The Presidency is not for sissies

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on Ramaphosa's self-pity in the midst of govt ineffectuality


Poor diddums. Being father of the nation is not for sissies.

Following last weekend’s ANC national executive committee meeting, President Cyril Ramaphosa unexpectedly decided to bare his soul in a “conversation with the media”. As with all the “conversations with the nation” that he held during the pandemic, this was another of those occasions where he spoke and everyone dutifully listened.

“No president has gone through or faced the challenges I’ve faced,” he told the hacks, his voice cracking with emotion. He had counted up to 14 challenges that ranged from state capture to broken SOEs and state organs, the Covid-19 pandemic and the July 2021 unrest, that no other president in the democratic era had confronted.

None of his predecessors, said an aggrieved Ramaphosa, had dealt with state capture. And with the now “broken down” state-owned entities, he was having to “start from zero”. “None of my predecessors had to deal with that.” ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Yet the nation remained unappreciative: “Of course, South Africans want [things] to be done yesterday.” They do not seem to understand, he whined, that “when you lead in a situation like that, you don’t have an immediate silver bullet”.

But we should not despair. The president accepts these are now his problems. 

He noted that he fortunately has the “right team” behind him to help solve them. “The divisions that have dogged us in the past are busy melting away as we embrace renewal, unity and rebuilding of the ANC.”

It’s easy to rip to pieces these unexpected and pitiful little soliloquy by the president. After all, there’s something deeply distasteful about a billionaire president who — along with a cosseted ANC elite is completely insulated from the misery that his inept and corrupt ANC government has inflicted upon us over three decades — a-sighing and a-sobbing about how hard his life is. 

There are also obvious and impolite rejoinders to be made to this indulgent whinge from the president. One could start by pointing out the many aspects of his dilemma that self-inflicted. For instance, Ramaphosa conveniently neglects to mention that for five of the nine years during which R1.5 trillion in national assets were looted by his ANC comrades, he had been the nation’s deputy president. 

The same with the collapsed SOEs. At one of them, Eskom, it was Ramaphosa who for five years headed the “war room” charged with fixing the power utility. Instead, the Eskom crises got worse.

What makes Ramaphosa’s comments noteworthy is not only that they are risible. They’re also a reminder of how out of touch with reality he and his party is and how tenuous their control over events really is. And how useless his “right team” is, especially — as we saw again this week — in the security-related portfolios.

For even as the president was confiding to the media how vexatious it is to have the public not appreciate the burdens he must carry, the country was again caught in a bout of violent chaos. Three major transportation arteries had been blocked, the critical one between Gauteng and Durban for close on 24 hours, by gangs setting fire to 20 truck-and-trailer rigs. 

The ANC response was the usual schizophrenic and ineffectual muddle. 

Perhaps based on the fact that the destruction was on the eve of the anniversary of the July 2021 riots — which he at the time described as an insurrection — Ramaphosa said this was economic sabotage. Bheki Cele dutifully agreed with his boss.

These were “organised, coordinate and sophisticated operations that seek to undermine and sabotage the state”, Cele told a media briefing. But they “definitely” had nothing to do the with anniversary of the riots. They could have been ordinary criminality. Or a labour dispute. Or part of service delivery disputes. Or wars within the trucking sector.

Cele did not think they were to discourage the hiring of foreign nationals as drivers, because the overwhelming majority of the truck drivers attacked were South African. The attacks might, however, have been the result of “jealousy”, though Cele didn’t say by whom, of whom, or about what.

Whatever the cause, said Cele, not to worry. The police and State Security Agency were on top of it. They knew who the people behind the attacks were. There were 12 of them and arrests were imminent.

So far, by Friday, only three people had been arrested. 

If this sounds vaguely familiar, its because it is. After the 2021 riots the ANC leadership announced that it knew who the 12 people behind the riots were. Arrests of the “dirty dozen” were imminent. They’ve never happened.

This kind of desperate bravado is a long Ramaphosa and ANC tradition.

In December 2021, Ramaphosa labelled the burning of trucks to blockade the N3, the “major artery of our economy”, as “completely unacceptable” and “economic sabotage”. 

This “is an act we are going to be coming down on heavily,” Ramaphosa warned. Nothing happened.

But the torching of trucks goes back much further. 

 In 2019, when the first clearly coordinated torching of trucks closed the N3 for almost a week, he said exactly the same thing. Nothing happened.

And for good measure, it’s also what Ramaphosa said in 2020, when some three dozen rigs were torched on major routes in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and the Free State. Nothing happened.

Over the past six years, at least 1,400 trucks have been attacked, damaged and destroyed, with at least 21 drivers or crew killed. Add to that the toll of the July unrest, during which another 200 rigs and cargo, valued at R6 billion, were destroyed.

When I in 2020 spoke to Gavin Kelly, CEO of the Road Freight Association, he had been blunt: these were well planned military-style attacks; the police and government lacked their own intelligence on the phenomenon but were unresponsive to information gathered by the freight sector; arrests were not being made and/or successful prosecutions were not being mounted.

When I speak to him today, he tells me that “nothing has changed”. “The freight sector faces a triple-edged sword: a shocking inability on the part of the security services to gather intelligence, incapable policing, and a judicial service that cannot successfully prosecute high-profile offenders.”

He’s sceptical about the “intelligence” that Cele claims to have. “If they had pre-warning, why weren’t the attacks nipped in the bud. More likely, they’re just working, as we are, with tracking down via facial matches the men who were caught on video cameras.”

A rare success, says Kelly, was police cooperation with the freight sector during the Economic Freedom Fighters “damp squib” national shutdown in March this year. “We passed through a lot of information and they acted on it. But since then, they appear to have taken the foot off the pedal.”

Either that or Cele, like his “nobody-understands-me” boss, is feeling unloved. Poor diddums.

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