Don’t remake Ramaphosa’s image. He’s not exceptional

Mcebisi Ndletyana
Mcebisi Ndletyana

Recent email leaks suggest that President Cyril Ramaphosa may have been more involved in raising funds for his party presidential campaign in 2017 than he had initially admitted.

At first, Ramaphosa insisted that he was not involved, and did not have knowledge of the identity of his donors. The leaked emails tell us the opposite – Ramaphosa not only had knowledge of who the donors were, but also wrote to some of them to ask for donations. It’s true, as his supporters have been claiming, that Ramaphosa could not have been involved in the day-to-day running of the campaign. One always thought it improbable, however, that he would not know who the donors were and that he did not communicate with them.

My doubts were informed by Ramaphosa’s background and what is expected of any candidate in a fundraising campaign. A former businessperson, Ramaphosa has a lot of acquaintances, well-wishers and friends in the business sector. It is unlikely that he would not have suggested their names to his campaign team as they identified potential donors. And candidates often address gatherings of potential donors with the view to nudge them towards donating. In such gatherings, it may even be necessary for the candidate to have a chat with those who may have doubts about donating.

All of this is normal while fundraising for a political race. What puzzles one is the insistence that they didn’t do what any right-minded person knows they probably did. One’s bewilderment at this denial increases on realising that Ramaphosa was not even in breach of any regulation. Candidate fundraising has been a customary activity in the ANC dating back to the mid-2000s, triggered by the Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma presidential contest.

Zuma’s candidature was unprecedented in ANC contests since 1990. It was not endorsed by the rest of the national leadership, but stood largely in opposition to them. Mbeki, then president of the ANC, was a formidable rival, having been elected twice to that position. This meant Zuma had to build a new membership base, which required creating an organisational infrastructure that was somewhat independent of the ANC. The Friends of Jacob Zuma was one such structure, crisscrossing the country to mobilise support. This demanded funds for operational activities and for the personal upkeep of the candidate. Zuma was unemployed and had a big family to support. Meeting his subsistence was necessary to maintain his interest in the campaign. His presidential success would not only benefit him, but also those who felt that the Mbeki presidency had marginalised them.

Once it became a factor in ANC contests, money never left. Others quickly learnt of its importance in swaying leadership contests. To ordinary members without employment, campaigns became a source of livelihood. It was easy money handed out in bags, or what they call umgodlo, from the boots of cars. Because the practice is discouraged in the party, campaigners do not have to produce receipts accounting for how they spent campaign money. Others even go around soliciting candidates with promises to get them elected.

There’s no reason to present Ramaphosa as the exceptional being that he is not. Doing so essentially sets him up for disappointment, as has now happened with the revelations that he was involved in fundraising.

Denying that Ramaphosa engaged in what we know to be a customary practice in the ANC suggests an attempt to make him exceptional. This is partly driven by a strong feeling to distinguish Ramaphosa from his predecessor. In doing so, however, the president’s people are attempting to recast Ramaphosa’s image, presenting him to the public as if he’s a completely new personality, unconnected to anything that is possibly unsavoury. This is unrealistic. It is impossible that Ramaphosa can completely escape blame for Zuma’s mismanagement. He agreed to be Zuma’s deputy knowing full well that the man was unscrupulous and, for quite some time, he did not raise his voice in protest. Some even took Ramaphosa’s silence as a sign that he was enabling Zuma’s impropriety.

The appreciation for Ramaphosa increases even more at the thought that things could possibly be worse now had a Zuma ally won the ANC presidency. This appreciation showed in the ANC’s election results in May, when it avoided dropping to below 50%.

Now that Ramaphosa’s denials have been proven false, it raises unnecessary doubts about his credibility.

My point is that there’s no reason to present Ramaphosa as the exceptional being that he is not. Doing so essentially sets him up for disappointment, as has now happened with the revelations that he was involved in fundraising. Perhaps his people were wary that admitting that Ramaphosa was involved would imply that he was captured. The worry was not unfounded. But this could be explained away as a normal practice within the ANC, not evidence of guilt that Ramaphosa is a proxy for other interests. People would have given him the benefit of the doubt.

Now that Ramaphosa’s denials have been proven false, it raises unnecessary doubts about his credibility.

It may well be that Ramaphosa’s people are unsure about how to package the public image of the president. Consider, for instance, the contradictory messages sent out regarding the activities around Ramaphosa’s inauguration and subsequent opening of Parliament. Organisers of the inauguration seemed intent on projecting Ramaphosa as a man who embraces traditions. That he is a nationalist, as evidenced by his fluency in several African languages, seemed not to be enough. They also had to stress, through the performance of the Venda traditional dance, tshigombela, Ramaphosa’s ethnic identity. For some strange reason, they figured that his traditional credentials needed firming up.

About a month later, however, the presidency communicated a different message. Parliament announced that the president would not be accompanied by an imbongi at the opening of Parliament. It has become customary for parliamentary proceedings to affirm our hybrid identity as a mixture of Western and African practices. What was even more shocking was that the occasion involved a president who had recently been presented as one who embraced African traditions.

cyril ramaphosa
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: Elmond Jiyane/GCIS

Parliament finally relented to the public’s outrage over what was a blatantly absurd decision. The capitulation made the president seem unprincipled, believing one thing today and another tomorrow.

There is no reason to remake Ramaphosa into something he is not. Doing so will create a fake and, because it is not based on either conviction or principle, a fake unravels. The result will be cynicism that will destroy his presidency. Just keep it real. Therein lies the strength of this presidency.

Ndletyana is an associate professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg.

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