Who would want to be Ramaphosa?

Jeremy Gordin on the impossibility of writing a compelling SONA address

“The most certain sign of wisdom is cheerfulness,” wrote the reclusive 16th century essayist, Michel de Montaigne, while Rav Shammai, a first-century scholar, remarked that a person should “Make your [study of the] Torah a fixed practice; speak little but do much; and receive all [people] with a pleasant countenance”.

During my not-so-short, happy life, I haven’t done too well with the “fixing” of healthy and fruitful practices and I have, alas, spoken more than I have done (in the Shammaian sense). But I have mostly been a cheerful chappie. I’m one of those pesky okes next or close to whom you don’t want to wake up in the morning.

Know the type? While you’re trying to drink your coffee quietly and come to terms yet again with consciousness in this vale of tears, s/he’s full of bonhomie and exuberance when the sun rises, all the dark mental clouds of the previous night having blown away. No challenge too large for him or her to meet head-on – at least until 10am.

However, faced with having to write an article during 11 February, the day on which President Cyril Ramaphosa would deliver his 2021 state of the nation address (SONA) later in the day (7pm), I was a little put out.

I would have to write something about President Frogboiler’s address without having seen it and yet my article would only be published after or at roughly the same time the SONA address would be revealed. What could I write of any use or interest?

All the stuff that the pundits think the president should address, and all the reasons why he will or (more likely) won’t do so, have already been listed in or flighted on the various media; and we’ve perused or listened to these lists so many times before and – because no matter how we try, hope does spring eternal in the human breast – we also have been disappointed so many times before.

So then I thought (it was before 10am), why not pretend to be the president’s speech writer or writers and pen the SONA address that the Frogboiler should make. But do not – I said to myself – write a speech that he’d never obviously make. Don’t get into weird burlesque or clumsy parody; that’d be too easy.

Try (I said) extremely hard, in the immortal words of Robert Zimmerman, to stand inside the shoes of Ramaphosa and his speech writers and write something as close to reality as possible. But how I was supposed to get my two flat feet simultaneously inside four or six shoes, I didn’t think through.

Maybe it was my paucity of feet that was the problem – whatever it was, dear readers, I came unstuck.

For given the issues and subjects that Ramaphosa should discuss tonight in a clear-eyed manner with South Africans and given that in these dark days there’ve been calls for him to eschew bullet trains and to entertain even a teensy-weensy relationship with honesty and truth, I soon was forced to concede defeat and throw my keyboard through the window.

I ask you: who, in his or her right mind, would want to be Ramaphosa or his speech writer/s? That way madness lies, as William Shakespeare’s King Lear despairingly said.

Another poet, Andrew Marvell, wrote: “Had we but world enough and time ...”. Never mind the world and time. I soon realized that not even if I had the adulatory skill of Adriaan Basson, the ratiocinative sidestep of Peter Bruce, the political connectivity of Max du Preez, the democratic grasp of Steven Friedman, the woke wisdom of Ferial Haffajee – not even if I had these, and I don’t – could I find a way to pen a Ramaphosa SONA speech that clasped even a modicum of reality and honesty to its breast.

Here are some of the difficulties facing the SONA speech writer.

South Africa has become a land of ineptocracy, a land in which those who are least equipped are those who are most entrusted with the duty to provide, while simultaneously it is a land in which corruption, graft and malfeasance are the cornerstones of eligibility for positions of power and are the hallmarks of authority. It is a land in which nepotism and patronage decide people’s advancement. Merit, aptitude, and energy have become anathema.

South Africa has become a land of desuetude: there is no incentive for anybody to make any effort to achieve any result (with some exceptions of whom we know but whose efforts prove the rule). The state looks after (albeit ineptly) those who are “of the faith” and ignores and abandons those who are not.

It is a land in which, after 27 years of ANC rule, our main boast is that what once worked, no longer works. It is a land in which we are also able to boast that we have one of the most illiterate and innumerate populations in the world. It is thus a land which is already snagged in the gyres described in one of Thabo Mbeki’s favourite poems (WB Yeats’ “The Second Coming”) and thus is falling into a giant sinkhole of chaos and misery.

This “list” is far from complete and is not without some generalization. The point, though, is this. How are Ramaphosa and his speech writer supposed to address the state of the nation without grappling – or clearly spelling out the concrete steps that will be taken to grapple (“speak little but do much”) – with the killer contagion with which the country is infected?

And I’m not referring to Covid-19 or variants thereof.

Completed at 6.55pm, 11 February.