Melanie Verwoerd: Are we judging President Ramaphosa too harshly?

President Cyril Ramaphosa after leaving the protest. (Jan Gerber, News24)
President Cyril Ramaphosa after leaving the protest. (Jan Gerber, News24)

There were totally unrealistic expectations as to what Cyril Ramaphosa could have done after becoming president. He inherited a gigantic mess. Yet somehow, many people thought Ramaphosa was going to be a cross between Madiba's magic and Thabo Mbeki's Mr Delivery and thus, we were going to see a massive change very quickly, writes Melanie Verwoerd.

Ramaphosa has had a tough week. Undoubtedly, he was looking forward to the World Economic Forum in Cape Town - it was his time to show off South Africa and of course, also take some applause as the president of the country.

As we all know by now, that did not happen. The World Economic Forum was totally overshadowed by ongoing xenophobic attacks as well as the outcry against the level of gender-based violence in our country.

Things became so difficult that the president took the unprecedented step of addressing the nation on these two issues. 

I have the privilege of addressing audiences all over the country on a weekly basis and over the last 10 days, I've spoken in the Free State, Limpopo, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape. The audiences ranged from international investors to farmers, small business owners, auditors, financial managers and the general public. Without exception , I encountered extreme negativity about the future of South Africa. This, of course is not new. But the level of near despair is certainly the highest in decades. 

I have not met a single person who disagrees with the idea that Ramaphosa is key in terms of the future stability and growth of South Africa. He is also generally liked and respected.

However, from the comments and questions I've heard, it is also clear that most of the anxieties about the future are linked to a concern that Ramaphosa is not able to do what is needed to save the country. Everywhere I go I am asked: "Why has Ramaphosa not done more?" and whether or not this is indicative of him lacking a backbone or not being powerful enough to deal with the factionalism in his own party.

I would argue that we are in a much better place politically than we were about two years ago, and the nine years before that. (Imagine also where we would have been had the Zuma faction won at the 2017 elective conference in Nasrec.)

So why all the negativity around the president's capacity to deliver?

I believe one of the main reasons is that there were totally unrealistic expectations as to what he could have done after becoming president. It is clear to me that the majority of people thought that we would almost overnight revert to the golden era of former president Nelson Mandela, in terms of economic and social stability. This was, of course, never going to happen. Ramaphosa inherited a gigantic mess.

Nine years of state capture, mismanagement of government finances, a politically compromised administration and enormous corruption could simply not be eradicated in a few months.

In addition, he has had to deal with factionalism in his own party, which remains a serious distraction.  

There is also the matter of the global economic climate, which affects (and will increasing impact negatively on) South Africa.

Yet somehow, many people thought Ramaphosa was going to be a cross between Madiba's magic and Thabo Mbeki's Mr Delivery and thus, we were going to see a massive change very quickly. I argue that a lot of what we are seeing today has more to do with the disappointment born from unrealistic expectations than the actual performance of the president.

Of course he is not helped by a very bad communications team, who often respond too slowly or not at all to key events. They are also not communicating success stories effectively. Instead they seem to increasingly fumble  - which is not helped by a very incompetent SABC, as was so clearly illustrated during his address to the nation when an unedited version of the broadcast went out by accident. 

Communications aside, I believe it is premature to judge Ramaphosa on his performance from December 2017 (when he was elected president of the ANC), or even January 2018 when he became interim president of the country.

During his first year in office it was almost impossible for him to make progress; he had to clean up the mess of the previous nine years. People like Tom Moyane, Shaun Abrahams, and many others had to be fired and/or replaced.

He also had to tread carefully with his own party, as at least half of the ANC's national executive committee (NEC) were Zuma supporters.

As people gravitate to power this has gradually changed. Of course he still has significant challenges in this regard with many out to "get" him, but at least in recent months, most of the NEC seems to have swung in support behind him.

Because of this factionalism inside the ANC, he had to appoint a compromised Cabinet for his time as interim president, which meant that very little progress could be made in the first year.

Ramaphosa's ability to govern during 2018 was also restricted by the national elections of 2019. Parliament and the government, in general, always slow down in the 12 months prior to a national election, as MPs and ministers are anxious to get to constituencies to raise their own visibility in order to be re-elected. Thus, we rarely see new policy implemented- or even formulated - during this time.

It is therefore more appropriate to judge the president on his performance since May of this year. If we evaluate his efforts and initiatives over the last 100 days, we might have less reason to be so negative.

Undoubtedly, he faces an uphill battle in and outside of his own party and yes, he will have to start making some unpopular decisions for the sake of the country.

Yet, a more realistic assessment of his achievements since May might leave all of us a little more optimistic and less inclined to be drawn into a sense of hopelessness and despair.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

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