Ramaphosa, the nowhere man

Jeremy Gordin writes on the President's underwhelming address to the nation

Here’s an anecdote I’ve not shared with anyone except my gorgeous wife and maybe 11 or 12 of my closest friends.

In September 2009, the PR chief, or whatever he was called, of Sasria (the South African Special Risks Insurance Association) asked me to write three discrete speeches for the celebration of Sasria’s 30th anniversary. The proposed payment was handsome and, having been unemployed for some months, I agreed with alacrity.

One speech would be for (if I remember correctly) the marketing director, one for the managing director and one for the “chairperson” of Sasria’s board of directors. The first two speeches were “easy” to write and were (I believe) delivered pretty much as written at Sasria’s shindig, on 15 September 2009 at Constitution Hill.

The third speech was problematic. The Sasria board chairperson was one Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa. In his speech, he wanted to celebrate the “heroes” of the 1976 Soweto uprisings in conjunction with Sasria; and he indeed invited leading “stalwarts” of 1976 to the celebration.

As someone singing for my supper or credit card, my job was to do as requested. That’s the nature of the beast. Nor am I much of a virtue-signaller – well, especially not if there’s no one to see the signals anyway.

Still. But. However.

Even a hack such as I knew that Sasria was created post-1976 by the Nationalist government in collaboration with the SA Insurance Association to provide cover for damage “caused by special risks such as politically motivated malicious acts, riots, strikes, terrorism and public disorders” – i.e. the very damage caused during the ‘76 Soweto uprisings.

How then could the remaining leaders of and participants in those uprisings, who had been struggling for their “freedom,” etc. in 1976, be lauded as the heroes and heroines of Sasria’s ascending profit record?

Ramaphosa rejected my first draft with comments in the margin such as “you clearly don’t grasp” what had to be said and the speech “shows no feeling” about the issue.

Ramaphosa was correct. Not even in my second draft could I manage any enthusiasm for such cynical and hypocritical guff. In the end, Ramaphosa apparently ditched “my” speech and came up with a new one or spoke extempore.

Obviously, I’ve been ruminating on Ramaphosa’s speech of last night – the so-called “path forward to Level 3” – and his apparent lack of compunction when it comes to making cynical humbug palatable.

Not that Ramaphosa, or any of the bulvanim (boors) in his cabinet, wrote it; too warm and fuzzy and too high an EQ, you might say. I detect the hand of the likeable Steyn Speed. (If it’s you, Steyn, watch out in future for the word “inevitably” – the president doesn’t get his tongue around that one easily.)

Anyway, whoever wrote it had to be reasonably skilful – because bottom line is that Ramaphosa took about 35 minutes to say close to nothing.

There the president was, having been in hiding for days, with the chance to be clear and open about the government’s handling of Covid-19. What might he have dealt with?

Ramaphosa could have been open about lockdowns, which work only, or work best, if used to trace every infected person's contacts and isolate them all. Between his last national address and this one, confirmed daily cases of Covid-19 have more-or-less tripled, so it wasn’t stopping the spread.

Besides this, the lockdown is not a “reality” in many places. Taxis, for example, run at 70% capacity as opposed to the recommended 50%. Moreover, it’s reported from Pretoria CBD, the Joburg CBD, Alex or Hillbrow, that the streets are as busy as usual.

In short, this is not a real lockdown, but an economic lockdown that is causing suffering and starvation. It’s also been conservatively estimated that as many as three million jobs could be lost and many will never get their jobs back. The lockdown has also toppled the formal economy. The fiscus could lose R285bn in taxes over the year.

The country’s major epidemiologists have made it clear that the lockdown of the formal and informal economies should end because Covid-19 is advancing anyway. Irreparably damaging an economy doesn’t halt viruses.

The contagion will spread, then peak, then wane, then return. SA’s economy can’t be locked be down for two years while we wait for the virus to infect 60% of the population or whatever percentage will afford the country so-called herd immunity.

Yes, we “bought some time” in terms of preparing beds and presumably getting some vetting and testing teams going. But if the lockdown can’t halt the virus, which it’s clearly not doing, why not re-open the economy – now?

It doesn’t have to be done recklessly – there are certain protocols that should be observed, and businesses and people will do so. No one wants to die, or get horribly ill, nor are most people idiots.

Yet Ramaphosa did not address a responsible re-opening of the economy. He merely held out the promise that at the end of the month there’d be a softening of certain regulations. But simultaneously he said there could be no easing in so-called hotspots – which are precisely where our major businesses and industries are. 

We are heading towards the worst of all possible words, a collapsing economy, combined with an epidemic that seems to be reaching its take-off point. 

I’ve not mentioned the Monty Pythonesque elements of the lockdown, the elements relating to the rule of law, or the political implications of the lockdown (is Ramaphosa fighting a war inside the National Command Council – and if so, with whom, why, and what does it mean?).

Yet all of these are significant too because they demonstrate that the most of those supposed to be leading, including Ramaphosa, whatever their private agendas are, are woefully at sea.

Ramaphosa said: “We will immediately begin a process of consultation with relevant stakeholders on a proposal that by the end of May, most of the country be placed on alert level 3”. This should have happened yesterday, if not 10 days ago.

Ramaphosa opined that the government wants to ensure that all decisions are “... reasonable and based on empirical evidence, and that they do not cause more harm than good”. But empirical evidence has clearly been overlooked and the desire that decisions should do “more good” than harm has been more honoured in the breach than the observance.

I began by mentioning Ramaphosa’s apparent lack of compunction when it comes to making cynical humbug palatable. But I was barking up the wrong tree. Ramaphosa’s address on Wednesday night was simply nebulous – it was without any margins, jellyfish-like. And he looked wimpish and without direction. He reminded me of that old Barry Fantoni cartoon in Private Eye, of a tourist looking at one of those large maps there used to be on the streets of London in the 70s – but instead of the expected words, the legend reads “You are nowhere, man”.

In fairness to Ramaphosa, I wouldn’t like to be him. I also wouldn’t like to write the speech he’ll deliver at the end of this month because – though I hope I’m wrong – I suspect South Africa will have a raging Covid-19 epidemic by the start of June.