There is an interesting little video on YouTube in which former long-time Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew boasts about his defiant confrontation with Singapore Airline pilots who threatened to go on strike in 2003.
Cyril Ramaphosa should watch it. Not because he necessarily needs to stare down any labour unions —though he might have to if Eskom is to be restructured. Nor because Lee Kuan Yew is necessarily the model for a modern democratic leader.
But because of two things. First of all, because LKY — as he became known during his three-decades as the small island state’s prime minister — shows that a certain muscularity is an essential part of effective political leadership — especially for the rough-house conditions of contemporary South African politics.
Second, because he deliberately went out of his way to tell the story to the Singaporean people. LKY recounts how he sat down opposite them and told the pilots: “Stop this intimidation! Get back in the air and then make your case. If necessary I will close down the airline and start again. I will not allow you to ruin this country and all I have done to build it up.”
In short, he called the pilots’ bluff and then paraded his victory in front of everyone, thereby taking full control of the political narrative.
An iconic political moment. Ramaphosa needs one of his own, because right now he is not showing the muscle and is losing control of the narrative.
This is the “Thatcher moment” I suggested some time ago on these pages that Ramaphosa would need to have. Again, not in an ideological sense, but to pose and answer the same question that Britain’s prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, posed and answered in mid-1980s Britain: Who runs this place — me, the democratically elected head of government, or someone else?
Thatcher then defeated her enemies and answered the question, saying she ran the country, not them. Ramaphosa needs to do the same, urgently.
Thatcher came to power on the back of Labour’s “winter of discontent” in 1978-1979. In the middle of it, with rubbish piling up on the streets of London and the dead remaining unburied, Labour prime minister James Callaghan returned from a global summit on Guadeloupe island and, seeking to reassure a troubled nation, adopted a calm and jocular mode.
Asked what his general approach was given the mounting chaos in the country, Callaghan replied: “Well, that’s a judgment that you are making. I promise you that if you look at it from outside, and perhaps you’re taking rather a parochial view at the moment, I don’t think that other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.”
He even mentioned that he had a nice swim while he was in the Caribbean.
The next day, right-wing rag The Sun had a field day with a headline that was soon added to the annals of political fables: “Crisis, what crisis?”
Ramaphosa is flirting perilously close to having his own “Callaghan moment” — of being exposed as “out of touch”. The short interview he gave last weekend from Tanzania sought to reassure, with his restatement of the refrain that has been his go-to soundbite of recent weeks — “I shall not be distracted” — now sounds limp and out of proportion to the converging economic and political crisis that is growing in intensity.
It’s the correct position, but it’s simply not muscular enough. And it doesn’t capture the sense of anxiety that many people who are friendly to his reform agenda are feeling. It fails to seize back the narrative from the fight-back campaign, whose driving motif and strategy is distract and obstruct.
Distract and obstruct. Drip by drip eat away at Ramaphosa’s credibility, chip away at his reforms, undermine confidence in him and his economy. It comes directly from the mouths of adversaries such as ANC secretary general Ace Magashule and former president Jacob Zuma, and indirectly through intermediates such as the public protector.
The fight-back is reprehensible and irresponsible. It is corrupt and venally dishonest. But it is in danger of succeeding, even though the fight-backers themselves are increasingly desperate as the net closes in around them.
When Zuma and his henchmen start accusing ANC comrades of being spies you know they have reached the bottom of the barrel. There is nothing more damning or dangerous. There is nowhere else to go. You have played your last ace (pun intended) and your hand is empty.
You are there for the taking. But you must still be taken. And the political knife must be plunged. But, there is little sign that Ramaphosa is plunging it. If he is, he is doing it his way — by stealth — cautiously, carefully seeking to ensure that every duck is lined up before he takes his shot.
The problem is that in the meantime the distract and obstruct campaign gains traction. It begins to work and, regardless of the objective reality, the perceived reality is that the counter-narrative of disinformation is gaining momentum.
Potential allies begin to lose heart, and those who matter most to the economy and its revival are driven to despair — as they are, on a daily basis.
Apart from his own leadership characteristics — to act carefully, and reasonably, and cautiously — why does Ramaphosa do so?
Partly it is because presidents and prime ministers operate in their own bubbles. This is why their advisers are so crucial — to connect with the outside, to shake up the complacency and group think, to escape the neat certainties of skillfully manicured Powerpoint presentations and adeptly crafted policy papers and, above all, to alert the principal to the real political risks and dangers and ensure that he acts and responds to the greatest political effect.
The people around Ramaphosa are good people and highly competent professionals — which, of course, damns them with faint praise. Because what they need is a bit more of the political mongrel in them.
In the timeless American television series, West Wing, President Bartlett has Leo McGarry, a tough Irish-American with more lines on his face than a William Kentridge sketch. In real life, every leader needs a McGarry, and the most successful always do — someone who, with the full weight and authority of the presidency, can summon anyone and strip them down and tear them apart, even former presidents.
Magashule, Ekurhuleni’s ANC mayor Mzwandile Masina, Zuma. All of them. Impose your political power, Ramaphosa. Take them down. Tell the people how you did it.
When he was president Thabo Mbeki had the moral authority of Frank Chikane and the intellectual horsepower of Joel Netshitzenze. Ramaphosa has Cassius Lubisi — a solid, decent senior official, but not a political rottweiler.
Perhaps it is intended that former ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu, now minister in the presidency, is to play that role, but it remains to be seen if he has it in him to be Cyril’s enforcer. Come back (former enforcer) Jeff Radebe, all is forgiven.
This is why there is a growing consensus that Ramaphosa does not have what it takes. I and others beg to differ, though the concern is whether he can make it in time. Key institutions such as the National Prosecuting Authority and the South African Revenue Service are being rebuilt, but time is the one thing that Ramaphosa does not have on his side.
On a number of fronts — the fiscal-crunch Eskom cliff that threatens to nudge Moody’s over the line to a full downgrade, the internal ANC factional warfare of which the economy is collateral damage and the acquisition of substantial new international and domestic investment in job-creating enterprises — the Ramaphosa presidency is not generating the vital restoration of confidence.
His party may be beyond repair, yet Ramaphosa’s presidency can survive and succeed.
But time is running out for further dawdling or for the kind of faffing around that is happening with the appointments of the chief re-structuring officer and new chief executive at Eskom.
Dither and die, or be decisive and drive the action and the message home. LKY or Thatcher, it doesn’t matter. Take your pick. But Ramaphosa needs to take off the gloves and prove that he is in charge and will not be intimidated.
He has been ruthless at various times in his long career. Indeed, the so-called #CR17Leaks reveal not that Ramaphosa broke any rules, because there were clearly no rules to break, but that in the 2017 race to become ANC president at Nasrec he played to win.
That is what he needed to do then and it is what his country needs him to do now.
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a partner in the political risk consultancy, The Paternoster Group