Five pretty strong positives, but Ramaphosa failing his biggest challenge | Fin24
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Five pretty strong positives, but Ramaphosa failing his biggest challenge

May 22 2018 11:28
Daniel Silke

Cyril Ramaphosa’s first 100 days have both impressed and disappointed. In so many ways, the new President has begun cracking the whip of renewal across a broad swathe of areas so deviously and callously undermined for the last decade.

Stopping the immediate rot of failing state-owned-enterprises clearly was a priority in terms or stemming the tide of ratings downgrades. The immediate economic consequences of this has provided the country some breathing space to begin a process of governance renewal and move the country towards a more stable and capable state.

Secondly, nascent action against the Guptas and the appointment of the State Capture Inquiry sent a clear message to those who have been at the wrong side of the Jacob Zuma era. Even Zuma’s own court appearance was symbolically important in providing optics that broke the embedded impunity of the recent past.

Thirdly, Ramaphosa’s first cabinet reshuffle began an incremental process of executive renewal. For many, there were far too many tainted from the Zuma years who remained protected – but an acceptance that this was a carefully crafted first tranche in changing the course of history gave Ramaphosa the benefit of the doubt.

Fourthly, Ramaphosa is perhaps South Africa’s first business-savvy and most business-friendly head-of-state. To this end, he has received unprecedented support (and praise) from major corporates keen to be on the right side of the ANC politically but also eager to participate in much needed economic upliftment and the formulation of more market-friendly policies.

Fifthly, Ramaphosa is a positive communicator with the business and political smarts that command respect. His persona is affable, his opinions considered and his background – both pre- and post-liberation highly respected. Within the context of the ANC, he is fortunately the direct antithesis to Jacob Zuma and all he represented.

But among these five pretty strong positives lies a serious – and deeply emotional and psychological – failing of the last 100 days. And, for all the good the new President offers, if he does not get the second part of the equation right, both he and the country can be undermined in its efforts at renewal.

South Africa is a country deeply polarised along class and racial divides –  exacerbated by the toxic combination of hapless policy development and implementation as well as the scourge of graft, cronyism and corruption.

In a deadly double-whammy to the country’s poor, the ANC simply has failed to deliver. It’s quasi-statist policies have been a disaster in wasting resources and its bungling bureaucratic efforts at redress have largely set back the cause of real transformation by well over a decade. Over 50% of those under the age of 24 are unemployed, poverty is again on the rise and service delivery from education to healthcare threatens the well-being of future generations.

Ramaphosa’s problem, is therefore just how to manage the fall-out from this dangerous malaise. And, with over a decade of decline for the poor – and an equal decade of rising racial invective, rhetoric and related political expression, emotions are running high.

From the EFF's racial taunting to AfriForum’s complete lack of historical empathy and understanding, battle lines are being drawn. Frustrations now default to racial brawls with deeply disturbing undertones. South Africans are simply struggling to find themselves and what should be a sense of unity amid the opportunities that a new President like Cyril Ramaphosa brings.

And there’s the real rub for Ramaphosa – an inability or perhaps unwillingness to really tackle the unease that many South Africans are feeling. For many black South Africans it’s an unease borne out by frustration, inequality and opportunity lost and for whites (and perhaps other minorities) it’s an unease about feeling diminished or just not equally appreciated.

But here’s where Ramaphosa comes in. While initially laying considerable emphasis on establishing a ‘social compact’ among political, racial and civil society groups within the country, it’s an area of the 100 days that simply has seen no progress whatsoever.

It should be a President’s responsibility to steer the narrative towards inclusivism. A President should be a unifier. A President should call out those who seek to perpetuate racial divisions from all sides of the ethnic and political divide. 

However, for the last 100 days, Ramaphosa and the broader ANC have stood by as the discourse or narrative in South Africa simply continued where Jacob Zuma left off. And, it would seem that the current vicious cycle of blame and resentment is being used to polarise the country ahead of yet another election campaign.

While race-baiting is fermented for narrow political point-scoring, it simply undermines the social compact that requires leadership intervention and nurturing.

South Africa in 2018, is of course, a sitting duck for race-card politics. It is the very deep frustration felt by millions of citizens that can easily be turned towards political point-scoring.

There is a rising fragility and militancy among communities whose hope for houses have been dashed by decade long waiting-lists never fulfilled. There are millions of South Africans who were excluded for more than a century from acquiring assets and the collateral needed to take them further in life. Millions of South Africans are unemployed with millions more underemployed in demeaning or unfulfilled work environments.

In a sense, the land restitution narrative conflates all these very legitimate concerns but camouflages them under the populist ‘expropriation’ rhetoric that even the President practices.

And, it doesn’t even take the brainchild of a Bell Pottinger to pry open the fissures that exist so close to the surface. The ANC and EFF today are as adept as the now defunct PR company in fanning the flames of societal tension with a view to capitalising politically.

This failure of the second side of the Ramaphosa equation has direct economic consequences.  You can make a play for increasing foreign direct investment and send emissaries around the world, but ultimately, you will need to convince South African capital that inclusiveness rather than politically-motivated division is the pre-dominant discourse. Only when domestic investors are happy, will the foreign follow suit.

For President Ramaphosa and the ANC, the prevailing strategy still seems to rely on racial-baiting – either directly or by their proxy, the EFF, who are allowed to set the agenda and thereby provide the ANC some sort of osmosis-like benefit at the ballot box.

Economically, this will continue to drive a wedge between the governing party and minorities when in reality, a more inclusive approach could push many minority voters to cast their vote for the ANC – especially with a DA in disarray. If Ramaphosa really wants to break the DA, show them some love – that will be their real downfall.

Real economic progress needs buy-in from all South Africans. A social compact is a most powerful psychological asset for any country to restore a common purpose.  This requires sacrifice, compassion and recognition towards one’s fellow citizens in terms of their history and contribution. And South Africa requires this in extra-large measure.

With a social compact illusive or on the political back-burner until after the 2019 elections, the necessary buy-in on critical issues of social upliftment and the acceptance of tough economic policies will remain patchy or even unattainable.

President Ramaphosa will not be able to claim real success now or in the future if he cannot move his own party to a very different message. But, can he decouple playing the race card for narrow political ends with a much more important and sustainable attempt to secure co-operation from all South Africans? Now there’s his real challenge.

  • Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.

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