Cometh the hour, snoozeth the man

William Saunderson-Meyer on President Ramaphosa's absence during a week of crisis


The country was burning, again. People were being killed in mob violence, again. The police were blundering about, as ineffectual as ever.

On the eve of the World Economic Forum summit on Africa, starting in Cape Town on Wednesday, supposedly spontaneous attacks on foreign Africans were suddenly dominating the headlines. 

The violence had already started at the weekend with highway attacks and arson on foreign-driven trucks, then spread to the cities. By Monday, foreign-owned spaza shops all around Johannesburg and Pretoria were being looted.

Police Minister, Bheki Cele described the situation as “a national emergency”. Nigeria withdrew from the summit. Congo, Rwanda and Malawi did not attend either, but the SA government denied reports that their absence was in response to the violence.

Nigeria recalled its High Commissioner from Pretoria and summoned his SA counterpart for a dressing down. Zambia cancelled a planned soccer friendly against Bafana Bafana and, along with Zimbabwe, warned its truck drivers against entering SA.

In terms of public order and, in its timing, for international relations, this was the biggest crisis yet faced by President Cyril Ramaphosa and his administration. Ramaphosa, however, was nowhere to be seen. 

For days, not a word was heard from him. On social media, spoof missing person posters circulated, asking Have You Seen This Man? At a historical moment that cried out for strong statesmanship, the president was initially invisible. When he eventually surfaced, his response was ham-fisted and unconvincing.

“As much as they have certain grievances, taking action against people from other nations is not justified…” Such attacks were “against the ethos” of SA and we “cannot tolerate attacks on people from other African countries and, indeed, from other countries”. 

Coming from such an articulate and intellectually nuanced man, Ramaphosa’s phrasing is oddly specific. The apparent qualifications are bound to excite comment. 

Does this mean that Ramaphosa thinks that violence against foreigners, of any stripe, is unacceptable but the targeting of South Africans — and these attacks eventually do encompass any vulnerable target, irrespective of nationality or race — is somehow less reprehensible? That’s certainly the view of Julius Malema, who bemoaned the fact that black anger against foreign Africans was misdirected and should instead be focused on the “whites [who] created this mess”.

And Ace Magashule, secretary-general of the ANC, took a similar tack. Speaking at the Tshwane University of Technology, Magashule said identified white South Africans as foreigners who, were never attacked, simply because of their skin colour.

“You are South Africans but remember, you are Africans, living in a continent called Africa. Never despise people who have the same skin colour [as] us. There are many others with a whitish colour. You don't know them. They are there. You see them all the time but you can't say this one [is] ke le kwerekwere. They have never been attacked because they are also so-called foreigners but because their colour is white.”

The scapegoating of foreign Africans is a recurring occurrence, with around 60 foreigners killed in 2008. But it manifests not only attacks on Nigerian drug dealers or successful Senegalese spaza shop-owners, although these are what capture the media and the public’s attention

The havoc has been far greater, albeit more dispersed, on South Africa’s road networks, with ongoing attacks ostensibly aimed at stopping the employment of foreign truck drivers. In the past year, more than 1,300 truck-and-trailer rigs were destroyed, with an estimated 213 deaths, in contrast to the seven deaths recorded in the latest Johannesburg and Pretoria attacks.

So, perhaps Ramaphosa’s apparent disengagement can be explained by the fact that none of the latest chaos is truly new, or even exceptional in its effect. Rolling crisis is the new normal. No need for a presidential froth.

That would be to misread totally the national mood. SA is crying out for a decisive leader. Ramaphosa has shown no signs of having the mettle to be one.

In fact, based on his behaviour over the past 20 months, one must ask whether CR is psychologically robust enough to do what it takes to be the president.

His performance has been high on charm and beguiling promises but low on delivery. Like others before him before him who have found domestic politics unpleasantly messy and challenging, Ramaphosa has sought sanity in jetting around the world, playing the role of a leading African statesman to kinder, more appreciative audiences.

Given how little he has achieved, aside from an admirable brace of judicial inquiries, Ramaphosa’s persistently high levels of popularity are therefore difficult to comprehend. Part of it, is simply the relief the whole country feels at having an urbane, presentable leader, after having had to endure a clownish kleptocrat for almost a decade. Another part of it is nascent terror at the immediate alternative to Ramaphosa, Deputy President David Mabuza.

But popularity is not enough. No national leader can survive unless they have a steely core that does not shrink from the head banging that is necessary to get things done.

Ramaphosa has not been one to bang heads, even when head banging is the only remaining course of action. It’s impossible, for example, to imagine Ramaphosa expelling, as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson did this week, 21 bolshy MPs who refused to toe the line. 

While Johnson is undoubtedly aware that his hardline approach might yet backfire, he calculated that unless he did so, his authority in the Conservative Party would be in tatters. Ramaphosa, in contrast, is by instinct an appeaser, who puts the illusory unity of the African National Congress far above the national interest.

He has avoided confrontation with the communists and the trade unionists in his alliance, on Eskom and the other imploding state-owned entities. He has avoided confrontation with the Radical Economic Transformation faction in his party over Expropriation Without Compensation and the National Health Insurance. Instead, he perversely has embraced these policies, despite them likely to be financially ruinous.

When Finance Minister Tito Mboweni released his emergency economic rescue plan last week, it was to a uniformly hostile response from the communists and the unionists in the alliance. The president, our very own Invisible Man, was notably absent from the debate and uttered not a word in support of his Finance minister.

These are testing times. Supposedly, cometh the hour, cometh the man. Ramaphosa, so far, has shown little sign of being that man.

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