Reality really sucks, most of the time

President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Flickr/ GCIS)

Cyril Ramaphosa’s act reminds one of a man juggling several balls, some of them explosive, in the air. If he drops any one of them, the others will soon follow.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

In the movie Sully, based on what is better known as the “Miracle on the Hudson”, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger goes from national hero to a pilot whose every decision and action are questioned by the Federal Aviation Administration. Sully, having managed to land his Airbus A320 on the Hudson River and safely evacuate all 155 passengers and crew members after being struck by a flock of birds, suddenly faced intense questioning of his qualifications, sobriety, even his personal relationships. At the centre of these accusations: Did Sully react the way he was supposed to react or did he blunder, slow to react in the face of great danger and in the moment when exactly the opposite was expected of him?

To the uninitiated, the argument was pretty convincing: the simulations, flown by experienced pilots, easily returned safely to LaGuardia Airport. Why could Sully not have done the same? Was he really such a good and responsible captain of the flying ship full of people?

The devil, as always, is in the details. As Sully explained, the simulations had a single action plan: to return the plane to LaGuardia immediately after the strike. But the real world doesn’t function like that. First, there are legitimate questions. What has just happened? Can we restart the engines or are they dead for good? Try it again! LaGuardia Flight Control, we have a problem. What do you suggest we should do? What can we do?

Sully’s accusers forgot about something called real life. It is never ideal, never clean or clear-cut, and only exceedingly rarely do we immediately know exactly what to think, feel or do. So when the flight simulations were run taking this into account, the flight could no longer get back to LaGuardia. Sully was fully vindicated, his great skills unquestioned once more.

Simply put, life is not ideal. There are always impurities and mud and crazy flocks of raptors to make it a lasting misery.

Watching Cyril Ramaphosa’s Zondo testimony this week and reading many reactions to his statements, recollection of events, strategic omissions and practised obtuseness, I also see a lone figure sitting on the hottest of chairs, in the heart of a maelstrom that could bring the country down any day now. We all think we know what he should have done and when he should have done it. I see, and am pretty sure he can see it too, a badly ravaged country that is one move away from a collapsing Jenga tower.

I may or may not agree with Ramaphosa’s politics. For what it’s worth, I see in his attempts at limited reform more than a reminder of Mikhail Gorbachev’s years of futile attempts to save the Soviet Union under the leadership of a party that had lost its legitimacy long before he came to power. I see the clear intraparty constraints that Ramaphosa still cannot find the strength to break away from. I see a deep and troubling inability to concoct a workable solution for South Africa’s future while we remain the same rapidly failing “democracy” that, in its essence, was always an accountability-free one-party state.

Ramaphosa’s act reminds one of a man juggling several balls, some of them explosive, in the air. If he drops any one of them, the others will soon follow.

I consider my job not easy or simple, and in many ways extremely complex. And yet it pales into insignificance compared with the complexity of the state president’s job, even in stable countries in normal times. South Africa has no such luxuries. Guiding our badly damaged ship to a safe port, or just continuing to juggle all these dangerous balls in the air, is not a job for faint-hearted or reluctant players.

Accordingly, it is much more comfortable to look at the world in the rear-view mirror, once in possession of all-important hindsight. But the events we’re talking about now at Zondo were just a bunch of future possibilities. It was not at all a done deal that Zuma & Co would be out of power. What was a done deal was that JZ surrounded himself with a bunch of extremely dangerous people whose loyalty was not to South Africa but to him.

For all the reality of Zuma’s tumultuous closing years, I see Ramaphosa as the man who could not afford to be too loud in 2016 or 2017, even as he watched the Guptas and their trolls ravage the country. Whether he will be vindicated as Sully was remains to be seen, of course.

Every one of us has the absolute right not to forgive such a course of action, and in an ideal world there would be no excuse to land this crowded plane called South Africa in the middle of a river and make us all wait for salvation, all these years later.

But this is no ideal world. In real life, in a country that was systematically decimated for so many years, landing in the middle of the river is still better than nose-diving to our demise. Such is our luck. DM168

Branko Brkic is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Daily Maverick.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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  • Paul Du Preez says:

    Perceptive. I think Ramaphosa still can’t afford to be too loud. He still has to rely on the goodwill of far too many people who have something to hide. Never mind landing a bust plane, he’s trying to guide a wagon hitched to a bunch of feral cats to safety across the floor of a burning fish factory.

    • John Strydom says:

      Thank you for a compassionate look at a man who is beset by an avalanche of crises. Would any of us be able to do much more if we were in his shoes?

    • John Strydom says:

      Sorry Paul, my comment was not meant as a reply to you. But that was quite a picture you drew! 🙂

    • Penny Penny Penny says:

      Thanks Branko. A compassionate look at a brave man in an unenviable situation. He didn’t have to take on this job, but, to his credit he chose to try and turn things around. He’s not perfect, but better than just about anyone else I can imagine.

    • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

      100% agree. It is so pleasing to see appreciation of the nightmare that must be his political day. These feral cats have 10 inch steel claws.

  • Jorge Da Motta says:

    Real life does indeed get in the way. An insightful and sobering perspective if one takes on board how low the odds were for Scully to pull that landing off without a hitch…Hard to imagine Ramaphosa being able to do this with one hand behind his back, shackled by intraparty factionalism…

  • Gerhard Pretorius says:

    In safety circles a near miss is defined as a serious error or mishap that has the potential to cause an adverse event but fails to do so because of chance or because it is intercepted. Sully’s decision to land his plane in the Hudson was a near miss.
    CR’s reluctance to act when he became aware of the real world of the ANC was not a near miss, nor was it a lapse. He did not have a couple of minutes to make up his mind; he had lots of time. And it has resulted in real damage that have set back the country decades.
    The analogy does not gel.
    Sullenberg’s decision was questioned and investigated, which was the correct thing to do for America’ aviation authorities. It may not have been necessary to land the plane in the river.
    The fact that the guy was regarded by many as a hero had nothing to do with the questioning. It was about uncovering the truth, which is what the Zondo Commission – and DM – also set out to do.
    Zuma, and Oscar Pistorius, were also regarded by many as heroes. Does that mean their versions of reality cannot be questioned and should be accepted as correct?
    Of course not. Likewise with President Rhamaphosa.
    I do not expect miracles. Only reasonable actions based on truth, not on some hero or some leader’s version of reality.

    • Charles Parr says:

      Your last sentence sums it up for me. We’ve given too much power to people that are more concerned about maintaining that power rather than doing the job that they were elected to do. It makes a mockery of democracy.

    • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

      Improvement is what is needed. does it have to be perfect? No, as long as it sets us on the right trajectory towards perfection.

  • Paddy Ross says:

    An excellent analysis, Branko. CR could have walked away from politics post-Mandela and enjoyed a comfortable existence for the rest of his life. I believe he felt an obligation to try to ensure that the constitution and the promise that it held for the future of South Africa was defended. Whether he is being realistic or not only time will tell. There are legions of ‘Johnny come latelys’ who are quick to criticise his efforts but ‘politics is the art of the possible’ and he is a master of that art. Just think where South Africa would be today if he had lost the ANC leadership election in 2017.

    • Gerhard Pretorius says:

      Pure speculation, to which one can add where would we have been if CR stood up to be heard when it was most required. There is an appropriate one-liner by Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the truimph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

  • gorgee beattie says:

    Even if we accept CRs bona fides, the situation has reached a point of no return.
    CR needs to act decisively and do radical surgery on the “malignicies” that are destroying this country

  • John Strydom says:

    Thank you for a compassionate look at a man who is beset by an avalanche of crises. Would any of us be able to do much more if we were in his shoes?

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    To this excellent analysis … I would suggest a reworked title called ” Reality always Snaps, crackles and pops (not the breakfast variety!) … all of the time “. Only those who have faced and dealt with the reality of working in any organisation with all manner of personalities and differing agendas, would be aware of the multiple challenges that its ‘leaders’ face. The point about “… a bunch of extremely dangerous people whose loyalty was not to South Africa but to him.” … is misleading … inthat their ‘loyalty’ was/is to themselves and their personal enrichment or aggrandisement. Well said otherwise.

  • Sandra Goldberg says:

    In the first two years of his presidency,Cyril Ramaphosa ‘s position was much less certain, and so his hallmark hesitancy was easier to understand.Now , however, with his most intractable enemies facing the law, his tenure is much more assured, but we still see the same reactive tendencies. Indeed,his latest cabinet picks leave much to be desired, as do his retentions there.It would appear, unfortunately, that his priority is still the unity of the ANC and not the welfare of the country.His performance at the Zondo commission last week bears this out, especially his plea to Judge Zondo not to make an adverse finding against cadre deployment, a policy which has done so much harm to South Africa.

  • Terri Van Schaik says:

    Concur completely. It’s almost as if he is trying to conduct an orchestra, he knows is not made of the best crew. with his hands tied behind his back, and everyone has a different piece of sheet music in front of them. And the audience is booing loudly.

    While pointing to his failings can we all remember he got us off that plane. And we’ve landed somewhere (still trying to figure out where that is exactly) albeit in a torn up vessel. It may sink or explode before the rescue teams arrive or the emergency slides are triggered. But here we are, for now, in limbo.

  • John Pearse says:

    Wonderful insightful journalism. Ramaphosa is a strong, brave leader with a clear strategy to rectify the ills of the past. This is a building blocks game of patience the complexity of which is horrendous and God forbid that he gets removed from the equation for any reason.

  • R S says:

    I agree regard the position finds himself in as both the president of South Africa and ANC. I have few doubts he did what he believed to be best at the time as a loyal party member.

    However, whether that was best for himself, the party, or the country… I have my doubts it was the latter. CR, as well as many other ANC members, probably know the only way forward for the country is for his party to get out of the way, but obviously the ANC, and perhaps CR himself cannot imagine a South Africa where the ANC is in the opposition benches or simply no longer exists.

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