Wednesday, 11 August 2021 was a moment of truth for South Africa’s constitutional democracy. It was on this day that the myths that Ramaphosa had so painstakingly constructed around himself over the past decades came tumbling down all at once. The political consequences of the busting of the great Ramaphosa myth will be felt by us all for a long time.
In the decades before becoming President, Ramaphosa carefully cultivated a series of myths about himself in the public mind. First came the great negotiator. Then the brilliant businessman. And finally, at precisely the right moment to best suit his ambition for power, came the myth of the great anti-corruption governor. Key to the success of the Ramaphosa myth was the fact that he rarely, if ever, took firm positions on any issue. Instead, throughout his career, Ramaphosa has relied on a powerful PR machine to project onto him any and every virtue the country was longing for at any particular moment.
When Thabo Mbeki became too authoritarian, the PR machine wanted us to yearn for “Mandela’s chosen one” with the gift for “consultation” and “social compacting”. In the face of Jacob Zuma’s vulgar excesses, we were supposed to long for the sophisticated and smooth-talking billionaire who had so much money that he would never defend corruption – regardless of the reality that Ramaphosa’s billions were derived from the spectacularly corrupt crony enrichment scheme called BEE.
But it was in the face of Gupta-era State Capture that the PR machine did its finest work yet. Without even a shred of proof that Ramaphosa had ever confronted corruption in his party or in the state, it built a new myth in record time that he had secretly been an anti-corruption crusader all along, just waiting in the wings to make our collective dreams come true.
It was the perfect ruse for a practiced political chameleon.
As public anger towards Zuma escalated, Ramaphosa continued to speak in vague and meaningless generalities, using his old trick of enabling South Africans to project onto him the anti-Zuma virtues they so desperately longed for. In the waning days of the Zuma presidency, the Ramaphosa myth grew to epic proportions. It reached its crescendo shortly before the May 2019 election, when the myth-making around the supposed need for a “bigger mandate” for Ramaphosa saw some publicly declaring that this ANC politician – who was in charge of cadre deployment and government business as our state collapsed – is God’s anointed one.
Looking back on the desperate frenzy to pledge fealty to the anointed one, which played out only a few short years ago, from the vantage point of Ramaphosa’s testimony on 11 August 2021 in front of the Zondo Commission, it all just seems rather sad.
After years of empty platitudes and dodging the truth about his role in State Capture, Ramaphosa finally ran out of runway last Wednesday. For perhaps the first time in his political career, he was pinned down on specific details by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo and his team of evidence leaders. In what must have been an entirely foreign sensation to him, Ramaphosa was confronted head-on with the truth, rendering him unable to spin some grand myth to avoid accountability for his complicity in South Africa’s decline.
Ramaphosa was visibly surprised and perplexed when advocate Paul Pretorius started his questioning by producing minutes of ANC cadre deployment committee meetings. The minutes provided clear proof that, under Ramaphosa, the ANC continues to exercise unconstitutional influence over appointments to powerful positions in the state in order to benefit the party rather than the people of South Africa.
But the moment that will probably go down in history as the one that best encapsulated the death of the Ramaphosa myth, came when he was confronted with evidence that, as recently as March 2019, the political party he leads sought to influence the appointment of judges to the Constitutional Court.
At that moment we saw Ramaphosa’s true colours – possibly for the first time. In responding to that evidence, a true statesman would have simply admitted the truth that had just become obvious to the whole nation, namely that cadre deployment is an evil and unconstitutional practice that sits at the heart of State Capture and needs to be abolished. But, it turns out, that’s not who Ramaphosa really is.
His true face is that of a man who sat in front of the whole country trying to defend and justify why the ANC should have the power to appoint cadres who are loyal to the party to the highest court in the land. Stripped of his myths and the PR machine that sustained them, Ramaphosa was reduced to begging Zondo not to do away with cadre deployment. In the glare of truth, he sat exposed as a man who would have us believe there are no records of decisions from when he chaired the deployment committee during the Zuma years – in all likelihood because those records reveal his complicity in the appointment of the people who looted our state to the point of collapse.
As Ramaphosa will soon learn, the problem with myths is that, once they are shattered, you can never put them back together again. The genie is out of the bottle, and now all of South Africa knows it: Cyril Ramaphosa chaired the deployment committee that captured our state, refused to act against corruption to protect his own position, and remains determined to continue putting the interests of the ANC above the interests of the South African people.
Our country’s moment of truth arrived on Wednesday, 11 August 2021. From that day on, South Africans will forever see Ramaphosa not through the lens of the deceitful myths he sold us for so many decades, but for who he really is: just another ANC cadre. DM