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Facing an existential crisis, Ramaphosa is trapped in a vicious cycle

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Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.

Cyril Ramaposa faces multiple crises and needs to find inner ruthlessness. Most of all he needs to act — and especially to be seen to act. To start, he needs to get more people on his side. That’s us. He cannot fix the problems on his own, nor should he be expected to. 

In February 2020 President Cyril Ramaphosa will present his State of the Nation Address (SONA) as he officially opens Parliament. It is not an overstatement to say this will be the most critical SONA of all he has given since becoming the first citizen in early 2018.

Everywhere you look; from columnists to talk show hosts, analysts and general talking heads, the president seems under unprecedented attack — and if not him, then the key lieutenants he appointed to assist him in his mission to recover from the lost decade of State Capture and corporate collusion.

How could it all go wrong so fast? Perhaps the real question is, has it?

The best way of trying to understand the phenomenon that we are witnessing is by using what is known as polarity theory. Coined by US academic Barry Johnson, it’s a model used to explain a situation of wholly interdependent though seemingly antagonistic situations which are both simultaneously valid and true but — perversely — are only completed by the other. Polarities aren’t like puzzles that can be solved. They are the unavoidable, unsolvable, indestructible dilemmas, or polarities, that have to be managed at the right tensions.

Breathing is a great example. We all do it, we have to, but we can’t keep breathing in forever because at some stage you have to breathe out to suck in oxygenated air. Equally, you can’t keep breathing out ad infinitum. The solution is to find the flow and balance between the two. In Ramaphosa’s case, he finds himself in a situation as the president of the country, which calls for a strong mind and a strong heart. 

If you were to draw this into a four-quartered grid with strong mind on the left and strong heart on the right you would find the top-left quadrant for the strong mind would be filled with positive attributes such as market orientation, business friendliness, honesty, clarity of vision — all wonderful for investors and his supporters, the New-Dawnists. The downside of that is the bottom left quadrant would contain not-so-worthy attributes: over-control, alienation of people, autocratic behaviour leading to despair, rejection and hatred.

On the right-hand side of the grid, the strong heart side, you’d find at the top empathy, creativity, innovation and engagement, but the downside would be chaos, indecisiveness, an inability to lead. Neither strong mind nor strong heart is right alone — instead, the sweet spot is the middle, a dynamic combination of the two that produces a good empathetic progression. The downside of both is a morass of inaction and looming disaster.

What we can see immediately, especially over the years in which Ramaphosa has been in office, is that he has been in an eternal cycle between the two halves; a figure of eight, looping back and forth between the top and bottom left- and right-hand sectors of the grid. First, we get clarity and strength, then we get rigidity and lack of humanity, so now we call for empathy and innovation, then we slip into lack of results and over-emotionalism, so we call for certainty and strength again, and so on.

People call out for heart and empathy, which they receive, but then the cycle starts turning downwards and Ramaphosa is mocked for being perennially shocked at the state of this country and its institutions, especially Eskom, and immediately the cycle crosses over into a clamour for strong minds and action. He then foregoes his annual trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos and the UK investor summit, delegating highly competent ministers instead so that he can personally attend to domestic issues — and gets attacked for that too.

It’s a cycle that can’t be controlled, only managed — an eternal set of polarities that are as incurable as they are inseparable. Equity or excellence? We live in a country famously defined by former president Thabo Mbeki as two nations: the perpetual dynamic tension of trying to attract investment to create jobs and kickstart a moribund economy, yet tiptoeing through the minefield of fixing overstaffed and inefficient SOEs (and indeed a grossly overstaffed and overpaid public service) with the prospect of sparking massive job losses in an environment of crippling unemployment where a third of the nation is on welfare with a shrinking tax base to fund it.

On top of this, he leads an alliance of former freedom fighters who have widely divergent political (and personal) agendas, visible by the inertia that characterised the most recent, yet still critically important, January 8th ANC statement.

Before I became a business school lecturer and dean, I was a pilot and airline captain. When you’re flying an aeroplane and something goes wrong, you sort it out and move on. You can’t stay with that problem and fester over it, because if you do, it tends to compound. Other little issues appear and, in your distraction, they are left unresolved, triggering others and together they mutate into a tsunami of simply catastrophic — and in aviation — potentially fatal consequences.

You have to change what you are doing — or else. To do so requires an inner ruthlessness and an ability to compartmentalise, to focus on resolving the issue. It’s a stretching experience at altitude, but for the person in the Union Buildings, it’s even worse. South Africa is beset by problems, real and imagined, some of our own doing, others that are internationally created and some that cannot ever be resolved. But they can be managed and held in the right balance to allow progress.

None of us can even begin to imagine just how scary it is. Ramaphosa literally faces an existential crisis — his and ours. He needs to find that inner ruthlessness, but most of all he needs to act — and especially to be seen to act. He has to gamble. Some might argue that the stakes are too high, but it’s precisely because the stakes are so high that you have to act, to try to break the inertia and get the process moving.

To start, he needs to get more people on his side than he does at the moment. That’s us. He cannot fix the problems on his own, nor should he be expected to. At one stage he had incredible public approval ratings yet faced the most pushback from within his own party. Now that same pushback is becoming uniform, as he finds himself cycling inexorably lower in the polarity grid.

To break this cycle, he needs to find his voice, so that we can find our voices. As transformation management expert Ron Carucci notes:

“When self-doubt or setbacks grip others, leaders must provide confidence and safety for them to reach further, otherwise artificially imposed limits by either leader or follower will stunt potentially powerful voices, instead of revealing them”.

Ramaphosa doesn’t have to do everything himself, he certainly doesn’t have to provide all the solutions — instead, like a latter-day Moses, he has to show us a way out of the situation in which we find ourselves.

Start a movement to reduce the Gini coefficient and to bet on the poor, not just alleviate poverty. None of us, rich or poor, privileged or under-privileged, want to live in a dystopia and neither do we expect instant gratification, despite what you might read on social media. The majority are all perfectly prepared to defer it even if it means the promised land of prosperity will only be there for the next generation, as long as there is proper leadership with quality of character.

To achieve any of that though, we need to hear his voice. Any later than Thursday night on 13 February might be too late. DM 

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