The dynamite behind the door

William Saunderson-Meyer examines whether Ramaphosa will follow Trump as a political victim of Covid-19


As the renegade bull who tore up the Oval Office goes off steaming to Florida to sulk, the world seemingly heaves a collective sigh of relief.

I don’t think I can remember such media unanimity about what a glorious new dawn is about to be ushered in by a political successor since… Umm… The end of the Thatcher era in Britain? Maybe the end of the Mugabe era in Zimbabwe? Or was I thinking of the end of the Zuma era in South Africa? Alas for sunshine journalism, so many dashed sanguine media predictions.

It is striking, when one reads Rage, Bob Woodward’s account of the last year of the Donald Trump presidency, to realise how differently it might have ended. It’s easy to forget in the dust, debris and disaster of the past year, that at the beginning of 2020, Trump was riding high.

Yes, America was more divided than it had been since the Civil War in the 1860s. But the split was right down the middle and because of the peculiarities of the electoral college system, even if Trump again lost the popular vote, he had every chance of being re-elected.

Trump entered election year with all the advantages that a booming economy and presidential incumbency bring. It would be close, but that coveted second term was Trump’s to lose. Which, as it turns out, he duly did.

Woodward’s account, drawing on 17 on-the-record interviews with Trump and unparalleled access to the president’s inner circle, is even-handed in a way that much of the US media, where Woodward learnt his craft, has long abandoned. He lays the immediate blame for Trump’s defeat on “the dynamite behind the door”.

The phrase comes from Trump himself. He described to Woodward how as president he each day he had to open a series of metaphorical doors to deal with new events. Statistically, he knew that he would one day open a door with dynamite attached to it — an external event that might destroy his presidency.

Ironically, that door was clearly and timeously identified for Trump by the intelligence establishment that he so often derided. On 28 January last year, during the president’s daily top-secret briefing, the discussion turned to a mysterious pneumonia-like virus outbreak in China.

Trump was only too happy to accept the assessment of his public health officials that the virus was low risk. Only national security adviser Robert O’Brien struck a contradictory note. “This will be the biggest national security threat, the roughest thing, that you will face in your presidency,” he presciently warned.

And so it was. Trump’s failure to defuse the Covid dynamite caused enormous damage to the country that he was sworn to defend. It also blew up his re-election prospects, his presidential legacy, and his party’s immediate electoral future.

But Woodward writes that the biggest stick of “dynamite” behind the door wasn’t Covid. “It was Trump himself. The failure to organise. The lack of discipline. The lack of trust in experts. The failure to be a healing voice. The unwillingness to acknowledge error. The failure to do homework… To listen carefully to others. To craft a plan.”

While Trump was the first leader to be undone by Covid, he won’t be the last. And when they tumble it will be, as with Trump, not because Covid was the biggest stick of dynamite, but because their personal leadership failures lit the fuse.

That’s potentially true also in South Africa, despite the obvious differences between the two presidents. Unlike Trump, Cyril Ramaphosa is no denialist. Nor is he cursed with the same destructive ego, or corrosive bile that needlessly makes enemies.

His flaws are the opposite of those of the former US president. Ramaphosa is endlessly amiable and non-confrontational, on the face of it, a consensus seeker. While useful in sticky-taping together what is essentially an uneasy coalition of pragmatists and populists, these qualities also translate into an inability to control his ministers and national executive.

That Ramaphosa still has in his Cabinet a minister complicit, though she now belatedly denies it, in the use of a water cannon against aged and vulnerable social grant recipients, beggars belief. But then again, Ramaphosa also retains in his service, among others, a megalomaniacal Police minister who has a scary ignorance of the limits to police and ministerial powers, a Co-operative Governance minister whose pathological obsessions with alcohol and tobacco will destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs, and a tawdry collection of crooks and clowns.

Ramaphosa admittedly has had a good Covid, contrary to the miserable experience of most us. He acted quickly when the pandemic surfaced and his regular addresses to the nation were, at least initially, reassuring and uniting.

Consequently, his personal popularity is buoyant, among the highest in the world, if the polls are to be believed. That’s very different from the African National Congress, which languishes below 50% of voter approval, if media reports citing unnamed sources within the party are to be believed. 

During a national emergency, petty differences are often set aside. There is a willingness to accept that given the need for urgency, mistakes will be made.

No matter how harmful and controversial the first national lockdown, there was consensus that Ramaphosa had been admirably decisive. Whatever the short-term economic costs, the government’s tough actions would buy time to make a failing public health system fit-for-purpose to contain the coming storm.

It’s not worked out like that. Ten months later the public health system stands exposed as riddled with corruption and is still not performing properly. The time “bought” with lockdown and questionable restrictions has been squandered by a state that lacks basic organisational competence and a potentially fatal reluctance to change its mind.

Emergency field hospitals cannot be used. There’s not only a shortage of nurses and doctors to staff them, but the Health ministry is too inept to rectify it by deploying graduating doctors, employing the many qualified nurses clamouring for work, and utilising the skills of volunteering retired health practitioners.

It’s a government that allowed the theft of around R20bn of the emergency relief funds that it begged from local businesses and wealthy citizens, as well as borrowed from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Most of it was stolen by a political elite connected to the ANC.

Yet the solution to the budget shortfall of R21bn needed for the vaccine rollout has not been to recover the stolen funds. Nor to contemplate the vanity of wasting R10bn on a national airline that will never survive in a post-Covid world. It is, instead, to moot a “wealth tax” on the richest and a “solidarity tax” on everyone else unfortunate enough to be on the books of the SA revenue service.

Through this list of Ramaphosa failures, by no means exhaustive, runs the Trump leitmotif identified by Woodward: Failure to organise; lack of discipline; lack of trust in experts; unwillingness to acknowledge error… 

Woodward, aghast at the turmoil unfolding in his country, rues Trump’s congenital inability to build bridges. “The deep-seated hatreds of American politics flourished in the Trump years. He stoked them and did not make concerted efforts bring the country together.”

The ANC present policies are, not because of Ramaphosa’s belligerence but because of his timidity, doing the same thing. Ramaphosa, who is always gaaning aan about social compacts, has only bothered to build bridges between the factions that dangerously divide his alliance and endanger his prospects of a second term. Not so much between the factions that disastrously divide South Africa.

In the US, Covid’s most dramatic casualties have been Trump and the Republican Party. In South Africa, it the infection’s most significant victims might turn out to be Ramaphosa and the ANC in its present form.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

Rage, by Bob Woodward, is published by Simon & Schuster