Tell the Ramaphosa Story

President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his inaugural State of the Nation Address. (Photo: Ruvan Boshoff, AFP)
President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his inaugural State of the Nation Address. (Photo: Ruvan Boshoff, AFP)

By now, President Cyril Ramaphosa should have some idea of his endgame. He must have firm ideas about his own story that he wants told when his tenure is done and dusted. And such a story must have a strong sense of desirability, stimulus and magic about it. Not fluff and sloganeering drivel which typically fails to demonstrate a relationship between promise and people’s experiences in their everyday lives.

And for the sake of extensive reach and sustainability beyond his term of office, he should know what team is needed to help construct and tell such a story, as well as whether such a team already exists or needs to be created.

And the definition of his team must accept that there tends to be a theoretical rather than actual sense of collective leadership across his political party and its alliances. And this is a truth to make peace with. Even the ANC talks about a Nelson Mandela presidency, a Thabo Mbeki presidency and a Jacob Zuma presidency. This, for the voter, has projected the significance of the individual above the collective. Ramaphosa’s thinking must have a typical campaign-type mind-set.

The thing about a campaign is that it is usually bound by time, oriented around action and has its energies focused on a particular outcome. A few phrases used by the Concise Oxford English Dictionary to define the term ‘campaign’ are “organised course of action”, “particular purpose” and “arouse public interest”. This means that an outcome which speaks to what the public considers important is required.

For the country’s Constitution and the ANC, a South African success story would be a democratic, nonracial and nonsexist country in which all are afforded a better and prosperous life. Appreciating that, over the past few years, its efforts to achieve such lofty ideals have been derailed and at times tardy, the governing party now seeks to pursue a radical socioeconomic agenda to accelerate the making of its story.

While this provides Ramaphosa with an important directive for what his desired story and campaign-type approach should be about, it is an outcome that is impossible to realise by 2029. This period is a liberal estimate of the longest time Ramaphosa can hope to have to wield political and state power – this, of course, assumes that the ANC is victorious in national elections, re-elects Ramaphosa as its president and chooses him as its presidential candidate.

In fact, even the National Development Plan sees 2030, which is only a year later, as a target date by which to reduce the number of households with a monthly income below R419 per person, reduce inequality and establish the means to accelerate a path that deepens such outcomes. It does not see it as a triumphant moment over poverty and equality where the desired outcome of a democratic, nonracial and nonsexist South Africa is a fully realised project.

It is this reality of limited time in office that needs a campaign-type mind-set. Using the Constitution and ANC’s idea of a success story as a reference point, Ramaphosa should by now be clear about his tale. And he should then mobilise his energies and that of his team around the making and telling of this story.

Chris Rose, a communications and campaigns consultant who served as strategic adviser to Greenpeace International, argues that campaigning is both a science and an art. On the one hand, Rose states that while your campaign might be about a broad, public good issue, it will need a much more specific battlefront. He argues that “most campaigns need to attract much broader support – and to do that, you often need to narrow the focus”. He states, “Normally the task is to find the pieces of an issue or concern which are unacceptable to a big enough group of people to get the effect you need.”

These views he best illustrates through the following case scenario: “Say you need to persuade a group of councillors to take a particular decision about a forest. You may think it’s important for frogs or as a watershed. But what do they see? What if they use it for jogging or 50% of their constituents are woodcutters? You may see a forest but they may see timber, or an exercise area. Put the issue in their terms.”

The alternative is for Ramaphosa to miss out on the present-day golden opportunity he has been granted to shape and direct the public discourse; to allow the perpetuity of an abnormal situation where an opposition that holds just over 30% control of Parliament is essentially dictating what is on the public agenda. An easy feat in the context of what is effectively a nonexistent communication machinery on the part of the ruling party.

If such prevails, then Ramaphosa is likely to be next in line for a recall or pressure to resign.

Louw is a communications specialist, coach and facilitator

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