/ 27 August 2020

Eusebius McKaiser: What happens if we accept Ramaphosa is a monumental disappointment?

Anc Laumnched Its Political Manifesto In Durban, Photo Delwyn Verasamy
We cannot divorce President Cyril Ramaphosa from the ANC. Now it’s up to citizens to organise for change and mobilise against corruption. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

We need to accept that President Cyril Ramaphosa has turned out to be a monumental disappointment. Once we do so, we can then ask a more important question: What are the implications of the fact that Ramaphosa is a monumental disappointment? There are several consequences and the sooner we internalise them the better for the collective project of yet rescuing our fledgling democracy. 

The first implication of Ramaphosa being a disappointment is that we now must accept that no governing party leader, regardless their lofty promises and noble intentions, is bigger than the sins of the ANC

The wistful assumption too many people had made of Ramaphosa is that he had the unique ability to get the ANC to self-correct. That has proven to be a false power that had been hastily imputed to Ramaphosa. The organisational weaknesses of the ANC are too many, too serious and too deep for Ramaphosa, with a slim margin of victory at Nasrec, to be able to eliminate. Weekly online letters won’t cut it. Not even Nelson Mandela was bigger than the ANC.

To understand the ANC, one should prioritise organisational diagnosis over a disproportionate focus on any one personality. Ramaphosa seduced many South Africans, including many who do not traditionally vote or care for the ANC, by making it seem as if his agentive powers as an individual are magical. 

Well, Ramaphosa is no magician, and it is time to accept this as a trite reality of our politics, so that we can internalise the dangers of the ANC as a rotten political outfit whose rot is stronger than the wishes of Ramaphosa for his party. 

The second implication is that we need to find ways to tackle the scourge of corruption, general weaknesses within the state, and the dearth of effective and caring leadership, without slavishly relying on our main political parties and their many useless elected officials seconded to the state. 

This is not to say we must give the government a blank cheque. We are right to demand and have expectations of the government to do better. The government has, after all, a monopoly on law-making, tax collection and disbursement, as well as on the lawful use of force to regulate social life. We would be absolutely foolish as citizens to let the government off the hook or to lower our democratic expectations to meet its atrocious underperformance. 

Rather, the point I am getting at, is that state-centric analysis of power will also be our undoing as citizens. The state matters. But the state is only a part of civil society.

We ourselves, in other ways, need to learn to mobilise against corruption, and against unresponsive government. Everyone is asking what we can do in the face of a corrupted state. There is a lot we can do. And it is worth pausing over this headache. 

In the first instance, we must realise that it is not helpful to be cynical and fatalist. There is nothing natural about corruption. It is man-made. It can, therefore, also be undone by us.

Just as colonialism and apartheid were created by humans and opposed by humans, so too can grand corruption within the state be opposed by us. What plays into the hands of corrupt civil servants and their private sector counterparts is a citizenry so fatigued by the situation that we, the citizens, simply stop caring and do not even want to be engaged in questions of civil mobilisation. 

It is irresponsible to be cynical and fatalist, even if it is understandable to be tempted to do so. You owe it to yourself and future generations to check your attitude whenever you roll your eyes when a discussion about corruption occurs. Join the fight-back, and join it by orienting your mindset towards solutions, rather than rehearsing cynicism. 

Once you have practised how not to be cynical, it is time to organise, just as we did against the apartheid state. To be morally outraged isn’t a bad state of affairs, because moral outrage that is felt and that is expressed can spur us to act against injustice. I, therefore, am a strong proponent of the moral and the instrumental value of anger and of rage. 

Moral outrage is not, however, political strategy, as political analyst Karima Brown pointed out in an Instagram Live discussion with me on Sunday. Moral outrage is simply a feature of the motivational structure that must then inspire political strategising and, more specifically, forms of collective civil society action against the thieves within the state and the private sector. 

There are some excellent and very energetic civil society organisations in this country such as Equal Education, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, Section 27, Tax Justice South Africa and countless others. When they ask for your help, be it

in the form of time or skills or money or getting out from behind your computers and smartphones and on to the street, then you must do so.

It is no use saying we do not know what to do but when civil society reach out for our assistance and involvement, we ignore them. And if you do not like the ones existing currently, then form your own civil society organisation, and use it to pressure the state and non-state actors who subvert the Constitution. 

So, from a strategic viewpoint, we must focus on galvanising across our differences in pursuit of a common goal of asserting again the normative vision of a nascent democracy founded on the principle of constitutional supremacy. 

We cannot outsource this task to Ramaphosa and the ANC. Ramaphosa, and his party, have proven uninterested; in fact, they are chiefly responsible these days for pissing on constitutional supremacy. 

A third implication of accepting that Ramaphosa has been a disappointment is that we must examine our role in sustaining the political culture that keeps delivering disappointment. 

We didn’t vote for him to be our president, because ours isn’t a presidential system. To that extent, some readers might feel annoyed to be implicated in the making of Ramaphosa as president. But this feeling of being unfairly criticised is only partly justified. Here is why, and what we can do to change the political culture, so that it serves us more than it does the politicians. 

When you vote for political parties you are responsible for the judgments you make about the dynamics of that political power. You knew what the ANC national executive committee (NEC) looked like. You knew who was in the ANC’s top six when you went to the polls. You knew what the ANC’s track record is in dealing with corruption. You knew how the ANC, and many of its elected officials, have been implicated in wrongdoing. You also knew the ways in which the institutional realities of both party and state would constrain the president of the country. 

No one who votes for the ANC can be disconnected from the consequences of their vote. Your vote may be aspirational, based on a prayer and a hope that the ANC may yet do better, but then you must be honest about the fact that you are a gambler. And gambling isn’t a rational decision-making mechanism. 

Beyond these inconvenient truths, all of us, regardless how we vote, are also responsible for being too lazy to force all of our political parties to vote for changing the system. While I am not convinced that electoral reform is a silver bullet for our political cultural problems, if we did want a system in which a well-meaning Ramaphosa was directly chosen by us with greater constitutional protections from his party, then we must organise as civil society and insist on the political changes we want to see and that we deserve.

Lastly, it is trite to point out that Ramaphosa isn’t the beginning and the end of our problems. Of course, his party and his fellow ANC leaders are all collectively to blame. But what no voter should do is to let Ramaphosa off the hook just because he has a tough time inside the NEC. The bottom line is that he is turning out to not be sufficiently fit for turning around the ANC and the state, and no number of “Ag, shame man!” responses will help you and me, who deserve a better president and a better governing party. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.