When a journalist told a weary-looking President Cyril Ramaphosa this week that he looked tired, he was quick to deny it, saying instead that he was suffering from a bit of flu.
But if he is indeed tired, he could probably be forgiven for that. He has been in office for only 100 days, but so much has happened, while so much has remained the same. An assessment of Ramaphosa over the past three months in office is not so much about results, but rather about what he has brought to the country. The message he has sent is that it is no longer business as usual.
Probably his biggest inspiration was to send out a message that the days of wanton corruption are over.
It is a message that elevated him to the leadership of the ANC over then rival Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Without once blaming former president Jacob Zuma directly for the culture of corruption and impunity fostered over the past nine years, he essentially promised to pull the country out of the morass that Zuma left it in.
He fired former mineral resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane, who was at the centre of numerous corruption claims. He removed ministers Nomvula Mokonyane and Bathabile Dlamini from departments where they were also at the centre of corruption claims.
Many felt he should have totally removed them from Cabinet, but the short-term relief was to take them away from comfortable spaces where they wielded total control and inflicted damage on state resources.
The resignation of North West premier Supra Mahumapelo this week cemented the president’s anticorruption stance. For weeks now, Mahumapelo, who has overseen some of the worst governance of the province, had resisted attempts to be pushed out.
Mahumapelo’s dogged refusal and Ramaphosa’s invisible hand, had led to criticism that the president was weak and indecisive. Ramaphosa cut short an international trip to attend to the issue after North West residents took to the streets in protest. But there was no immediate action from him, leading to an outcry. In the end, the North West administration was handed over to the national government for baby-sitting. And Mahumapelo was gone.
Earlier in the year, Zuma challenged the new ANC leadership when he refused to leave after being asked to quit as president. Ramaphosa came across incapacitated in the face of such defiance. But Zuma eventually capitulated after what seemed to be a few doses of Ramaphosa’s slow poison.
In the past week, the ANC in the Free State elected a new provincial leadership that could be hostile to Ramaphosa. As soon as the elections were over in Mangaung, the delegates sang: “Asiphelelanga, Sishota ngoZuma [We are not all present because Zuma is not here with us].” This was harking back to the days of Msholozi’s rule, as he was a close ally of ANC chairperson Ace Magashule.
Zuma has become a rallying point for those who battle to accept Ramaphosa’s leadership. Periodically, they raise their voices to complain that they want a national general council because Ramaphosa is not implementing resolutions that were made at the party’s elective conference in December.
This week, while addressing editors in Cape Town, he directed his message to these critics: “We have been in office for only five months since the conference. Give us space to work. We still have 55 months to go before the next conference.”
“Trust me, I will deliver”
Ramaphosa has identified economic growth as crucial to making a dent in the huge economic disparities and high unemployment levels in the country. In doing that, he has become the poster boy for capitalism, and is often criticised for placing the needs of the markets ahead of that of his impoverished base. Nevertheless, he forges ahead, convinced that his critics will realise he was right once the $100bn he wants to raise in investment is achieved.
Ramaphosa gets on with his work and is seldom heard defending his actions or even acknowledging his critics. This week, he said that one of the lessons he learnt from Nelson Mandela was “to always take people along with you when making decisions”.
However, Ramaphosa often comes across as saying: “You may not understand now what I am doing. But trust me, I will deliver.”
This may not always work in a South Africa full of impatience, where citizens demand immediate results. So when black South Africans demand land immediately, Ramaphosa reverts to his role as a former trade union negotiator, weighing up the possibilities and trying to come up with a solution that will half satisfy everyone. With crime increasing and local governance worsening, Ramaphosa may have to choose between coming up with quick, populist solutions or a long-term plan.
Fortunately for him, South Africans appear to trust him. In an Ipsos poll conducted this week, 76% said they approved of the job he was doing as president and 79% said they approved of how he was handling the economy. Only 6% disapproved of him.
Ipsos director and political analyst Mari Harris said: “President Cyril Ramaphosa will probably be the single biggest vote winner for the ANC in next year’s general election, if all goes according to [his] plan.
“This view is based on findings from Ipsos’ first Mobile Pulse poll, which found that 82% of registered voters who have access to cellphones currently approve of Ramaphosa’s running of the ANC.”
Harris said the ANC’s biggest opposition, the DA, lagged with only 20% – down from the 22.23% it obtained ahead of the last national election.
But elections are at least 10 months away, so hard work still awaits Ramaphosa. He has to show he is no one-hit wonder, but a leader ready to fully restore confidence in government.
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