Melanie Verwoerd

Melanie Verwoerd: It is far from game over for Ramaphosa

2020-01-15 05:00
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Jaco Marais, Netwerk24)

President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Jaco Marais, Netwerk24)

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It is exactly because he rarely attacks problems in a bulldozer fashion, but rather in a counter-intuitive manner that he has survived so long in politics, writes Melanie Verwoerd

For many decades, I have watched Cyril Ramaphosa closely.

First as a fiery trade unionist and then during CODESA.

I worked with him as a MP after 1994 and during the final writing of the Constitution. I was also privileged to have spent some time with him during my time as Ambassador in Ireland when he accompanied Nelson Mandela during a week-long visit.

Even when he was not in active politics, it was always clear to me that he was destined to become president of the country. Like Mandela he has a powerful charisma, a quiet sense of authority, a sense of humour and a brilliant smile.

Of course, unlike Mandela, he took over the leadership of the ANC and country at a very different time. It was never going to be an easy road.

Despite knowing this, I found myself silently swearing in despair last week.

On Wednesday he gave a speech in Calvinia to celebrate the birthday of the ANC. It also served as a “warm-up” for the actual January the 8th statement which was to be delivered on the 11th of January.

The speech was boring. He said what was necessary, but it was monotone and it felt like he was going through the motions. There was no sign of the charismatic, powerful man that I had come to know over the years.

He looked stressed and only cracked a forced smile when they cut the birthday cake.

He talked about what they had heard from people in the Northern Cape the previous few days. He relayed their frustrations and suffering – things which I know are very close to his heart. Yet, his language was devoid of all emotion.

He listed the complaints, yet no sense of anger or frustration or even impatience were conveyed.

"What was, going on?" I wondered. Was he sick? Tired? Was the pressure of the job and especially the infighting in the party getting to him?"

On Saturday, as he delivered the January 8th statement, I watched and listened even more closely. Not only were large sections of the speech the same as Wednesday’s, he seemed even less enthused than before.

At some stage, during the speech, he even glimpsed at his smart watch, presumably as a message was delivered. I got the distinct impression that he was boring himself.

Unsurprisingly TV shots showed restless and disinterested spectators in the stadium.

After his speech they departed faster than you can say "food parcels outside". (That was actually what was said, so it might explain a lot).

I was worried.

Unlike many commentators and writers, I have consistently maintained that President Ramaphosa is the right (and only) person to lead the country at the moment.

I have insisted that despite the enormous and persistent pressure he has faced, he would most probably pull through.

A few troubled hours later, I watched him during a live interview with the SABC.

It started a bit slow, but after a few minutes, the man I knew emerged.

He was thoughtful, calm, collected and honest about failures in the party. He smiled calmly when asked critical questions and answered them thoroughly and carefully.

He answered the questions about Eskom, education, the youth. He looked and sounded determined to continue eradicating corruption and improve governance.

Most insightfully, however, was his answer on his leadership style.

When challenged about being too consultative and not forceful enough he smiled.

"If you want a dictator, I’m not your man," he said.

He went on to discuss the importance of consultation, but was firm that he could and was taking difficult decisions when necessary.

He cited the example of SAA being put into business rescue – a decision he took despite very serious pressure in the ANC not to go down that route.

Over the last few days, many commentators have joined the Ramaphosa-sceptic chorus.

Citing anonymous sources inside the ANC they claimed that the end of his presidency is nigh and/or that he would never make a second term.

One statement by deputy president David Mabuza on Eskom was seen as a sign of him siding with Ace Magashule, which, in turn, was seen as a consolidation of the anti-Ramaphosa forces and Ramaphosa’s imminent (political) demise.

This is just lazy analysis.

Things are never this black and white in politics – especially not in ANC politics.

The noise inside the ANC was always going to get louder as we got closer to the NGC which is planned for around the middle of the year.

As the judicial net is closing around some of those in political positions, they were always going to try and distract the media and their supporters.

Opportunistic, but fleeting alliances were always going to be formed and the factions are far more nebulous than is often made out.

To suggest that this is the end of Ramaphosa, is to seriously underestimate this man.

It is exactly because he rarely attacks problems in a bulldozer fashion, but rather in a counter-intuitive manner that he has survived so long in politics.

Ramaphosa remains far more shrewd and strategic than the best of his detractors.

Importantly, there is still no one else with enough support in the ANC to challenge him, nor is there any constitutional mechanism to bring him down in the immediate future.

I have no doubt that he wants to see changes and results as much as, if not more than, all of us, but to fix the endless series of disasters created by the Zuma presidency, is clearly going to take time.

In the meantime it would help if the President changed his speech writers.

They are frankly, useless. We need to be inspired as a nation, to believe in him and his plan.

We need to see some of that trade unionist anger and passion.

That can simply not happen with the boring speeches he is currently given to deliver. I'm also seriously concerned about his advisors. You really didn’t have to be a political genius to know that it was a big mistake to announce that there would be no load shedding until some future date. This was not the first time he has been badly advised – there are many examples over the last few months.

Undoubtedly Ramaphosa has been dealt an awful hand both in terms of the country and the ANC.

However, to suggest it is game over is simply ridiculous.

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

See www.melanieverwoerd.co.za

Read more on:    anc  |  cyril ramaphosa  |  politics
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