So, who is it to be? Cyril the Tiger or Puss-in-Boots?

William Saunderson-Meyer asks whether our President is tough enough


Pull out of the nosedive. Step back from the abyss. Don’t crash into the buffers.

The metaphors are irretrievably hackneyed through endless media recycling and boil down to the same thing. Survival. For at least a decade, the public conversation has been around what South Africa must do to elude impending disaster. 

With the arch-villain, Jacob Zuma, consigned to the outer darkness of Nkandla, President Cyril Ramaphosa was cast as the starring superhero in this docudrama. But saving an entire nation is an unlikely role for an avuncular billionaire.

CR simply may not be tough enough. His lack of resilience was cruelly exposed as far back as 1994, in the contest to be Nelson Mandela’s successor, where he was comprehensively out-manoeuvred and out-boxed by Thabo Mbeki. When, a couple of years later, he again tried to throw his hat into the ring, Mbeki effortlessly routed him for a second time. 

A lack of appetite for confrontation may be a fatal trait in a superhero. His greatest strength, according to his acolytes, is his talent for being “inclusive” — uniting disparate and fractious forces long enough to forge a compromise — and they cite as evidence his key role in the Codesa negotiations that delivered the peaceful surrender of white power.

But SA has changed substantially since the early 1990s. Given the dire situation that the country is in, an endless negotiating of compromises that skirt around issues and never resolve divisive realities — what has been happening in the African National Congress alliance for the 25 years  it has been in office — will no longer suffice. 

While Ramaphosa’s consummate negotiating skills might hold the ANC alliance together through a two-term presidency, for that to be his priority would be a betrayal of his oath of office. The priority now must be to save the country and for that, some bare-knuckle fighting is necessary.

It now almost two years into the Ramaphosa era. The country has been drifting further downwards, with CR distracted from the real issues because, his defenders explain, he has to consolidate his power base. 

I wrote last week that an important test would be the ANC national executive committee meeting, which has now taken place. CR’s priority was to ensure that Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s recently proposed economic reforms were accepted as ANC policy. That meant an end to the appeasement of the those in the tripartite alliance who doggedly maintain that the failing state-owned enterprises (SOEs) can be transformed into engines of growth.

That’s not how it played out. After four days of wrangling, the NEC decided that the micro-economic aspects of the Treasury’s strategic plan would be implemented — all the buzz phrases, empty of detail, are there: enhancing growth; modernising industries; prioritising labour-intensive work; promoting competition — but none of the macro aspects of labour market reform and substantive interventions in the SOEs.

In other words, the paralysing ANC fudging of key differences continues. As Maverick’s Marianne Merten sums it up,  this is “a package of measures that leaves the door open for it to mean anything to anyone”.

Ramaphosa’s supporters, both within the ANC and in the commentariat, see the fudge not as an indication of CR’s weakness, but as entirely necessary, even admirable. By this analysis, Ramaphosa, above all else, has to continue to survive as president, since next year he has to account to the National General Council and, two years later, to a presidential elective conference.

We are assured that this reluctance to confront his opponents within the party does not indicate a lack of presidential resolve. BusinessLive’s Peter Bruce insisted this week, in a column headlined that Ramaphosa has “a tiger in his tank, not a kitten”, that CR’s is quietly positioning himself for the “bigger moment… a major confrontation”.

Presumably, when the moment is right — and ignoring for a moment the inconvenient fact that tigers don’t occur in Africa — CR will shed his Puss-in-Boots costume and his habitual purr, instead emerging as a ferocious, roaring carnivore, to rip his hard-left tormentors to shreds. What appears to be prevarication and obfuscation will be proved to have been guile and strategic genius.

The problem is, sadly, a lack of time. SA has already lost two year’s to Ramaphosa’s supposed “long game”. How long can the game be? We cannot wait for 2023, for if and when he has secured a second-term, for him to act.

That makes for a dangerous and depressing possibility. To harness the cliches, that SA will, indeed, spiral into the ground, hit the buffers, plunge over the cliff, and sink to the bottom of the pit. That is not inconceivable. 

One can think of the ANC as an addict. Not to drugs or booze, but enslaved to alliance unity at the cost of destroying SA. 

When dealing with a debilitating addiction well-meaning early interventions to change behaviour are mostly futile. They may usher in a brief recovery, only to falter in the face of another round of destructive behaviour.

Tough love is necessary. The addict has not to be saved from hitting rock bottom but be allowed to do so. Only then, when the fig-leaves of self-serving rationalisation and delusion are stripped away, can the addict truly commit to travelling a hard road to a lasting recovery.

Similarly with nations. It may be that, like Zimbabwe, a SA disaster will have to occur before the ANC will be able to confront reality. 

It’s unfortunate that, along with the ANC, the entire populace has to survive the life-changing ordeal of going through the wringer of economic and political collapse, and then having to endure decades of painful recovery.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye