Is Ramaphosa just a sock puppet stuffed full of cash?

Graphic: Costa Makola

When it comes to figuring out who our president really is and what he actually stands for, good luck to you.

I was one of those people who allowed himself to believe that things would get better when Cyril Ramaphosa took over as president.

I’m still mostly that guy, but not because I have a huge amount of faith in Ramaphosa.

All the same, when you saw him quoting Hugh Masekela in his first speech after showing Jacob Zuma the door, it was hard not to get caught up in some of that Ramaphoria.

We’d all been through a lot, with most of our country’s institutions gutted by the apparent singleminded determination of Ramaphosa’s predecessor to stay out of jail. There had been a woeful lack of consequence, too, in Zuma’s government for the corrupt, the incompetent and the downright larcenous – possibly because the man in charge was the last person to be pointing fingers at anyone else, but also because of all the erosion he had overseen of so many of our key state institutions, especially the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).

I managed to remind myself last year that it was always going to be highly unlikely that Ramaphosa would be our saviour. He was a product of the ANC, and you don’t catapult yourself to riches as quickly as he did by being Mother Teresa.

But we wanted to believe, right.

I remember how, in Ramaphosa’s first few days in charge, as some journalists were gushing about his admirable multilingualism, I somewhat cynically tweeted how it’s always nice to be lied to by a politician in numerous official languages.

But still I defended Ramaphosa and what he was doing when people demanded more sweeping, decisive action from him. I pointed out he was playing “the long game”, which has become a bit of a cliche about him now, despite there probably still being truth to it.

One must acknowledge the good that’s come of his time at the top so far. Many of our most shocking ministers are gone, cabinet has been trimmed down a bit, and there’s more of a commitment to rebuilding our criminal justice institutions, particularly the NPA and Sars, as well as to somehow repairing the bomb sites that all our state-owned companies have become.

But is Ramaphosa the one who can take credit for this, or is he just the face of that side of the ANC that is more committed to a liberal, progressive, scientific and even humanist worldview? In a word, the “better” ANC.

That I don’t know, but the secret of much of what Ramaphosa is achieving appears to lie more in just allowing the things that aren’t plain awful, and even criminal, to dominate our country, and not due to any particular strength of character evident within the sinew of our current Number 1.

On a personal level, he has been coming across as rather weak and ineffectual. I’m certainly not the only one to feel this way. Poor Ramaphosa seems terrified of being accused of personally deciding to do anything, or of standing up for anything or against anyone, or of even of just expressing a genuine opinion that isn’t merely “shock” about things he’s been seeing right up close for years.

He was full of fire and brimstone last year against US President Donald Trump, and once told the DA’s John Steenhuisen to “just shut up!” in parliament, but when it comes to slightly more substantial foes, he treads about like a steenbok.

When he referred to Ace Magashule as “my boss” last year, I thought he was being strategic; same thing when he heaped praise on another person in the ANC who’s publicly insulted him, Bathabile Dlamini, before not reappointing her to his cabinet.

At the time, I thought he was indeed just “playing the long game” and he would have the last laugh about these people. And maybe he will.

But when he referred to the late Robert Mugabe last week as “an outstanding, outstanding leader on the African continent” that’s when I realised there may be even less real character, and strength of character, to Ramaphosa than even his worst detractors would grant him. I lost huge respect for him there, because I didn’t think he meant it (and even if he did, that would be worse, because it would go against everything he’s sold himself to be).

Ramaphosa was not just spouting the official party line that Mugabe had been the ANC’s friend during the struggle; he really went to town in praising him.

It must have felt like a huge slap in the face to the millions of Zimbabweans who have fled to South Africa – right into the vicious maw of year after year of xenophobic attacks – just to escape the disastrous policies of that same supposedly “outstanding leader”.

Mugabe’s human rights violations are legendary, but Ramaphosa appeared not to give that a moment’s thought. Maybe also because, if he did, we’d all have to reflect on the ANC’s numerous contributions to keeping Mugabe in power.

In numerous articles and books about Ramaphosa, he is often described as the ultimate chameleon. He will be whoever he needs to be for whoever he happens to be talking to at that particular moment. He does this even more than the average politician. You’ll be convinced he’s your best friend on Monday, and, by Tuesday, your greatest enemy will probably be convinced of exactly the same thing.

Someone like that probably only really cares about himself. I have little doubt he will sell whatever soul he has left to whoever has either the most money, or whatever other lever they have to manipulate him with, and that, character-wise, he’s something of an empty sock stuffed full of cash from the various avenues of society that have both enriched and otherwise empowered him.

In that respect he’s probably no different to most politicians the world over, but we should also not imagine he’s any better.

He has repeatedly said that he would like to model his presidency on the example of Nelson Mandela. I’d say he has a fair way to go if that’s what he’s after, since Madiba was definitely not all things to all people.

With Ramaphosa we are always in a Schrödinger’s cat scenario, where the land is going to be expropriated without compensation, but not really, because it will be great for everyone; and the Reserve Bank is not going to be nationalised, except that it will be (but not so much); and economic reforms will be moderate but also radical; and we’re going to pursue free market capitalism except while we’re all becoming communists.

These are the shifting sands of a Ramaphosa-led South Africa.

It’s not his fault, I suppose. It’s because the ANC is and probably always will be a mess, and this was probably the best version of a leader they could produce right now, who is a walking, talking compromise, a mishmash of incompatible ideas, and an inevitable disappointment.

Still, Ramaphosa may yet turn out to be a great president simply due to his helping to rebuild our all-important institutions, which we know are what matter most if you want a good, robust, growing economy and country.

That matters far more than any individual at the top – hopefully, but not necessarily.

Citizen digital editor Charles Cilliers

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