Gareth van Onselen says that claiming to be "unaware" of this, that and the next thing is not a good look for a President
“I was unaware.” Historically that phrase has been one the ANC’s greatest rhetorical weapons. Jacob Zuma was a master at deploying it to evade and obfuscate. The Waterkloof-Gupta landing, the Nkandla upgrades, thousands of open toilets in the Free State. He and the ANC were “unaware” of it all.
But fear not. We now in the age of Cyril Ramaphosa. He is a real deal president. A details man. On top his game, professional, excellence-orientated and, most importantly, open and accountable. Right?
Wrong. He seems to be just as clueless as Jacob Zuma; if not, more so. And he is most clueless when there is a problem. The litany of things is has already proven “unaware” of is fairly staggering.
The downside to the ‘unaware defence technique’, is that there really is no upside. Sure, it might help you sidestep transparency in the moment but, use it often enough, and it inevitably prompts the question: why are you so unaware of all these important things?
And the answer to that question is never good: laziness, incompetence or a base ignorance are the only real options. Those, or the people who surround, advise and inform you are totally useless.
Ramaphosa has been unaware about a great deal in his time in office.
When still Deputy President, in 2015, the presidency chartered an Execujet to fly to Japan. It was unaware the company was owned by the Guptas. “We have nothing to hide. I did not know who that plane belonged to,” Ramaphosa told parliament, “Believe it or not. In the end it is the truth and the reality.”
Sure, we believe it. You can’t know everything. Only, if not you, then perhaps an individual or two in that vast army of public servants the government employs might have known something? That is not an unreasonable position. But okay, it happens.
As President, there has been other things, you would have thought the party, if not the president, was aware of. Say, for example, employing an alleged cash-in-transit criminal, as was revealed in July this year. But no. The ANC was “unaware” it was harbouring someone like that.
There are bigger examples of criminality still, that the ANC and the President seemed unaware of.
Ramaphosa claims he was unaware of how big a problem “state capture” was.
“You guys [media] were already raising a number of issues on a piecemeal basis… but when you finally prised the whole thing wide open with the Gupta emails‚ I think it became patently clear to everyone that we were dealing with a much bigger problem than we had ever imagined.”
It took all those emails for Ramaphosa, who was chairperson of the Inter-Ministerial Committee on State Owned Entity Reforms, to put two and two together. “We didn't know how bad it was”, as The Times reported him saying.
In August 2016, minister in the presidency, Jeff Radebe, said this of Ramphosa’s job: “To avoid any confusion it is confirmed that the Inter-Ministerial Committee chaired by Deputy President, Mr Cyril Ramaphosa, is responsible for overseeing the stabilisation and reform of state-owned entities.”
Remarkable that a man, with total access and control over all information about state owned entities was so clueless about a problem so profound it has since necessitated a commission of inquiry. You might even say it is hard to believe.
But let’s believe it, because, after all, it is Ramaphosa, and he is a good man. To him goes the benefit of the doubt.
Then again, Ramaphosa’s entire tenure as Deputy President, from 2012 to the end of 2017, seems to be premised on the idea that he knew nothing. There he innocently sat, at the heart of the Jacob Zuma’s administration, totally unaware that the whole edifice was fundamentally tainted from top to bottom. Poor old Ramaphosa. To be so guidable. The whole of South Africa seems to have been aware of the problem, but not him.
Ramaphosa’s ministers don’t seem to be too keen on keeping him in the loop either, which is a pity. Ramaphosa was unaware of the former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene’s many and various meetings with the Guptas. It’s the kind of thing you would expect the president to be aware of but, look, it’s a big executive, let’s give the man a break on this one too.
Nene says he requested Ramaphosa to fire him. “We are not aware of Minister Nene asking to be relieved of his duties,” Ramaphosa’s spokeswoman Khusela Diko said.
Ramaphosa was also reportedly unaware that Nene was going to resign. That is odd, you would have thought the man would have put in a call to his boss first. After all, the finance minister is not the minister of sport. But okay.
Recently Deputy President David Mabuza took some sick-not-sick leave to go to Russia, reportedly to deal with all the poison he had ingested in the ANC. Asked for comment, spokesperson in the presidency Khusela Diko, said: “These matters are best answered by the office of the deputy president as they have all the facts about his movements since he requested time to rest from the president two weeks ago.”
The presidency doesn’t have all the facts about where the deputy president is in the world and why? That is a tough one to swallow. It’s getting hard to believe all this ignorance but, once again, okay.
VBS bank was looted into liquidation. A vast operation of looting at national and local government level. Kings, mayors, even political parties seem to have had their hands in the cookie jar. Everyone and anyone. But the President was very clear to say he knew nothing about it all.
When it was suggested he knew about the mass-ransacking, Ramaphosa’s defence was, of course, that he was, predictably by now, oblivious.
His spokesperson Khusela Diko, quickly becoming the public face of the president’s ignorance, would say, “President Ramaphosa has no knowledge of any meeting where he is said to have met any person associated with VBS Mutual Bank where he was purportedly briefed on the matter.” She went on, “Likewise, the claim that President Ramaphosa was forewarned about the impending implosion of VBS Bank is unsubstantiated.”
So, yet again, the President knew nothing. Until everything was stolen. Then he got a full briefing.
More recently the president revealed that the entire explanation he had given to parliament, for a mysterious R500,000 payment to his son Andile from Bosasa was, in fact, wrong. Pity, because it seemed to be a rare example of Ramaphosa actually being aware and having the facts. “On this one,” Ramaphosa told parliament, “I have made sure that I get as much information as I can.”
That information was supposedly the following: “I asked him [Andile] at close range whether this was money obtained illegally,” the president said, “To this end‚ he actually even showed me a contract that he signed with Bosasa.”
All good stuff, a president on top of his game, and the facts. Andile Ramaphosa, on the other hand, was less clued up. While Ramaphosa was literally still putting the finishing touches on his parliamentary nonsense, Andile would tell the press, “I have absolutely nothing to do with this. I have never received such a payment.”
The jig was up.
With it now being a matter of time before the truth was uncovered, Ramaphosa would write to the Speaker to “correct” his reply (Re: fundamentally change it in its entirety). And, what is the best defence in the face of controversy: “I was unaware”.
His new defence was this: “[The payment] was made on behalf of Mr Gavin Watson into a trust account that was used to raise funds for a campaign established to support my candidature for the Presidency of the African National Congress. The donation was made without my knowledge. I was not aware of the existence of the donation at the time that I answered the question in the National Assembly.”
In short, “I was clueless”, again. And that too can be explained away by goodwill: how could any expect a president to actually be aware of who donates to their campaign? What a mad suggestion.
It’s getting harder and harder to believe Ramaphosa’s feigned ignorance about things that matter deeply. Either he is totally out of his depth or the presidency is staffed by incompetents. But, really, to be oblivious about so much of such import is starting to seem wear a little thin.
If you are unaware of state capture, the movements of your finance minister, Deputy President, the total plundering of an entire bank and a R500,000 donation to your campaign, something is not quite right. These are Zuma-like levels of incompetence.
Of course, the alternative is that he was well aware of them all. But South Africa doesn’t seem quite up to stomaching that possibility just yet. All that blind faith and optimism has welled-up for years to engender a God-like aura around Ramaphosa that reason appears unable to penetrate.
And that’s fine too. We can give the Rama-worshippers that much. They need it. But you can’t have your cake and eat it. The price for accepting all this face-value ignorance is a president who doesn’t have the faintest idea what is going on around him, where people are and why, whether campaign money is vetted, and who is pillaging financial institutions.
And that’s not a president at all. Time for Ramaphosa to engage his brain. Either he gets on top of the complex universe he is in charge of, or sooner or later it is going to occur to everyone that all this blissful ignorance is not mere coincidence.
Gareth van Onselen is the Head of Politics and Governance for the South African Institute of Race Relations, a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823.