Max du Preez

Ramaphosa cutting canes for his own backside

2018-08-14 07:59
President Cyril Ramaphosa on the first day of the Brics gathering in Johannesburg (Photo: Gallo Images/Wessel Oosthuizen)

President Cyril Ramaphosa on the first day of the Brics gathering in Johannesburg (Photo: Gallo Images/Wessel Oosthuizen)

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Most South Africans will probably agree that Cyril Ramaphosa is presently the only ANC politician qualified to be the country’s president. A sharp intellect, not an ideologue or corrupt populist, someone who understands the realities of a modern economy.

So how should one explain the wide impression that he is ignoring the rapid decline of the economy and the wave of national disillusion?

We all know the hypothesis: Ramaphosa has to keep the ANC in one piece and make sure it enjoys a solid election victory next year, otherwise his political career will shipwreck and then the populists will drive the country over the cliff. This is why he often has to say and do things that he doesn’t believe in, the theory goes.

But I’m beginning to wonder if he’s reading the signs correctly and getting the balance right. He’s been running with the hares and hunting with the foxes, but history tells us that the foxes usually triumph in this kind of interaction. 

I’m puzzled why a man who has proved that he was a formidable, almost ruthless negotiator, first with the mine bosses and then with the apartheid bosses, would allow a populist demagogue and his less-than 10%-party to determine his agenda.

Why exactly is the ANC so scared of the EFF, even though opinion surveys and by-election results make it clear that the party has no mass support? I don’t get it. Are ANC NEC members spending too much time on Twitter? The media, social and to some degree also mainstream, is the only sphere where the EFF dominates.

I’m beginning to doubt whether Ramaphosa’s strategy of appeasement of all sides will survive until next year’s election.

He says one thing to the business and international communities, almost completely the opposite when he speaks to his constituency. This undermines his credibility.

At best Ramaphosa is, as the Afrikaans saying goes, cutting a cane for his own backside.

He actively participates in raising unrealistic expectations that will never be realised and could explode in his face.

He and his party have managed the expectations that land will be dished out on a large scale and result in the end of black poverty very badly.

He declared just last week: "Once we addressed and resolved the land question, the country will take off."

This is a false promise. The very unequal distribution of access to land indeed needs to be addressed urgently. But mere ownership of agricultural land does not translate into wealth. Farming is a high-risk enterprise – ask the 85 000 commercial farmers who had stopped farming since 1994. (There were 120 000 farmers then, compared to 35 000 now.)

Most redistributed farms since 1994 have failed, mostly because of a lack of government support but sometimes also because of a lack of skills and because of weather conditions. 

Why would it miraculously change now? And if the state is suddenly so competent, why not first help the tens of thousands who have suffered because of the lack of support back on their feet?

Distributing land to urban dwellers can and should be done quickly and on an ambitious scale. It will bring dignity to many and hopefully a lot more stability, yet still not instant wealth. But will the same politicians and bureaucrats who fail to run schools, hospitals, water and security properly be able to manage this properly? 

The other part of the hypothesis is that Ramaphosa engages in populist talk merely to steal the EFF’s thunder; that he’s waiting for a strong electoral mandate next year and will then execute his real vision of inclusive economic growth rather than growth through redistribution.

The problem is that the EFF understands that this is his strategy and will continue to call his bluff.

The emotional public hearings on land were effectively hijacked by the EFF and the ANC was reduced to mere spectators. Instead of taking the heat out of the issue, the hearings heaped on the pressure.

The explanation for much of Ramaphosa’s recent approaches and statements is probably to be found in the attitudes of the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) – the men and women who forced him to make the strange announcement on television that the ANC wasn’t going to wait until after the public participation hearings on land but had decided to change the Constitution anyway.

People with inside knowledge tell me that Ramaphosa can now bargain on the support of at least 50 of the 86 members of the NEC – he started off with barely 40 in January.

We know that those NEC members who oppose Ramaphosa, the old Zuma camp, have a desire to undermine and sabotage him and are in any case more focused on their own stomachs than on the national interest. 

But I’m puzzled by those who do support Ramaphosa. Perhaps they have also caught the populist feelings and are opting for the old-style socialist short-cuts. They are such prisoners of the ANC’s past as a liberation movement that they simply can’t get themselves to actually voice the pragmatic mixed economy philosophy motivating Ramaphosa and his inner circle.

I believe Ramaphosa should now consider a change in strategy: stand up and openly argue for his vision of what should happen in the economy, the state and the governing party, without pandering to anyone. 

I think the time is ripe for the citizens to see a leader with strong convictions stating his case without fear of offending some faction. "Spineless Cyril" is not an epithet that would serve his brand at a time that the people feel rather anxious and rudderless. He wants to please everybody, but he might end up pleasing no-one.

Having said all this, I believe we South Africans should guard against this runaway pessimism lest it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We should remember that we are a totally different society from those in Zimbabwe and Venezuela.

We are much more of an open society than those two countries; we have an active civil society, free media and a rock-solid judiciary, as yesterday’s Constitutional Court judgment on the national prosecuting authority reconfirmed.

We should refrain from over-reacting to the populist hotheads on social media and at political rallies. I wish the media would give these elements less oxygen.

We should acknowledge that we had seriously miscalculated when we thought that nine years of Zuma lunacy could be undone in just nine months.

We should remind ourselves that most of the challenges we now face in the economy and society are hangovers from the Zuma era rather than the failings of the Ramaphosa administration – and some, like the international oil price and the strong dollar, are completely beyond our control.

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:    anc  |  anc nec  |  eff  |  cyril rama­phosa  |  land reform

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