Cyril Ramaphosa has been president for eighteen long, action-packed
months. In May, following the general election, he was ‘given a
mandate’ to institute a sweeping programme of reform. He inherited a
state so broken he didn’t really stand a chance. Can he pull South
Africa out of this Category 5 shitstorm?
His own failings as a thinker and leader have contributed to bringing
the country to the brink of civil war. Those failings echo the
flameout of the global liberal project, which has resulted in
societies so vastly, absurdly unequal that they can no longer be
On a rising tide of righteous and not-so-righteous rage and agony,
Ramaphosa now stands at the moment of truth for his presidency.
In February 2018, any wag even suggesting that Cyril Ramaphosa would
make a terrible president was dispatched directly into commentator
Nobody wanted to hear anything critical of the erudite, moneyed,
silver-tongued negotiator par excellence.
He would eliminate corruption in the ANC, throw his enemies in a
flamming pit and toss in the torch himself, he would unleash big
business and its hoards of latent capital, woo investment from abroad,
restore the sheen of the Mandela and Mbeki eras, send a man to Mars
(hopefully Ace Magashule with the one way ticket), and provide an
African antidote to the illiberal ethno-nationalist fuckbags
proliferating around the world.
In short, he was a cross between Marcus Aurelius, Barack Obama and
Jesus, except with premium livestock.
He had the backing of the richest white and black men in the country;
he had the support of the foreign diplomatic corps; he had the
delirious approval of the mainstream media, who drooled on their
sensible shoes every time he spoke.
(That last point is a bit confounding, given that Ramaphosa has never
been one for unscripted press conferences or direct engagement with
What was the basis for this euphoria? How did Ramaphosa earn so much
respect and admiration? Well, for one thing, he was indeed a committed
and brilliant labour leader during the apartheid years. (But never a
commie, bless him.)
Over the course of the transition period, he helped negotiate the
Constitution into being. He led the ANC as democracy was about to
dawn, and was (apocryphally, as it turns out), Madiba’s desired
Then he became a billionaire after being ‘deployed’ to business,
maintaining a reputation for fair-ish dealing until his return to
politics, when he was anointed deputy president, deployed to be an
adult in the room during Jacob Zuma’s disastrous second term.
And yet, when one peruses this resumé carefully, there are warning
signs. His skill as a negotiator — so important in the 1980s and 90s —
has proved of little use in the postmodern ANC, which is locked in an
internecine zero-sum factional war that offers no space for sensical
Ramaphosa and his advisors genuinely thought that they could negotiate
their way into unifying the Congress. This was a whimsically fatal
notion, like a four-year-old in an Aquaman Speedo leaping into the
Camps Bay undertow, hoping to commune with magical seahorses.
Now, Ramaphosa faces crises on every front. This week alone: a series
of violent acts against women and children tipped into an obscene
critical mass, culminating in marches and protests across the country.
And at the same time: the curiously well-timed and -coordinated
murderous rage directed against black African nationals.
This is societal meltdown in real-time, but it really shouldn’t have
come as a surprise: violence against women and (black and brown)
expatriates are hallmarks of South African life.
As it happens, the man responsible for managing this mess leads the
ANC, an organisation with a peerless record of protecting sexual
miscreants, organised criminals and anti-African rhetoricians.
In this, the president cannot be considered blameless. He has spent
his time back in the ruling party providing cover for, and covering
up, crimes against the state committed by the state.
He was as tame as any of Zuma’s so-called opponents during the former
president’s tenure, and instead let braver men, like Derek Hanekom and
Pravin Gordhan, do the fighting in the trenches.
He was quiet during the Life Esidimeni crisis. He said nothing after
the Nkandla scandal. And he was, however you read things, at least
partly complicit in the Marikana massacre, about which he has spoken
Zuma has been gone for a year and a half, and still not a single ANC
apparatchik has been held accountable for any of these tragedies, in
which hundreds of people were cumulatively murdered and trillions of
How can this be? Well, the ANC self-regulates on the understanding
that every comrade is tainted, and that in every closet there lurk
skeletons, smallanyana and not so smallanyana. (Zuma negotiated this
reality perfectly. Ramaphosa not so much.)
Subsequently, no one has mistaken him for a political street brawler,
and within the ruling party he appears to inspire neither fear nor
According to the polls, he is (or, until this week, was) nominally
rather popular on the streets. But he has no constituency. And unlike
Zuma — who knows how to engender loyalty — no one owes Ramaphosa a
And while we can perhaps forgive Ramaphosa for not knowing how to run
a mafia, he cannot be forgiven for his paucity of ideas. Why does he
even want his job?
Put another way, what do Ramaphosa and his team have to offer?
Shackled to the rule of law, hemmed in by the Constitution they helped
draft, all they can provide is measured technocratic solutions to
catastrophic problems — problems that have exploded violently and
spectacularly over the course of the past brutal week.
Now, Ramaphosa is staring down at a population demanding immediate
solutions to the breakdown in rule of law.
And he has nothing for them.
The address he made before the nation on Thursday night was a classic
example of how not to lead. Let’s deal with the procedural stuff
first. He can’t call a State of Emergency, because State of
Emergencies are an apartheid thing — and besides, the police are a
biiiiig part of the problem.
(Boxing champ Leighandre “Baby Lee” Jegels, whose murder helped spark
the recent protests, WAS LITERALLY KILLED BY A COP.)
He can beef up the sexual assault courts as he has promised, which is
both long overdue and a long-term proposal. He can encourage the
government to modernise the sexual assault registry, about which
But what becomes clear is that successive ANC-led governments have
never taken women’s safety seriously. And this crisis cannot be solved
The same can very obviously be said about Afrophobia and violence
against economic migrants.
Which brings us to the deep failures of modern liberalism as it has
been practiced in weak social democracies like South Africa.
The country is a one-party state in which a political elite is at war
with itself trying to control the economy. In the past decade,
it’s toggled from a faux-populist leader who destroyed the country for
at least a generation, to a plutocrat who purchased the party under
the proviso that he could ‘reform’ it from within.
But Ramaphosa doesn’t appear to know much about the violence and shame
that defines everyday South African life.
He’s been secure in his bubble for almost three decades, removed from
the vicissitudes of everyday life.
His inner-circle — the Motsepes, the Radebes, Gwede Mantashe, a banker
or two — are not helpful in this regard.
Like most of his peers, he belongs not to the people of his country,
but to a tiny sect of global plutocrats who have an inviolable
baseline belief system: liberal free-market economies, gently
regulated (and occasionally guided) by government, can grow infinitely
while providing boundless opportunities for their people.
This is manifestly untrue — as a theory, it’s bombing out across the
planet. South Africa’s problems of course whittle down to inequality,
but also to how that inequality is conceived by the economic elite: as
a result of ‘low growth’, not of systematic exclusion that dates back
centuries, and is premised on officially sanctioned racism and sexism.
Cyril Ramaphosa has better start taking his job seriously. He needs to
crack heads at Luthuli House, get vicious with his enemies blocking
the reform process, and go to war with the corruption clogging up the
His reform programme needs to get nasty, because the patriarchal scum
within his party view women as chattel and foreign nationals as
sacrificial offerings to the mob.
He needs to reinvent the liberal project for a new era, or watch the
Constitution he crafted turn to dust in his hands.
He needs to light a very large fire under his own ass, or his advisors
need to do it for him.
Ask anyone in his circle, and they’ll swear that Cyril Ramaphosa is
the smartest man in the room. But that’s not the same as being the
cleverest. Ramaphosa’s first eighteen months have been a pathetic
wash. But comes next?
As the political thinker Hugo von Hofmannsthal put it, ‘He who can
summon forces from the deep, him they will follow.’ DM