One question that troubles the minds of ambitious presidents is how will I be remembered when my term comes to an end? Hence most presidents identify two or three areas of priority and focus much of their attention on them. That is how a legacy is constructed.
However, a president without a plan can toil for a term or two, hopping from crisis to crisis, and end up with nothing to show in the form of a legacy. Such is the fate awaiting Cyril Ramaphosa.
When it was clear that Thabo Mbeki was poised to take over from Nelson Mandela in 1999 one newspaper headline screamed: “Give us a president, not a philosopher!”
Indeed, there were “some among us” who were concerned that Mandela’s legacy of reconciliation would be discarded as it was already clear by then that Mbeki was more of a pan-Africanist than a sentimental person.
It was suggested that Mandela, the tall and charismatic president, had left big shoes for Mbeki to fill. Responding to this criticism, Mbeki, the short and cerebral man he is, quipped saying Mandela wore “ugly shoes” and he wouldn’t even attempt to wear them.
While the thoughtless may have taken Mbeki’s remark literally, it was more figurative and philosophical. Like Mandela before him, Mbeki wanted to define his own presidency.
The reality is that Mandela had understood his generational mission and worked hard to define his presidency to be about racial harmony and reconstruction.
To cement his legacy of reconciliation, Mandela did not only appoint FW de Klerk as one of his deputies, he implemented the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), including the RDP of the Soul. He embraced the national rugby team and would be seen kissing white babies and shaking hands with white people all over.
When Mbeki took over, it was clear that his primary concern was economic transformation and statecraft. Hence during his tenure, Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR), Accelerated Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (Asgisa), Joint Initiative for Priority Skills Acquisition (Jipsa), Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) etc animated and dominated public discourse.
All these initiatives paid off with an average economic growth of 3.7% between 1999 and 2007. Under Mbeki, South Africa also built financial reserves.
Reconfiguration of government departments and establishment of agencies such Statistics SA, Policy Coordination and Advisory Services (PCAS) — the policy unit in the Presidency — were the hallmarks of Mbeki’s presidency. The establishment, let alone the wrath of the Scorpions — the specialist crime investigation unit — sent shivers down the spines of corrupt elements within the ANC.
That is Mbeki’s legacy.
Then came Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma whose mission was clearly about evading justice, decimating state institutions and using the proles as his shield in the process.
In less than six years in government Zuma had depleted all the financial reserves that Mbeki had built and hollowed out almost all state-owned enterprises.
The scrapping of the Scorpions was his number one priority. The spending of more than R240-million of government funds on his homestead in Nkandla and the capturing of the state by the Guptas are examples of how Zuma excelled in his mission.
However, after nine wasted years of looting and destruction of state institutions, South Africa needed a transformational leader to fix it. Alas, in Ramaphosa we got a dud instead of a president.
Ramaphosa has been a serious disappointment as a president. Yet he had the social and political capital — the wherewithal — to reform South Africa. He has squandered all the public confidence that he enjoyed when he ascended to the high office.
Anyone who came after Zuma had the bar set too low and only needed to focus on low-hanging fruits and implement a few quick wins to maintain public confidence.
Instead of firing mediocrities such as Bathabile Dlamini and Gupta stooges like Malusi Gigaba, for far too long Ramaphosa sheltered them in his Cabinet under the pretext of unifying the ANC.
His problem was that he wasted time trying to wear Mandela’s old “ugly shoes” rather than accepting that his historical responsibility was to fix a broken country. He wanted to emulate Mandela, instead of defining his own presidency.
The truth is that Ramaphosa had neither a plan nor an inner circle to help him govern effectively. His was nothing more than a personal biographical milestone that he was once a president. Ramaphosa got what he wanted and South Africa has got nothing from him.
Students of statecraft would know why even the rebels who connive to embark on a coup d’état target specific organs of state when they seize power — the military, the police, intelligence, the public broadcaster are anchors of the state that you leave in the hands of rivals at your own peril.
Privileged enough to have been a deputy president for a full term, Ramaphosa seems to have learnt nothing about state power. He went to the Union Buildings without a team of people to help him stabilise government.
The architect of statecraft, Niccolò Machiavelli counselled in The Prince that “the first opinion which one forms of a Prince, and of his understanding, is by observing the men he has around him; and when they are capable and faithful, he may always be considered wise, because he has known how to recognise the capable and to keep them faithful. But when they are otherwise one cannot form a good opinion of him, for the prime error which he made was in choosing them.”
Nobody knows who Ramaphosa’s confidantes are and we are therefore not able to make a good opinion of him.
However, to show that he neither had a plan nor an inner circle to speak of, Ramaphosa kept Zuma’s lackeys in such key positions as the minister of defence, minister and director general of intelligence, commissioner of police, and director general for communications, and still hoped to run government effectively.
The 2021 July insurgency in KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s underhand parole, the burning of Parliament, the leaking of Rampahosa’s voice notes, and the recent Phala Phala dollar scandal could not have happened if he manned the strategic positions with competent and loyal lieutenants.
Instead of firing the incompetent Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, then Minister of Defence, he rewarded her with the position of Speaker in Parliament. This is a decision which he might live to regret.
With the ANC more divided than it was when he took over, the same Mapisa-Nqakula — she who let him down when he needed soldiers to stabilise KZN during the insurgency — will preside over a motion of no confidence against him if his hoarding of US dollars under the mattress is to be pursued.
It is all these blunders that have left many a thinking mind wondering who between Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa is the worse president.
If he is not shocked by this or the other, Ramaphosa is either dozing off at a meeting or a funeral of one of the cadres. Thus, even as his term comes to an end, Ramaphosa has nothing to show for his presidency. He has no legacy to speak of. Nothing!
Hence, until we find a perfect moniker for him, we wouldn’t be wrong hitherto to refer to him as “He who has done nothing”.
And perhaps if South African editors had known back in 2017 when Ramaphosa was poised to emerge victorious at the ANC’s conference at Nasrec they would have warned the ANC with the headline: “Give us a President, and not a dud!”
However, with the 2024 national elections just around the corner, South Africans have a chance either to elect leaders who want to fix South Africa — or those who want to do nothing. DM