In his famed George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures delivered nearly sixty years ago, the renowned Cambridge historian EH Carr reflected on ‘the great-man theory of history’, subsequently published as What is History? Carr warned against the ‘cult of the great man’ and castigated ‘the view which places great men outside history and sees them as imposing themselves on history in virtue of their greatness, as (and here he quotes another historian, VG Childe) “jack-in-the-boxes who emerge miraculously from the unknown to interrupt the real continuity of history”’.
Carr’s words ought to be heeded by those voting next week. This is especially the case for those characterising Cyril Ramaphosa as a ‘great man’. Admittedly, the ANC leader is no ‘jack-in-the-box’; but his task is to ‘interrupt the real continuity of history’ - or at least that of the ANC. Voters should think deeply about this. They should know that Ramaphosa is intricately mired in the politics of ANC and its power struggles.
Importantly, the venality of the ruling party is by now beyond question and its track record, especially since 2009, astoundingly poor. As the latest Economist shows in its special report on South Africa (with a smiling Ramaphosa on the cover), the country is at a crossroad.
If the Economist is right, South Africa’s future lies in the hands of Cyril Ramaphosa. It quotes Colin Coleman, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs in sub-Saharan Africa, as saying that Ramaphosa ‘is the last hope for democracy in South Africa’. If Coleman is to be believed, the future is bleak. To be sure, his assessment is disturbing - a huge indictment on the country and the ANC.
The Economist, however, does add that it is naïve to put too much hope in one person. It notes the huge challenges to be overcome and the vested interests that could strangle Ramaphosa’s options. He will need support. And it is far from clear that he has it in the ANC. And here lies the rub. Ramaphosa operates in a toxic and divisive context, flanked by comrades, many of whom have at best a demonstrable lack of ability, and at worst a propensity for thievery and duplicity.
The ANC-led government has failed on almost every measure. South Africa remains riven by racialised inequality, its ugly legacy far from healed. The country lacks capacity at almost all levels. Education is a disaster, the economy is in tatters, poverty is horrendous and state-owned enterprises are close to collapse. Corruption across the board characterises the new South Africa.