The Cyril debate – Why Ramaphosa won't shine

2012-12-09 10:00

There’s an image of President Jacob Zuma, taken a fortnight ago, at a prayer to the ancestors where he asks them to assist his victory at Mangaung.

He looks beleaguered and pale with stress. Earlier that week, he was in Parliament, responding to questions about state spending on his Nkandla estate.

The president looked unlike himself, finger-waving and angry.

It felt as if revelation after revelation had begun to touch his dignity and sense of self. How dare you question how I shelter my family, how I pay for my home?

Political office plays havoc with nice people: look at how US President Barack Obama has aged visibly in office, or at how German Chancellor Angela Merkel seems permanently tired with the endless task of saving Europe.

The same is true for our avuncular, laughing president.

Office has taken its toll.

And one reason this is so is that the governing party keeps trying to make Zuma into something he is not.

The president is not a constitutionalist or a modernist. But a party that presides over a system of constitutional sovereignty, and which is by self-definition progressive, has made him its leader.

The past five years have seen this tension between the presidential personality and the party identity hit up against each other with disastrous effect.

You will recall the president’s views on gay people (the opposite of the party’s liberal stance on gay rights) and his view that those opposed to the regressive Traditional Courts Bill are practitioners of “Smith’s way”, while the proponents of the bill practice the “Zuma way”.

Black people opposed to it are “cleva blacks” who, presumably, must return to his “authentic” nativism.

This speech to traditional leaders who visited Parliament contains the clearest indicators of the fundamental tensions at the heart of the Zuma presidency, where he feels that so much of what constrains him is “Smith’s way” – when it is, in fact, the ANC government’s way.

Too often, it has felt as if the ANC has shoehorned him into ways of believing and speaking that are at odds with his real self. So, for example, his prepared text to the traditional leaders was a complete contradiction of what he said in off-the-cuff remarks.

There are other examples where the correlation between party and president is absent.

In several interviews during his term in office, the president has revealed serial discomfort with the independence of the judiciary and its ability to upend executive decisions when the need arises.

The same trend emerges on gender.

Although the party is an outlier on gender emancipation and equality, the president is more traditional.

On television, he has revealed that his view of the complete woman is that of the married mother (the opposite of the South African trend where the single female-headed household is now the family norm).

The Traditional Courts Bill is read by many rural women as an attack on their constitutional rights and a return to a time they do not long for.

The Nkandla upgrade, I would hazard, is part of the same pattern.

A president who fashions leadership as chieftainship will not make clear distinctions between public money and private gain: it all belongs to the chief. Again, this is an example of how the ANC government’s armoury of anti-corruption weapons (the Public Finance Management Act and the Executive Members Ethics Act are but two examples) are at odds with the president’s understanding of how to fund his lifestyle.

If Cyril Ramaphosa becomes deputy president, it will be yet another example of the party trying to make Zuma something he is not.

It will end in tears as the two men pull in opposite directions – they are from different eras and are of different beliefs.

Ramaphosa won’t shine because he will spend time fighting fires and pushing for limited progress. He will set himself up for failure as a future president, too, because the party and the populace will be disappointed in him.

His appointment will continue the governing tension that has resulted in such stasis across the state.

The president, with the say-so of his party, has put together a Cabinet of awkward compromise to maintain a unity that remains paper thin. Only a fool will deny there has been some progress under Zuma’s administration; but on the whole, it has been a holding job.

There is no evidence or certainty that Ramaphosa will do anything more than be a placeholder, as Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe has been. Ramaphosa should turn down the appointment and take a stab at the ANC presidency in 2017.

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