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The Shakesperean tragedy of Cyril Ramaphosa

South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER

The Shakespearean tragedy of Cyril Ramaphosa

President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Esa Alexander)

As the chess moves in the ANC gain in speed and complexity, and on the eve of the suspension of the ghoulish Public Protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, at the dodgiest possible moment, it’s worth taking some time to reflect on the unusual life of President Cyril Ramaphosa, whose career has taken a turn for the ludicrous, and who will have to take more than pawns out if he hopes to survive.

The great Solomon Tshekiso Plaatje – founder of the South African Native National Congress (which later became the ANC) – was an intellectual, polymath, polyglot, novelist, translator, activist, and bassoon player (probably not the last one). Among other matters, he spent his adult life deeply immersed in the works of William Shakespeare. *For Plaatje, who translated Julius Caesar and Comedy of Errors (among others) into Setswana, the bard was the bridge between coloniser and colonised. Hamlet’s endless indecision; Macbeth’s empty ambition; Lear’s wintery bluster. These were Ur-stories embedded in every culture – they existed in indigenous mythologies long before the coloniser arrived, and they would outlive him long after liberation.

What, then, would Plaatje have made of the man presiding over the dying days of the organisation he helped found? Cyril Ramaphosa represents an instantly recognisable melange of archetypes.

“I am pigeon-livered and lack gall,” whined Hamlet.

“I have no spur/ To prick the sides of my intent, but only/ Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself/ And falls on th’ other,” growled Macbeth.

“He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a horse’s health, a boy’s love, or a whore’s oath,” spat King Lear.

The dude with the tragic flaw – Ramaphosa’s collision of traits basically embodies English Lit 101. But as he lurches toward the end of his first term as ANC president, the figure he most resembles is Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the fool, the clown, the pratfaller. As he prepares to face off against his (many) enemies at the looming ANC electoral conference, scheduled for December of this year, he finds himself embroiled in a scandal entirely of his own making, a caper so absurd that it’s difficult to summarise without losing the plot. 

But let’s try.

In February 2020, robbers slunk into the President’s Phala Phala wildlife property and stole an unknown quantity of cash, allegedly in US dollars, allegedly hidden in “the furniture” – the proceeds, apparently, of a high-end game sale. This was an inside job, perpetrated in league with a domestic worker. It was never reported to the cops, but was instead resolved by the head of Ramaphosa’s Presidential Protection Unit, Major-General Wally Rhoode, who went full Liam Neeson, tracked down the robbers in Namibia, interrogated them, paid them off for their silence, and then buried the whole affair in a half-inch of loosely packed sawdust.

Some questions: 

Does a president need a fire pool and a remote-controlled chicken pen in order to be considered sufficiently secure at his residence? Is there not a vetting process for presidential employees? 

Why was the game sale conducted in US dollars? Why was the cash stuffed into the furniture? Was the sale not reported to the SA Revenue Service? 

Why were the police not informed? Why didn’t Ramaphosa just stuff a quick sentence about the robbery into the tail-end of one of his “family meetings” as the pandemic took over the news cycle? And why is the President running a cash business that so obviously compromises his safety, along with the integrity of his office?

And so, we leave the realm of Shakespeare and enter the universe of the Coen brothers, the American filmmakers who specialise in dramatising the overlapping human traits of greed and stupidity. The Phala Phuck-up is Hamlet crossed with The Big Lebowski, King Lear mashed up with Fargo. There’s the missing cash, the amateur robbers, the idiot businessman and the overreaching tough guy. And it all blows up in the final reel, when the baddie hiding in plain sight – in this case, former spy boss Arthur Fraser – dumps the whole spiel on the desk of a nose-picking police officer, and files a complaint that is a near-perfect piece of spycraft: Three-quarters fact, one-quarter bullshit, 100% weapon of mass destruction.

What happens to Ramaphosa going forward depends upon a number of factors, not least of which is how much money he and his friends are willing to spend on the electoral conference at the end of this year. During the previous conference five years ago, Ramaphosa was accused of benefiting from the hundreds of millions his CR17 campaign team splurged on purchasing votes. (He was exonerated.) The opposing faction also spent another fortune, and the money coursing through branches and delegates’ e-wallets was enough to recapitalise at least two state-owned airlines.

It was disgusting.

Buying a political party’s electoral votes is, astonishingly, not a crime. But this sort of spending comes with real-world consequences. While Ramaphosa and his CR22 squad will be able to raise funds from the President’s plutocratic inner circle, as well as from upper- and middle-class South Africans in the formal economy, opposing factions will have to hustle for cash on the streets. Farms and stores and businesses in flyover country will be emptied in order to bolster the opposing factions’ war chests, in a nationwide racketeering effort that will further compound South Africa’s status as a gangster state. More people will die fighting for office and influence – political assassination is the only thing that counts as a growth industry in this place.

Indeed, the Phala Phuck-up has raised the cost of buying the ANC presidency in a way that can’t be measured, except in blood. It’s also given, free of charge, the President’s enemies a cudgel to smash him with, as we saw so clearly on Thursday in Parliament. Thieves and shysters are calling him out for his follies, because this is what our politics has been reduced to.

Step aside or face anarchy, insist the same people who looted VBS bank into non-existence. For them, Phala Phala is political fairy dust. But Ramaphosa must be nice to these people – in a best-case scenario for him, he’ll be co-governing with some of them after the ANC drops below 50% in 2024.

And so we ask, how did it come to this? How did Cyril Ramaphosa end up hoist with his own petard, crying, Hamlet-like, “Why, what an ass am I?”

***

Here’s a controversial thought: Ramaphosa would have made a decent second President. Younger than Thabo Mbeki, and from a labour organising background, one imagines that he would have shaved the edges off the ANC’s neoliberal faction, bolstered the left, softened insane policies like Gear, and held in check the wolfish gorging that Mbeki was too Machiavellian to temper. Also, understanding that HIV causes Aids. 

Perhaps. Perhaps not. What was clear from as far back as 2016 – at least to me – was that he’d make an awful fifth President. Too fat, too happy, too disengaged. Famously, after Madiba is said to have passed him over as successor in favour of Mbeki (not true), Ramaphosa left politics to pursue a career in business. He benefited from the initial wave of Black Economic Empowerment, becoming awesomely wealthy due to his legal background, his connections within the local power matrix, his reputation as a savvy negotiator, and a steadfast commitment to non-racialism.

Like many of his cohort, he never really created anything. He never really innovated. Nothing trickled down. His job was to legitimise the status quo, and he was rewarded handsomely for it. In what seemed like a matter of days, Ramaphosa lost the punkish energy of his union years and instead became the back-slapping charmer of Sandton C-suites, sitting on boards, taking big slices of heinous mining companies and feral multinationals. Like a randlord, he drifted above and beyond the South African prosaic, indulging openly in his passion – buying and selling very expensive pets

His nadir arrived in 2012, during the Marikana Platinum Belt civil war when, in correspondence on behalf of the Lonmin mining corporation, he encouraged the police to take a hard line on the strikers. Thirty-four men died over the course of the bloodshed, and South African democracy was tarnished forever.

Untarnished, however, was Ramaphosa’s reputation, at least in the eyes of the plutocrats who funded the “good” side of the ANC. In the name of “stability”, he was installed later in 2012 as deputy president of the party, laundering the second Zuma regime into some form of acceptability. The idea, I guess, was that Ramaphosa would serve as a moderating influence, and would act as the adult in the room. Instead, he was a toddler in a playpen, curious and joyful, but needing to be regularly fed and changed.

Zuma side-armed him into oblivion.

Did Ramaphosa help clean up the ANC? Not even a bit. His avuncular smile lightened up National Executive Committee meetings in which the odd cadre here and there tried to sanction Zuma for his manifold sins. Ramaphosa was not among their number. His task was to encourage unity and comity, not to speak unkind words and cause conflict. And while he was part of the coalition that helped install Pravin Gordhan as finance minister after Zuma fired Nhlanhla Nene in December 2015, his other interventions were few and far between. He did not attack. He mostly mollified.

Everything Ramaphosa touched turned to sponge. Most notably, when he took charge of the Eskom “War Room” – a governance body that was meant to bring the economy’s Death Star under some form of control – the decline in the power utility’s performance continued merrily, and with it ramped-up levels of corruption that bordered on reckless insanity. 

This wasn’t Ramaphosa’s fault – one man could not possibly stem the rot – but it wasn’t not his fault. People were literally stealing in front of him, and he failed to hit the big red biohazard button. As always, he was limited in his ability to manoeuvre. But this was exactly the problem – every one of his enemies seemed to understand that his speciality was not ANC street fighting but the swiping of a credit card.

And swipe it he has.

***

Somehow – despite the evidence, despite the fact that he never lowered himself to speak to the press – the pundits insisted that he would make a fine leader. After covering Ramaphosa on the road in 2017 as he quasi-campaigned for the ANC presidency, this reporter had to wonder, though. 

Who is this guy? What does he believe in? What does he want here?

Between him and Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the whole episode was a freak show of extreme drowsiness. There were no ideas, just references to ANC policies and the necessity of implementing them correctly.

After the tycoon outbid everyone else for the ANC, South Africa generated the neologism “Ramaphoria”. It was a “new dawn”, we were told, and the country was turning a corner. Business folk were ecstatic; the regulated media was, by and large, in love. 

Ramaphosa wasn’t a puppet of white capital – that notion strips him of agency and absolves him of his bad ideas. Instead, he genuinely seemed to want South Africa to resemble an Investec networking breakfast. Only one problem: That would have required him to ditch the ANC “unity” ticket and bounce the bad guys. Hard.

This has been his fatal flaw: an excessive belief in his own abilities to unify, and a consistently naïve misunderstanding of what the ANC has become: an organised criminal syndicate that has no intention of governing South Africa, but instead wants to strip it for parts and sell it to a C-grade Russian oligarch in exchange for a ride on his yacht, or plane.

As I argued in these pages, at the beginning of his presidency, Ramaphosa needed to purge widely and purge quickly. 

This is standard practice in most democratic administrations – there has to be a reset if the new leadership is going to govern effectively. Often this is done without following proper legal procedures, and while there is much grumbling and many lawsuits, it is the way of things – after all, the government has the money to pay the appropriate settlements.

Ramaphosa and his kitchen cabinet of advisers had other ideas. They wanted to play some still-undefined long game, failing to understand that there was no time. After winning the 2018 national election, Ramaphosa needed to move swiftly to reform Eskom, SAA (and its affiliates), Denel and dozens of other SOEs – the focus should have been on re-engaging furloughed workers who had nothing to do with hurting these institutions, not face-saving an extinct ideology. 

On this, there has barely been any movement. Yes, he has slowly vanquished Ace Magashule, Bathabile Dlamini and a number of other Radical Economic Transformation zeroes. But an entire cadre of bad guys still sits in Cabinet and on vital committees. (Bheki Cele? Lindiwe Sisulu? Gwede Mantashe? David Mahlobo?) The National Prosecuting Authority, which takes its cues from the President, has been almost comically dilatory. Yes, they’re under-capacitated. But we’re going on more than three years now. 

And now there is the culmination of his long battle with the Public Protector, whom he delayed suspending until the day after she began a justifiable investigation into the Phala Phala robbery. 

This just screams, Thanks for the lessons, JZ.

Which brings us to the former President, whose legal travails have been the third-longest running soap opera in South Africa’s history. Enough has been written about them, but let’s laser in on the major plot point – Ramaphosa’s installation of former spy boss Arthur Fraser in Correctional Services, where he – gasp! – illegally granted Zuma medical parole after the former President was jailed on contempt of court charges (ushering in one of the worst paroxysms of violence this country has ever experienced).

Arthur Fraser is democratic South Africa’s great spoiler, its impish Puck. For a spy, he has been remarkably forthright about this fact. And here he is once again, kicking a sitting President right in the sensitive bits.

How did Ramaphosa not see this coming?

***

The tragic figure that followed Zuma was bound to face many failures. South Africa has long been a mess, Zuma made it a bigger one. But Ramaphosa took the job, believing that it was his to own. And own it he must.

Slowly, his friends are abandoning him, even though there is no one to replace him – this is called “despair”. His pro-Russia stance following the Ukraine invasion has excommunicated him from polite World Economic Forum society; his inconsistency on the Israeli occupation has won him no friends on the left.

The Phala Phuck-up has exposed his team’s lack of street smarts and access to information. He appears disconnected from intelligence circles – exemplified by the not-so-secret run-up to the riots last July, which came as a big surprise to the executive. He has centralised the power of the executive, to no apparent effect. And now, we wait for the next explosion of organised anger.

Recently, one of the Coen brothers adapted Macbeth for the screen. The film was stripped of the Coens’ usual absurdity – in fact, it was stripped of almost everything, leaving a minimalist black-and-white chiaroscuro of ambition and misery. It reminded me of Ramaphosa as he tries to resuscitate the corpse of the ANC, cheerfully ignoring the knives in his own back, backslapping and charming his way to his political tomb.

So, what would Sol Plaatje have to say about the fall of the organisation he founded? Who could have known it would end like this?

Shakespeare, that’s who. DM

*This article was updated on Friday, June 10, 2022, with an amendment regarding Plaatje’s translations.

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All Comments 39

  • ANComedy is a literary device used in factual works. It contains both tragedy and comedy. Mostly, the characters in ancomedy are exaggerated, and ends unhappily after a series of unfortunate events. It is incorporated with buffoons throughout the story, just to lighten the tone and destroy the country.

  • Thanks Richard, amusing and thought provoking as always, the question now is, what happens next?
    Will SA survive the fall of the ANC ?

    • What happens next is up to YOU, the media and the general public to start to think about the best option to vote for without being stampeded by the twitteratti. You will only get a democracy if you vote for a democratic party. Amazing!

  • Love it especially the Prezzy’s Phala Phuck up. Has a deep resonance with the reality that the PreZZie seems short of. What a shambolic mess. And now instead of arresting culprits, we’re suspending much-needed doctors who blow the stethoscope.

  • Thank you Richard. About time cr’s history of failures and taking no responsibility is put out in the open. He is just another anc cadre deployed to ensure the tax payers of SA is fleeced until there is nothing left. Then the country can go back to the days of tribes and war … and rule by murder.

  • Double double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble….and those who fought for Macbeth’s downfall are all made earls. Ace Maca 1st Earl of Bloemfontein?

  • I just love your writing Richard. Why can’t we see more of it in DM? Great and witty expose of a corrupt party run (he naively thinks) by a spineless “leader”.

  • I really enjoy this style of writing, it seems to make this scary moment in our history more palatable.
    The only losers in this game are the citizens of the country. We are all going to go through very stressful times until the next election. It is now time to lose historical emotions and ideologies and vote this theatre act out of town at every opportunity.

  • One of the best articles of the presidency of Ramaphosa that I have ever read and the quotes from Shakespeare are spot-on. Thanks Richard but not much hope is there for who is left in the ANC cadre driven government who has a modicum of intelligence, integrity and is not knee-deep in corruption to take over? Can you think of one?

  • Brilliant article. I wish i could call it satire but it is, in fact, truth dressed in satire. One minor quibble, “chess”?. These guys are not thinking 3 moves ahead. This is draughts, at best.

    Mr Poplak, please keep on with your incisive commentary.

  • Seriously dubious take on the situation from the man who predicted a year or so ago, in a Daily Maverick front-pager, that Ace M would win the showdown with CR. The truth, Richard, is that the ANC is unleadable.

  • I love this article but SA is not a comedy, it’s a tragedy . It’s not “Much Ado About Nothing” . With Ramaphosa gone, however ineffectual he is, there is no alternative to the Magashule/ Zuma RET faction. Plus, the biggest heist of all , the NHI ,is about to be foisted upon us. We can’t even have a military coup as most of the Defence Force equipment is out of action. Incidentally, I was a senior manager and director at one of the “heinous” mining companies mentioned (not Lonmin) and Cyril was equally useless there.

  • Great article Richard! I remember well the do-it-yourself-thinkers before the last elections, saying that “we must vote for Ramaphosa as he is the “good ANC”. Peter Bruce was at the forefront of that crusade of non-thinkers. The rest of the media followed like a pack of rabid chihuahuas. That cost the liberal democratic opposition a huge number of votes, which boosted Ramaphosa’s standing nationally. Time the media started to THINK about the next elections. Hint – You can start to think about a party with the best record of delivery as a probably best option for the future.

    • All very well Glyn, but that party, realistically, isn’t going to do it on its own or in partnership with the existing array of parties. And the crooks in the red party have enough pilfered lucre to buy a large slice of the pie.
      The DOD movement is stocked with competence, charisma and integrity. What are the chances that they could invent themselves as a party? Politics, as with Nature, abhors a vacuum. The imminent implosion of the anc will leave a Kimberley-sized hole. Who will fill it?
      Let’s all pray that somehow it will be filled with good guys (and dolls). It is still possibl? Or just a pipe dream?

  • And just as we thought they are dis integrating – the 2 factions make a secret deal and come back together again. Even if factions are fighting now, one wonders if they both see their demise – would they not join hands again?

  • Interesting article. Articulates the real situation… Conman of the highest order. Reading back articles in the links reaffirms this.

  • Loved reading this Richard as I have always loved Shakespeare. This is why the Bard should remain alive in schools. He so well understood the templates on which we are based. And perhaps if understood well enough disaster could be dodged. But perhaps as with Romeo and Juliet the end will always be the same.

  • At least 40 million very poor South Africans have to look at this story ……,, I can’t imagine what they even think. The mothers that are battling to feed their children etc etc etc and here is old squirrel blabbering in about social compacts. It’s so meaningless is frightening.

  • Great article and as pointed out, the Bard had his finger on the pulse of the human struggle with power as reflected in Richard III …
    The new dawn – “Now is the winter of our discontent
    Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”
    The RET brigade – “And thus I clothe my naked villany
    With old odd ends stolen out of holy writ;
    And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”
    The CR17 promise – “The king’s name is a tower of strength.”
    And lastly the Phala-Phuck up – “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!” Replacing “horse” with “buck/dollar/safe” but you get my drift…

  • Great article Richard. I’ve begun to lose track of all the details ANC’s crimes, weaknesses, inabilities, and criminal neglect. There is just too much of them, and we don’t need any more information to conclude that it is just a criminal syndicate, as you say. The ANC started with the war cry of making the country ungovernable, they then moved on to make it weakly governed, to badly governed and eventually it is ungoverned.
    I’m afraid, much as I support democracy, voting for someone else is not the answer. We need a renewed democratic dispensation. A dispensation that does not represent political parties and other “stakeholders.” The people must be represented. Representatives must be answerable to the people, not to entrenched political parties or other interests.
    Until then we are on our own as communities. We must divorce ourselves as much as possible from disabled government services. We must find a legal way to stop paying our taxes over to authorities. Pay them into community trust funds where the community trustees decide over and control local services.

  • Richard, politics is not really so much about right or wrong, but it is about the maintaining (or changing) the order in society. And this “order” has to be understood, not to be as a system of peace, but as a system in which people can get by – sometimes it is not peaceful at all, if the politicians choose it to be so and their people allow them to.

    Did you really want Ramaphosa in 2014 to say: “I am not willing to be deputy president because my hands would become dirty”? Then we would still be stuck with an RET presidency and we would have been well on the way to a situation like the one in Russia, or even worse, Zimbabwe. Thanks to him being willing to get into the heart of the proverbial “whore”, there is a chance that SA can in the end rid ourselves of this RET faction. And our democracy is still safe; the RET faction, like all radical nationalist factions, are willing to sacrifice the democracy to safeguard themselves from being accountable. The recent history of Africa is full of such examples, including the unofficial one-party state nowadays called the old apartheid system under the National Party.

    Yes, under Ramaphosa the ANC would probably be sacrificed. History is also full of political leaders willing to do that for the sake of their country; Mikhail Gorbachof and FW de Klerk are just two examples. History will remember them as the good leaders, not the bad ones. With Ramaphosa it will be the same.

  • Another excellent article by Richard Poplak. Love your writing style and also had a laugh out loud at the Phala Phuck-up phrase. So much truth written here. Particularly noted ” the focus should have been on re-engaging furloughed workers who had nothing to do with hurting these institutions, not face-saving an extinct ideology. ” We have witnessed too many people who have been suspended (on full pay, while the justice system slowly grinds its way through the many crimes) and replaced by more incompetents.

  • Brilliant article RP .. sharp, piercing, and colourful.. but dressed to kill… if only the 40 million plus could be informed enough to understand, but sadly all they know is the ANC is their liberator, the party, that brought in social grants (and now has failed to pay so many who are suffering).. where do we go from here? Thank you DM, once again.

  • This is by far and away the best piece of work I have read on the mess that is the ANC which in turn describes the mess that is South Africa. Kudos to Richard Poplak for an absolutely outstanding analysis. I would love to see a follow up article on how you see this all playing out over the next 6+ months – it’s going to be an unpleasant ride for us all – from tenderprenuer to middle class to impoverished citizens in informal settlements. It’s not looking good as the economic situation across the globe seems to be headed toward a cliff post-Covid / protracted war in Ukraine, so we will need to survive that fall out on top of an imploding ruling party.
    Oy vey.

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