with their own agenda to take control. What we are reaping now is nothing but the complete inability of the entire ANC to confront the problems that have been apparent to so many of us over such a long period and, in my view, Cyril should have played a major part in that. But he hid away to protect himself. In other words he gutless and unworthy of being considered a leader.

      • Hendrik Steyn says:

        I disagree with Wendy and agree 100% with Charles. We have to stop dreaming and start to face the facts before anything will improve.

    • Katharine Ambrose says:

      I agree. Ramaphosa is not about pouring rhetorical petrol on the flames. But in an age of video clips and dramatic sound bites its hard for him to be heard above the rabble rousers. I wish him well in a unenviable position

  • John Weinkove says:

    The ANC represents a labour aristocracy of mostly civil services. The wealth of the state is used to maintain their living standards. The money to pay for this has been running out and the response of the politicians is to hollow out these institutions and use the money to maintain salaries. Services decline and there are no funds to correct anything. Pres Ramaphosa has run out of other people’s money.

  • Brent Record says:

    The deep root cause of the present upheavals is the decades-long failure of ANC economic polices. It is the result of the tension between the increasing numbers of have-nots and the diminishing numbers of the haves, now exacerbated by private and public sector corruption. You cannot promote expectations and dreams of prosperity and then try to achieve them with crappy socialist economic policies and ideology.
    Oom Louw Bettrie speaks.

  • R S says:

    Well said. The ANC must recognise its own failures and make room for others to step in and help.

  • Peter Bartlett says:

    A great article; especially the last bit on what Cromwell had to say, let’s hope the ANC take it to heart and leave!

    “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.”

  • Andre Toit says:

    Good article. I read elsewhere,that CR also wants to rope in the opposition parties
    to help in stopping the current mayhem. He should also rope them in to help in running
    this country better,because the ANC I fear,cannot do so on its own In fact they can t even run a bath !!

  • Johann Olivier says:

    At the heart of every catastrophe lies the germ of an opportunity. President Ramaphosa needs to act now to make SA a better, more democratic state. The time to act is, unfortunately, finite. Act now!

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