Melanie Verwoerd

A glimpse of life under President Ramaphosa

2017-03-08 08:37
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

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In June 2003, while I was South African Ambassador to Ireland, Madiba came to Dublin to attend the Special Olympics. As was often the case at the time Cyril Ramaphosa travelled with Madiba for the few days.

Ramaphosa was well-known and highly respected in Ireland, not only for his work during our constitutional negotiations, but also for his involvement in the De Castelain International Commission on Decommissioning in Northern Ireland.

One day in the car, Madiba spoke quite openly to me about his frustrations with the Mbeki administration. “I made a big mistake,” said Madiba. “I should have made sure that it was Cyril who succeeded me.” Later I mentioned it to Ramaphosa who only smiled. “You are going to come back to politics, right?” I asked. “Not for a long time,” he answered carefully.

It is now almost 21 years since Cyril Ramaphosa left Parliament and active politics after the adoption of the Constitution in 1996. Of course he has come back and is now one of the front runners for the top job in the ANC as well as the country.

Last week he appeared in the National Assembly to answer questions. For the two or so hours he was on his feet we got a brief glimpse of what it would be like to have him as president of South Africa. And it was a good picture.

He was relaxed and looked totally in control. As with most ministers, he had some prepared notes, but unlike what is often the case with the current president, the notes were short and Ramaphosa only glanced at them occasionally. He sounded both well prepared and informed.  

Then came the follow up questions. With the president, this is always the really painful part – not only for him, but also for the onlookers. He usually avoids answering them or resorts to insults and ridicule. Remember “Nkaaandla”? 

Not the deputy president. He looked like he was looking forward to the challenge of every follow-up question. Even when they were not on the topic and could have easily been ruled out of order, he answered them.

He disarmed members of the opposition with charm, humour and his trademark smile. “Thank you for asking that,” he repeatedly said to members of the opposition. “I thought you looked fabulous on the red carpet,” he joked with Reverend Meshoe in response to a critical follow up question, before going on to answer.

Even the DA’s David Maynier had to smile in defeat after Ramaphosa apologised sincerely for not having the information on his follow-up question. “I am really sorry I can not help you,” said Ramaphosa.

It does not mean that he was a pushover. During a follow up question, Mmusi Maimane complained that the ANC was heckling too loudly. The speaker called them to order and Ramaphosa stood up. He agreed that Maimane should have the right to ask questions without being shouted down. DA back benchers cheered loudly. “But,” said Ramaphosa, “I hope the same courtesy will be extended by your backbenchers to me and members of the ANC”. The same backbenchers looked slightly sheepish and stopped heckling.

When Floyd Shivambu asked him about Jimmy (sic) Manye’s comment that the ANC would be bankrupt if the FICA bill is signed, Ramaphosa did not mince his words. He made it clear that if Manye said it, it was not correct and that he did not speak on behalf of the ANC. At this point it became clear once more how close Ramaphosa’s leadership style is to that of Madiba.

He is charming, disarming, conciliatory, but when required, can be razor sharp in his responses. Like Madiba, he demands authority in an understated way. This was clear not only in the respectful manner the opposition (including the EFF) responded to him, but also the ANC. They were present, alert and disciplined. It simply felt like the parliament we knew and loved in the post-1994 period. Debate was rigorous, but respectful and leadership was accountable.

I am often asked if the ANC and country can correct the course that it is on. My answer is always that I think under Ramaphosa it can.

Ramaphosa got his training under Madiba and if elected I believe that we could see a dramatic change over time in the ANC and country. Of course it will not be easy. Firstly he will have to heal some of the divisions that exist in the ANC. But bringing people together is one of Ramaphosa’s strongest points. 

Secondly, he will have to clean out corruption not only amongst the politicians, but also in the civil service. This would most probably be his biggest and most time-consuming challenge, which could delay the restoring of South African’s image and economy.

Thirdly, he will have to speed up the process of transformation in the country in a difficult economic climate. But hopefully the combination of being trade-unionist and business man will ensure that this can be done in an efficient and successful manner under his leadership.

Most importantly, if he does take on the top job, we will once again have a president who we could be proud of both here and abroad. From the gallery in Parliament I have often seen how even President Zuma’s most vocal supporters visibly cringe during his question time or speeches – whereas last week there were repeated cries of “Ja! Take that!” from ANC members while applauding Ramaphosa. And of course, as I experienced in Ireland he is highly respected and liked abroad.

Of course the deputy president will always be followed by the tragic memory of Marikana and like all leaders (even Madiba) he has some shortcomings.

But if last Wednesday in Parliament was anything to go by, it is hard not to wonder how different South Africa and the ANC would have been today, had Madiba made a different decision in 1999.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    cyril ­ramaphosa  |  parliament  |  anc
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