William Saunderson-Meyer says the President's weaknesses have been mercilessly exposed by the epidemic
Covid may be set to claim its biggest victim
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro contracted Covid-19 last week.
He joins a select albeit unfortunate international club: the prime ministers of Britain, Russia and Guinea-Bissau; the president of Honduras; a sprinkling of cabinet ministers and top politicians in virtually every country in the world; and a brace of blue bloods, the princes Charles of Wales and Albert of Monaco. President Donald I-don't-wear-masks Trump has, so far, escaped infection, to the rue of at least half of the world that has been secretly holding thumbs.
None of these leaders has succumbed. The biggest casualty, so far, has been the dented pride of Bolsonaro, who finds himself laid low by a virus that he denies exists.
Astonishingly, given that the assembled ranks of this African National Congress administration’s Cabinet look like a medical poster for dangerous comorbidities like obesity, none aside from Mineral Resources & Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe has contracted the virus. The explanation no doubt lies in their abstemious habits as regards alcohol and tobacco. (Oh, for those halcyon days when a previous health minister would bribe the nurses to smuggle her bottles of whisky while she lay recovering from a liver transplant necessitated by her fondness for the demon drink.)
There is, however, one top South African fatality potentially lined up. It’s President Cyril Ramaphosa himself.
Not a medical casualty, but a political one. After a promising start by the president when the pandemic first surfaced, Ramaphosa’s performance is, at last, coming under some critical examination.
After scoring a perfect 10 from commentators for speed out of the blocks and initial form, Ramaphosa's execution has tapered off and his administration has flailed around the pandemic. Sluggish, unfocused, ineffectual, and erratic, are all adjectives that spring to mind to describe the president.
Admittedly, the crowds still love him. Polls consistently show Ramaphosa to be one of the most highly regarded leaders by the voters, anywhere in the world. A recent News24 poll of 52,000 readers scored him 7.34 out of 10 for his handling of the Covid outbreak.
But internally, within the African National Congress and its alliance, it's not so rosy. It's obvious that despite two and half years in power, he has still not managed to stamp his authority over the Zuma-remnants. On the contrary, the pandemic has emboldened them — with an additional 3m unemployed since the March lockdown, the populist and racist mantras espoused by the fascists in the Economic Freedom Fighters and the hard-left in the ANC will likely find a ready electoral ear.
During the past four months of the pandemic, some of his Cabinet ministers have been overt in their disdain towards Ramaphosa, especially Police Minister Bheki Cele and the president's arch-rival, Co-operative Affairs & Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
The president has been forced into humiliating flip-flops on cigarette bans and alcohol sales, wilting like an errant schoolboy before the imperious school ma’am, Dlamini-Zuma. At least, on health issues such as these, he can portray his weakness as evidence of an admirable openness to persuasion by expert opinion.
However, no such rationalisation is possible when it comes to his reflexive bending of the knee to Cele, the Cat in the Hat police minister, and the other securocrats. He has faced repeated challenges and each time he has backed down.
At the very start of the lockdown, Ramaphosa called on the military to treat citizens with respect, compassion and humility. “This is not a skop, skiet en donder [kick, shoot and beat] moment,” he told them.
The put-down came within hours from Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. “It will only be skop, skiet en donder when circumstances determine that,” she said. “For now, we’re a constitutional democracy.”
Cele — who also overruled Ramaphosa ally Health Minister Zweli Mkhize on whether outside exercise would be allowed and later bizarrely decreed that motorists without till slips for their cigarettes would be arrested — speaks in similarly belligerent tones. With this overt encouragement of the defence and police ministers, the security forces have been predictably heavy handed in their enforcement of lockdown.
Consequently, there have been more than a dozen alleged deaths and close on 500 complaints of security force violence. Yet Ramaphosa has never unambiguously denounced their behaviour. Contrast this silent complicity to the speed with which he publicly supported the #BlackLivesMatter protests, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis cop.
One can find examples of Ramaphosa’s timidity in virtually every area of his presidency. In law enforcement, there have been many presidential reassurances but as yet no high-profile arrests or prosecutions. In fact, he continues to tolerate in his inner circle several men and women implicated in state capture and corruption.
Appeasement, or social compacting as he would describe it, is the presidential watchword. Ramaphosa does not have the appetite for the kind of confrontation with the unions and the SA Communist Party that is necessary to close the national airline, secure alternative power generation, fire the crooks and fools that run most of the state-owned entities, and slash the public service wage bill.
Instead, he has let his Finance Minister Tito Mboweni do all the running on these issues, with the president taking a very silent backseat. How long Mboweni will be able to persist in his lonely battle is not clear. The end of the road may be near for him, too.
It is remarkable, then, how resilient has been media regard for Ramaphosa. It’s been a cosy political honeymoon, with the press doe-eyed before his charm. Even when the failures have become too glaring to gloss over, blame has accrued to his ministers but not him, the man who appointed them.
With Covid mercilessly highlighting the Ramaphosa administration’s ineptitude, this may, at last, be changing. Despite a lockdown to “buy time” to prepare for pandemic deaths, aside from the opposition-governed Western Cape, the preparations of the provinces have been disastrously poor.
Ramaphosa’s weaknesses are being mercilessly exposed. The most recent group to give his policies the up-yours — and see him immediately back down — has been the minibus taxi industry on the issues of passenger loading and interprovincial travel.
For Daily Maverick’s veteran commentator Ferial Haffajee, the final straw appears to have been the resumption of load shedding. She writes this week: “[It] is like an X-ray revealing the weaknesses of Ramaphosa’s presidency and his inability to deliver on his promises, no matter how well-meaning his intentions … No matter his greatest intentions and personal popularity, Ramaphosa presides over a broken state and patronage circles continue to expand.”
Business Day columnist Peter Bruce, who patiently endured vitriolic abuse for his support of a tactical vote by opposition voters for Ramaphosa in the past general election, is similarly disenchanted. He writes this week: “Ramaphosa’s ability to deftly finesse even the difficult trade-offs seems to have deserted him during this crisis. His government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has been a lurch from one bumble to the next.”
“He may believe he is ‘standing with’ security and health hawks in Cabinet, but he may, in fact, be merely appeasing them, and for the first time I have begun to wonder whether, in fact, he will, in the aftermath of this crisis, be able to hold onto leadership of the party.”
I think Bruce is probably right. As I’ve written previously in this column, while it may be true Ramaphosa is the only person in the ANC who could save SA, his fear of the almighty internecine battle that such a rescue would entail, means that he won’t. He simply doesn't have the courage or the energy.
His enemies, the Zuma-ites in his Cabinet and on his national executive committee, circle him with hostile intent. To defeat them, he would probably have to split the ANC.
But Ramaphosa’s one consistency, amply illustrated during the pandemic, has been his willingness to put party before country. That’s unlikely to change now.
Ramaphosa will either go meekly — another early recall — or continue to lead timorously.