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President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the audience during the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Afrikanerbond at Rhebokskloof Wine Estate on June 07, 2018 in Wellington. (Gallo/Netwerk24)
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Expectations for Cyril Ramaphosa's presidency have crashed much quicker than was the case even with former president Jacob Zuma, who had been controversial from the outset.
After becoming the president of South Africa in 2009, Zuma enjoyed the undeserved benefit of the doubt from the public for much longer than Ramaphosa has. It took almost a full term for South Africans to realise that it was foolish to keep believing that Zuma knew what he was doing as the president.
This great nation of believers often take time before they change their minds about someone, despite mounting evidence that the person they are looking at is not their saviour but a freelance robber who happens to be in politics.
With Ramaphosa however, the tide seems to be turning quicker against the man, even among my colleagues who are raising serious doubts about the idea that he is in charge. The old picture of Ramaphosa appearing to be kneeling before King Goodwill Zwelithini and the ANC's turnabout on the party not touching the land in the king's Ingonyama Trust are some of the developments that show that Ramaphosa is always too ready to compromise and appears not to be guided by principles as a leader; he just gets by!
Compared to previous presidents, it is too early for Ramaphosa to have to come forth and say, "I am not weak," and "I am not the dictator of the ANC". Neither Thabo Mbeki nor Zuma ever had to explain to the public that they were in charge. The two presidents were so much in charge that they were accused of being too much in charge.
When Mbeki and Zuma respectively stopped being in charge of their party, they were kicked out of government before the end of their terms. One knew when they were in charge, and when they were not. It was as clear as day and night.
The difficulty with Ramaphosa's administration is that it seems to be committed to satisfying everyone at the same time and with equal measures of happiness. This is difficult to achieve and is creating a situation where he does not appear to have his own agenda. If Ramaphosa had an agenda with a set of goals – some which were considered almost non-negotiable – then he would have had at his disposal criteria for navigating through competing special interests by various groups aimed at benefitting from his leadership.
But if the president is navigating special interests without his own solid agenda, it will ultimately appear that he's not in charge. It's one thing to manage competing interests so as to avoid a crisis or total meltdown of the system, but it's quite another thing altogether to implement a clear agenda amidst competing interests. When a clear agenda is being implemented, special interests and the voice of lobbyists gets neutralised and the leader does not get associated with either side competing to influence government.
For example, you cannot be 100% in support of labour today and maintain you are 100% in favour of labour law deregulation tomorrow. Principles should dictate a leaning towards one side of the divide.
Of course, there is what is considered the "low hanging fruit" called anti-corruption, an agenda that can help Ramaphosa to show he's not weak. The problem with an anti-corruption agenda is that it remains highly politicised within the ANC, and it has given rise to a formidable political project that seeks to label each and every corruption related investigation a witch hunt by those who are using state institutions.
Ramaphosa's cabinet reshuffle earlier this year was a confession by the president that he cannot pick too many fights at the same time and that he settled to retain some of the ministers who were implicated in state capture. Therefore, anti-corruption is off the table as something that could give shine to Ramaphosa's presidency thus far.
It is very important for Ramaphosa to demonstrate that he is indeed in charge. This is not asking him to behave like Pol Pot and unleash a reign of terror upon detractors and political opponents. Ramaphosa must implement his agenda and ensure that it rises above special interests. Such an agenda should be communicated thoroughly. It is not useful to improvise every day and manage one crisis from another without a long-term agenda as to what is the grand vision.
Oh, and the idea of "thuma mina" does not in my books count as an agenda. It's just one of those phrases like "all hands on deck", as if anything will be done differently had no one chanted the phrase!
- Ralph Mathekga is a Fellow at the SARChI Chair: African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy at the University of Johannesburg and author of When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa's Turn.
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