How Sona exposed Ramaphosa’s weak character

Decades of inhabiting an ANC gilded cage and over five years of presiding over a bloated bureaucracy have turned President Cyril Ramaphosa into someone unable to deal with the real world, says the writer. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane / Independent Newspapers

Decades of inhabiting an ANC gilded cage and over five years of presiding over a bloated bureaucracy have turned President Cyril Ramaphosa into someone unable to deal with the real world, says the writer. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane / Independent Newspapers

Published Feb 13, 2024


Nkosikhulule Nyembezi

When assessing President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address, it is all about perspective.

For the glass-half-full crowd, it marks a celebration of the story of Tintswalo, a 30-year-old symbolic democracy baby who was an established woman with her own family whom the ANC government had supported since birth.

Ramaphosa said Tintswalo has a job, aided by affirmative action and BEE policies, can earn a good income, has moved to a better house and can “live a better life” because she has benefited from free public health care, free housing, free schooling, nutritious meals at school, scholar transport, child support grant and funding through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme to attain her university degree.

Now, let us look at the speech from the glass-half-empty side. I am in this camp.

The president was not entirely in his usual happy mood. Early in his presidency, through his ceremonial procession to Parliament and his speech, he commanded the nation’s attention. This year, the nation’s attention was riding in a separate coach and focused on searching for the next president as election campaigns contradicting Ramaphosa’s story begin energetically – a threadbare state opening of Parliament for a threadbare government.

His expression never rose above the lukewarm throughout, even as he sought to embrace citizens as change-makers when he said: “We are not passive observers of our history. We are its authors. We are the builders of this country we call home.”

Counting things that are out of Ramaphosa’s control is not hard. Each of the 18 times he said “we will”, as though he had time to do something else except the re-election campaign, I got a sense that he struggled to be convincing.

It is not his fault the economy is sliding deeper into recession and investor confidence remains low. Covid, corruption, electricity blackouts, downgrading by international rating agencies, and the July 2021 Zuma riots (him again!) have seen to that.

Nor is he wholly to blame for the inaction on arresting, prosecuting and sentencing those responsible for looting public resources, choosing to hide behind the statistics of the SAPS’s

Operation Shanela, a new approach to target crime hot spots, which he noted resulted in more than 285 000 arrests since May last year.

On state capture, Ramaphosa said the credibility and efficiency of several institutions, like the South African Revenue Service, had been restored.

He emphasised that his administration had set up the Investigating Directorate and made great strides to bring state capturers to book.

And it is not on him that, almost to a youth and a veteran, most of his Cabinet members are inadequate and should have long gone. It is a wretched time for the ANC gene pool.

But these days, Ramaphosa cannot even control the things within his influence.

In the latter years of his presidency, he is a man almost entirely without political instincts, a piece of unwanted flotsam being tossed carelessly from side to side in a series of events, including the Phala Phala farm scandal that has elicited a confidence deficiency that has undermined further the credibility of the party and the government administration.

“By the same measure, we should not allow anyone to diminish vital democratic institutions, to denigrate the judiciary or to challenge the constitutional authority of this Parliament,” said Ramaphosa, and yet the constraining measures of the ANC on its members, including the manipulation of the roll-call voting system in the December 2022 sitting to accept or reject the panel recommendations on the Phala Phala farm matter, demonstrated the opposite.

As the president proceeded with his speech, I flicked through the largely blank pages with distaste and disbelief.

Was this all the president could use to account for the past three decades and the past five years specifically?

“Over the last three decades, we have ...” he began, his eyes closing. It turned out that what his government has been doing most of these past five years was dumping large parts of the manifesto on which we had elected it: out with restoring uninterrupted electricity supply, out with repairing infrastructure, out with arresting and prosecuting corrupt politicians, out with creating gainful employment that pays a living wage, out with professionalisation of the public service, out with improving the education and health systems.

Signalling his intention to implement the National Health Insurance – organised business and others have asked Cabinet to refer the controversial bill back to Parliament – Ramaphosa said his administration would “incrementally implement the NHI” to deal with financing and more. “I am going through the bill ... I am looking for a pen.”

He repeatedly exposed his weak character during the speech and was found wanting. While acknowledging the staggering unemployment rate (31.9%), the president noted the obvious – that South Africa’s economy must grow to create jobs.

Decades of inhabiting an ANC gilded cage and over five years of presiding over a bloated bureaucracy have turned him into an unendearing leader. Someone unable to deal with the real world. Unable to respond with executive authority to the citizens’ daily life challenges or, indeed, their tragedies stemming from being blighted by poverty, unemployment and inequality. He is all at sea.

What he is doing in the Union Buildings is exercising the minds of almost every parliamentarian, some of whom are actively trying to remove him before the elections. The rest of the ANC has merely decided it would look even worse to get rid of him.

Ramaphosa gets to stay and finish his term under the shadow of being an indecisive president, lately loved and admired by not many but small factions of the ANC and other beneficiaries of government patronage.

Not even all his Cabinet colleagues and leaders of the ANC alliance partners, and especially his Cabinet colleagues in areas where policy contradictions are most prevalent. They are the ones who get to see his short-comings close up – the ones whose ambitions and careers are and will continue to be a sacrifice on his altar.

Whether this poor leadership can be altered in the ANC’s election campaign in the coming months to restore public confidence is touch and go.

The more we get to see Ramaphosa’s character as a weak leader fiddling with power, the less there is to like. And in this speech, we may just have scraped the barrel. It is time for urgent change.

How much longer can this go on?

* Nyembezi is a policy analyst, researcher and human rights activist

Cape Times