Pieter du Toit: Cyril Ramaphosa is a reluctant president and afraid to lead

President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Daily Sun)
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Daily Sun)

Where is President Cyril Ramaphosa? South Africa is being paralysed by economic indecision and ANC infighting, while Johannesburg and Pretoria burn and the assault on women continues. We have a head of state who is missing in action, writes Pieter du Toit.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is missing in action.

Even some of his own people, individuals who played a key role in helping him getting elected with the promise of a "new dawn", are voicing their frustration with a president who is seemingly reluctant to lead.

"He does not want to be the protagonist, he wants to react to situations. Ramaphosa doesn’t want to be the one under whose watch the ANC disintegrates," one of these "new dawn" lieutenants told me recently.

"Those in his wider circle, people who laid it all out on the line for him to help him defeat the Zuptas, are becoming agitated and talking about mobilising because he (Ramaphosa) isn’t giving instructions," the Ramaphosa activist added.

South Africa is becoming unmoored and unhinged. The orgy of violence that erupted on Monday is the direct result of a government and state unable to prevent or predict socio-economic unrest and a national executive failing in the most basic tasks of responsible governance and ensuring order and justice.

We've had one statement, late on Tuesday morning, about the murder of UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana (19) and athlete Leighandre Jegels. Nothing on the violence. His advisors clearly don’t believe that the head of state should be visible and vocal during times of national uncertainty and anger. There seems to be no empathy with communities or responsiveness to unfolding crises.

The CBD of Pretoria, the country’s capital, has been under siege since last week. Violent mobs looted shops, attacked foreigners and burnt buildings in and around Johannesburg on Monday. And in KwaZulu-Natal, on the N3 (one of the busiest routes in the country), trucks were set alight for the umpteenth time this year.

Why is Ramaphosa so very timid?

In Cape Town the country’s assault on women continued unabated, with the horrific and brazen murder of Mrwetyana and, in Vereeniging, six-year old Amy-Leigh de Jager was kidnapped in front of her school.

And while all of this was playing out, the president and the governing party were busy smoothing over fraying intra-party relations because of a rogue and possibly corrupt Durban mayor and tensions around a long-overdue economic plan.

South Africans didn’t see or hear the president condemning yesterday’s attacks or read about him calling the country’s law enforcement or intelligence chiefs for an explanation. There was nothing about the student and the toddler who were victims of violence. And he hasn’t said anything to give certainty about reforming the economy.

Monday’s events, coupled with the unfolding economic crisis, are causing enormous damage. A fund manager on Tuesday said the middle class is cutting and running. Images of a burning Johannesburg and the police unable to quell the violence led to him having a very busy day. "People are taking what they can and moving it out of the country."

Why is Ramaphosa so very timid, so incredibly reluctant to take a stand, and why is he so far removed from public life?

In Anthony Butler’s magisterial biography of Ramaphosa, one of the president’s closest associates, James Motlatsi, tells of a battle to evict a group of mineworkers from NUM’s headquarters in downtown Johannesburg in the 1980s.

Missing in action

After Ramaphosa was unable to persuade and cajole the occupiers from the building, Motlatsi drew a line in the sand and said it was time to use force. Ramaphosa disagreed and left the scene. Motlatsi, along with some other heavies, split heads and spilt blood, but eventually cleared the building.

"Where there was a faction fight Cyril would be lost… [whereas] I knew from my experience of dealing with a violent mob that persuasion could not work. They were disruptive, they were paralysing the organisation," Motlatsi told Butler.

Ramaphosa is clearly unable to deal with the mob occupying Luthuli House. The Ace Magashule faction, bolstered by Nomvula Mokonyane, Bathabile Dlamini and Malusi Gigaba, and ably supported by people such as Jessie Duarte, are running the show.

Retreating to the Union Buildings, he is unable to effectively use his powers as head of state to implement and enforce the changes necessary to ensure recovery. National interest is trumped by the interests of the party.

And when a day like yesterday explodes, with blood in the streets of Johannesburg and another violent femicide in Cape Town, he is unable to respond to the national mood and take charge, even if it is symbolic and even if it is for a day.

A president, a real one, someone who can rise above factions and petty divisions, would have been able to feel the outrage and share the grief. A statesman would have made sure that South Africans can relate to him and that he relates to them.

Ramaphosa is missing in action.

- Pieter du Toit is News24 assistant-editor for in-depth news.

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