President Cyril Ramaphosa’s message this week was emphatic: there will be no more man-boobs flapping in his wind of change.
Former president Jacob Zuma was only seen publicly exercising during bouts of topless stick-fighting in traditional Zulu ceremonies preceding another marriage — giggling in time with his jiggling moobs. What nocturnal activities may have increased the heart rate of a president with a notoriously wandering eye is best left to less salubrious newspapers.
In stark contrast, Ramaphosa’s fitness regimen, which includes social media-loving 5.30am public walks, appeared almost as metaphor for his apparently new way of doing things.
“Mkhaba must fall,” he reportedly told his fellow travellers during a walk from Gugulethu Sports Complex to Athlone Stadium in Cape Town on Tuesday morning.
The message was open for any who cared to read into it: a personal call to cut back on the cupcakes and slim down the presidential belly, perhaps? Or a time to streamline a Cabinet bloated by his predecessor’s need to sustain his provincial support networks in the ANC? A signal that there is a need to cut out the kleptocratic bingeing on the public purse and the excesses of government officials that appeared as a set menu during the Zuma administration? A suggestion, even, that junk would not be where our economy’s appetite lingers for much longer? A notice for all South Africans to roll up their sleeves, toughen up and get fit for volunteerism and rebuilding the country?
With a simple walk, Ramaphosa has provided new food for thought to feed what has been suggested by his team is a reimagined, more optimistic body (positive) politic.
Whether this is merely capitalising on a euphoric post-Zuma moment or a sincere new beginning that is sustainable until next year’s national elections, which the ANC will hope to win on this tide of goodwill, only the coming months can answer.
What is certainly apparent is that Ramaphosa’s support team have been cool and calculating in choreographing every moment leading up to and after his ascension to the presidency.
The day after Zuma’s forced night-time resignation, Ramaphosa was snapped with early-morning joggers and former finance minister Trevor Manuel on the Sea Point promenade.
The initial social media response was effusive. The middle-class gushed like water from a butternut-sized hole in the Nkandla fire pool.
His team appeared ready to respond to bouts of cynicism that followed after the initial love-in. These included whether it was telling that a man soon to be elected South Africa’s fifth president was captured keeping pace with Manuel, considered by many as the henchman of white capital.
Though it’s lovely out there in rapidly gentrifying Sea Point, would the president be taking his morning constitution to Johannesburg’s Bree Street taxi rank or Protea Glen, which recently experienced violent protests because of storm damage to homes, cynics observed.
The Ramaphosa team’s response time appeared quicker than tow-trucks attending to the highway pile-up that sometimes resembled the country under Zuma. Press alerts went out declaring that the president would be going ghetto, with a walk from Gugs to Athlone hastily arranged by the ANC in the Western Cape for February 20. The president, we are told, will make this a weekly outreach exercise in whichever part of the country his diary takes him. Events would be organised by the local ANC branch and all would be welcome.
The people he met on that walk, such as 73-year-old Cedric Alberts, who was dispossessed of his District Six home in 1969, his “dignity razed to the floor”, then fed into Ramaphosa’s Tuesday afternoon response to the replies by opposition parties to last week’s State of the Nation address.
Ramaphosa evocatively used Alberts’ life story to address the “original sin” of colonial and apartheid land robbery and the subsequent penury that it cast landless black people into.
The Ramaphosa presidency wants to appear responsive, empathetic, caring and in touch with South Africans. It is not so much a break from the Zuma years than a comminuted fracture of the double-headed skull — there are several big breaks from the past, the presidency is saying.
This is apparent in even the small things: the president’s punctual time-keeping, the manner in which his office responds to media queries, the fact that Ramaphosa’s bodyguards are breezier than Zuma’s phalanx of bruisers. To underline this, Ramaphosa went on another walk.
After appearing in Parliament on Tuesday he walked the short route to his office in Tuynhuis. Where Zuma would take the underground elevator and tunnel, Ramaphosa took in the fresh air and spoke to members of the public and news reporters. I’m not as aloof as former president Thabo Mbeki and I am certainly not as paranoid as Zuma, he seemed to be saying.
Although some motives are explicit, others are more shrouded in the mystery wrapped up in a Cheshire grin, which is the Ramaphosa enigma.
An example of this was Ramaphosa’s first substantive attempt to recognise the 44 families who still suffer the deaths of loved ones during the 2012 unprotected strike at Lonmin’s platinum mining operation in Marikana. Ten people were killed in the week preceding the massacre, when police shot dead 34 striking miners. Ramaphosa was a nonexecutive director at Lonmin at the time.
He acknowledged it was “the darkest moment in the life of our young democracy”. Addressing the role he had played in the events of that week, Ramaphosa said: “Notwithstanding the findings of the Farlam commission on my responsibility for the events that unfolded, I am determined to play whatever role I can play in the process of healing and atonement. In this, I am guided by the needs and wishes of the families of the 44 workers who lost their lives.”
This was indeed a seminal moment: a recognition of the trauma suffered by those left behind by the dead. It returned agency to the 44 families who can determine what penance Ramaphosa must serve.
Yet it is also an overture that comes more than five years after the massacre. Was Ramaphosa ensuring he need not have to deal with the Economic Freedom Fighters disrupting Parliament and raising the issue of Marikana whenever he was to address the house — much as the party had done with Zuma and the Nkandla scandal?
Was he being sincere? Or was this a moment of supreme political solipsism in which Ramaphosa, channelling Mandela’s hyper-reconciliation and consensus-building project, also offered himself up for forgiveness?
In his first week occupying the highest office in the land, Ramaphosa is stressing that the disorders of the Zuma presidency are in the past; that South Africans should be reassured that politicians must stop believing “it is our time to eat”. There is a new diet geared towards a fitter, more proactive society on our plates.
Whether this new diet, fashioned by a president with entrenched networks among the business elite, ends up a bit Tim Noakes is still unclear. But tomorrow will not be better than today if the rich go banting, and continue to feed off the country’s rump steak while the poor are left with the morsels of potato and pap the elite cast from their table.