Mondli Makhanya: Let us kill this temptation to turn Ramaphosa into a god

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Cyril Ramaphosa at his inauguration ceremony where he took the oath of office. Picture: Reuters
Cyril Ramaphosa at his inauguration ceremony where he took the oath of office. Picture: Reuters

By giving Ramaphosa messianic status, we risk repeating the same mistakes, writes Mondli Makhanya.

In the days leading up to the general elections, there was a consensus building up in the business world that, for South Africa to recover and rise, President Cyril Ramaphosa needed to get a generous mandate from the electorate.

The size of this mandate, they said, should be 60% and above.

Gone were previous concerns about having an electoral majority that had bred unaccountability and impunity in ANC ranks.

Ramaphosa was now at the helm, so came the narrative that the ANC could be trusted with the kind of mandate it had previously been accused of abusing.

As always, at the fore of this cheerleading pack was Goldman Sachs’ sub-Saharan Africa CEO Colin Coleman.

In an interview with Bloomberg Television recently, Coleman said the election result should back “a strong mandate for structural reforms”.

An ANC with 60% would give Ramaphosa the “political space to implement his modernisation agenda, including trying to effectively get the state-owned enterprises and a raft of economic reforms firmly in place”.

Other corporate bigwigs and business organisations shared this sentiment, all on the basis of the fact that this would be a mandate for Ramaphosa rather than the party he led.

Taken to its logical conclusion, a more powerful ANC and a weaker opposition was what this democracy needed right now.

And so, belief in a vibrant, highly contested political space is suspended because one man has been deemed a saviour and his messianic powers needed some boosting.

This belief in Ramaphosa’s messianic abilities is not confined to the corporate world.

It traverses many sections of South African society, unfortunately including academia and the fourth estate, where one would expect a bit more scepticism.

Even some in the religious sector, which has its own set of messiahs, seem willing to join this idol worship.

With Ramaphosa’s inauguration as president, and the euphoria and sense of hope this brings, the worship will most likely soar to new heights.

As South Africans, we will worship this god, sing hymns in his praise and entreat him to save us.

There will be different levels of faith, ranging from those who believe he is our only hope to those who believe but exercise a modicum of caution.

Few would argue with the contention that Ramaphosa is South Africa’s best bet right now.

The mood in the country and the sentiment among investors has changed dramatically since he took over in February last year.

He has made the right noises and made some sound decisions, giving us the sense that he is a democrat who is committed to restoring the constitutional values that his predecessor thought were the work of Beelzebub.

Even fewer would dispute the fact that he has to win the battle for control of his party, and that it is not only in the interests of the ANC, but that of the country that the malfeasants do not win the factional battles.

Their victory would not only halt the nascent repair work on the country’s soul, it would also give their ruinous populism a boost – much to the detriment of the economy.

The feel-good mood at Wednesday’s parliamentary sitting and the statesmanlike aura Ramaphosa exhibited were further indication that he was the the correct person to administer the balm for a bruised and battered nation.

But – yes, you knew there was a BUT coming – the worship chorus could be Ramaphosa’s very undoing.

By giving him messianic status, we risk making the same mistakes we made before.

Nelson Mandela knew, and hated, the fact that he was seen as a saviour.

As authoritarian as he sometimes was, he went out of his way to dispel the notion that he had all the answers and he encouraged society to call him to order.

So there was not much damage there, but it set the tone for treating leaders with reverence.

So when Thabo Mbeki came along, he had no qualms in utilising the power that came with adulation.

He was no Mandela, but his reputation as someone with a high intellect, a stickler for detail and a tough taskmaster gave him legendary status of his own.

This was the man who would dispense with fuzzy Mandela feelings and make sure the nation got down to serious business.

Mbeki was mostly a force for good. He cared for his nation and continent, and wanted the best for its inhabitants.

Mbeki’s intellectual prowess garnered him a cult following. The ANC and the country outsourced thinking to him. He was the man who had all the correct answers, even when he was wrong.

Those who dared question him were tarred and feathered.

Mbeki revelled in this worship and used it to impose his “superior knowledge” on the great unwashed – which was basically all of us. We all know where that worship of a man got us.

The man who succeeded Mbeki (if you discount the eight months when Kgalema Motlanthe held the reins) was very different.

For a start, he had two heads, an unusual phenomenon that gave many the impression that he also had extra brainpower.

He was carried to power on the wave of populist euphoria. He was worshipped and glorified.

Those who pointed out that the two heads were just cluttered storerooms and that he was a false god were either ignored or burnt at the stake.

By the time the majority realised their mistake, the promised land was a wasteland.

We are now foolishly creating another god. You just have to listen to some of the breathless commentary about what Ramaphosa has already achieved and what he will do for the country to realise that it is not just the poor and desperate who crave miracles.

In creating this god, we conveniently forget that the man we now seek to worship sat at Jacob Zuma’s side and looked on indifferently as the latter presided over the state capture project.

The period from 2012, when Ramaphosa was elected deputy president of the ANC, and particularly from 2014, when he took on the same role at the Union Buildings, saw the most rampant looting of the nation’s resources.

As the media brought this looting to the attention of South Africans, the courageous in our society – including some in the governing party – stood up against the looting mafia.

They took big risks, but they knew good would prevail in the end.

There were many others like the man we anointed as president on Saturday who did not see the risk as being worth it.

At least Zuma always had the courage to stand up for corruption, the one thing – besides matters of the flesh – that he truly believed in.

So, before we worship this god of the “new dawn”, let us ask him where he was and what he was doing during the darkness.

He will probably tell us he only realised how bad things were when the #GuptaLeaks emails were exposed, which is really being miserly with the truth.

The truth is that he was a willing spectator, content to let the country sink. Doing anything else would have risked a confrontation with the double-headed one.

That clash would have certainly led to the loss of his position and dealt a blow to his ambitions for high office.

So, in the end, the calculation was ambition before country.

Those who wish to worship will argue that we are now reaping the benefits of his passive approach, that he would not be our president if he had stood up earlier.

So, basically, he did nothing to prevent the wildfire, nor even to minimise it, but we should be grateful that he is here to help replant the fields.

By all means, let us back Ramaphosa to the hilt. Our present and our future enjoins us to.

However, let us not forget that he failed us badly at the nation’s lowest point and just waited for the forces of history to anoint him as a saviour.

Can he fail us again? Yes. Which is why we should be supremely vigilant.

Let us kill this temptation to turn him into a god who is capable of only doing right.

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