How will Cyril use his Obama moment?

Between unrealistic Ramaphoria and unreasonable Ramapessimism, what is the rational basis for evaluating the progress or otherwise of South Africa’s new president? This is the question that should be exercising the mind of anyone interested in a fair and reasoned assessment of where the country is at and where it is heading.

Put another way: as President Cyril Ramaphosa seeks to maintain the momentum created by his victory at the ANC elective conference at Nasrec in December and by the thrilling ousting of Jacob Zuma, what are the indicators of success or failure?

This is a multidimensional exercise.

First of all, there is a distinction to be drawn between Ramaphosa’s personal performance and that of his government, while also not forgetting that he has a second job: to lead the ANC during what remains a very delicate time in its history, given its deeply divided state.

Second, one should also be careful to differentiate between the things over which he has full control (such as Cabinet appointments and board members of state-owned entities), those over which he has some power and authority but that may be vulnerable to externalities such as international commodity prices, and those things that are largely out of his control and in the hands of others, such as investment choices made in London and Frankfurt.

Last, it is probably helpful to divide his formidable to-do list into short (first 100 days), medium (by next year’s election) and longer-term priorities (four years — when Ramaphosa may have to ward off a challenge to his leadership at the ANC’s next national conference in 2022).

So far, since he was elected president on February 15, Ramaphosa has barely put a foot wrong. Simply by putting one foot in front of the other — during his early-morning #TummyMustFall walks — he has presented himself, in sharp contrast to his predecessor, as both energetic and unafraid of direct engagement with a range of people.

This can easily be snidely derided as mere cosmetic spin and branding. But it has served another more substantive political goal: to draw a clear line under the Zuma era and to present Ramaphosa as a fresh broom, imbued with the drive necessary to sweep away the detritus of a decade of dastardly misgovernance and abuse of power.

Given that Ramaphosa served as Zuma’s deputy president from 2012, this is no mean feat. I recall a widely respected black business leader telling me soon after, with a startlingly graphic and crude observation, that the danger for Ramaphosa was that “if you stand close to shit for too long, you end up smelling like it”.

But Ramaphosa seems to be avoiding the shit smell. South Africans are, in general, both forgiving and pragmatic people: they want to move on, and they are willing to give the new president the benefit of the doubt, though it is far too soon to tell whether this means that the three million or so voters who abandoned the ANC by in effect boycotting the 2016 local government elections will return to the fold.

For that to happen, the new ANC leadership will have to present a far more united front, and the government will have to show measurable progress in finding new ways to create meaningful jobs and persuading the private sector to sacrifice more in service of this overriding imperative.

But, for now, back to the short term: Ramaphosa eased Zuma out of the Union Buildings and then, less than 48 hours later, having been elected and sworn in as president in the intervening day — only in South Africa could such a dramatic transition in power have occurred — delivered a stirring State of the Nation address (Sona).

It had a profoundly positive effect, not just because it was such a pleasant contrast to the dismal fare offered by Zuma in recent years, but because Ramaphosa’s talents, hidden for so long under a bushel named Zuma, shone through — to the great surprise of many people who did not know him when he was last a prominent public leader, in the 1980s and 1990s.

Suddenly, another reason for his tactical choices of recent years became apparent: to remain as far beneath the public radar as possible while he was deputy president.

The National Assembly debate that followed Sona focused on the version of land redistribution policy of expropriation without compensation that the ANC had somewhat reluctantly settled on in December.

Ramaphosa has wisely decided to try to turn this challenge into a political opportunity. In his reply speech on February 20, he set out with very great care his position on land ownership. Rooted in the Constitution, and specifically its enjoinder to heal the divisions of the past, Ramaphosa’s argument was that the original sin of land theft must be righted now, in all our interests. Also, in doing so, land reform must serve the bigger goals of food security, agrarian production and inclusive economic growth — weighty caveats that must be duly noted. He concluded by saying, as categorically as any head of government could, that South Africa will “not make the mistakes that others have made. We will not allow smash-and-grab interventions” — a thinly veiled reference to Zimbabwe.

His approach to this thorny issue is likely to be both a lightning rod for and a leitmotif of his leadership: as with job creation and inclusive growth, he will seek to draw both his friends and his foes into processes he will convene and that he can then, to a large extent at least, control. Their destination will always be the same: reasoned consensus, based on an intelligent, well-informed understanding of the strategic trade-offs.

And, with land, as much as with fee-free tertiary education, he takes a risk. It could undermine his strategy of attracting much-needed new investment, just as the extra R57‑billion that must be found for education places new pressure on a public fiscus already under strain. But it also provides him with a political opportunity that is highly relevant for the middle and longer term: to neutralise Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters.

In all of this, Ramaphosa has hit the ground running and appears to be as politically sharp and, where necessary, ruthless as the exigencies of the job demand. This answers a question that has lingered in the background of the past 15 years: Had he gone soft in business, and would he be willing and able to use power when and if it came to him?

His appointment of the national director of public prosecutions will be an even more important test of his political judgment (assuming the Constitutional Court affirms that Shaun Abrahams was unlawfully appointed and the position becomes vacant), but Ramaphosa’s decision this week to suspend South African Revenue Service commissioner Tom Moyane, a key suspect in the state capture project, shows that he is up to it.

Someone recently suggested that Ramaphosa’s long wait to assume the highest office could be compared with that of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. A more apt comparator, however, is Barack Obama, who became the first black president of the United States in early 2009, just a few months after the global economic crash.

Like Obama, Ramaphosa has a change agenda and has evoked a spirit of renewal and hope, but must implement reform and drive economic growth against the backdrop of a fiscal crunch and with numerous harsh sociopolitical challenges.

Part of the reason history is already proving to be generous in its assessment of Obama’s time as US president is that he was so skilful at managing expectations and in explaining clearly just how tough the headwinds he faced were.

Ramaphosa will need to do something similar. It is precisely because his task is so great that South Africans are swinging manically between overestimating and underestimating what their new president can achieve: they desperately crave great leadership and urgently desire a new social pact, and so have high expectations, yet at the same time they fear he will not be able to meet them.

What Ramaphosa probably needs, as much as the sustenance of the spirit of “Send me” he injected into the Sona, is that his people find a way to judge him fairly and reasonably.

It will not help anyone or anything to do otherwise, and those of us with the privilege of knowledge and access to the new regime must act responsibly in encouraging a reasoned and well-informed appraisal.

Richard Calland, a partner at political risk consultancy the Paternoster Group, is working on a new book: Cyril’s World: The Politics and Ideology of the New South African President

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Richard Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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