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Context vital in judging Ramaphosa’s leadership

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Picture: GCIS – President Cyril Ramaphosa said last Sunday that he felt he was the president who had faced the most challenges in South Africa’s democratic era. The reality is that each president had several issues to contend with during their terms in office, says the writer.

By Bheki Mngomezulu

The claim that President Cyril Ramaphosa has been the most-challenged president since 1994 cannot be sustained. Ramaphosa is the fourth president, after Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, and Jacob Zuma.

Kgalema Motlanthe was only a caretaker president who was tasked to complete Mbeki’s term which ended abruptly in September 2008, when the ANC forced him out of office. Motlanthe subsequently lost his bid to ascend to the presidency, at the 53rd ANC’s National Conference in Mangaung in 2012, when Zuma emerged victorious with 75.03 percent of the votes compared to Motlanthe’s 24.97 percent.

The reality is that each president had issues to contend with during his term in office. They included political conflicts across Africa, the Ebola virus, the HIV/Aids pandemic and the triple challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment that have continued to inflict incessant pain on South Africans. None of them played the victim.

They confronted the challenges as leaders, working with the collective within and outside the ANC. Ramaphosa ascended to the presidency following the decision by the ANC to force Zuma to vacate office in the same manner that it had forced Mbeki to resign. Ramaphosa narrowly won the race at the ANC’s 54th Elective Conference in Nasrec in 2017, with 179 votes against Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. But since the trend had been set with Motlanthe finishing Mbeki’s term, the expectation was that the same process would be followed by appointing a caretaker president. This was not the case.

Instead, Ramaphosa was brought in to finish Zuma’s term from February 15, 2018, before starting his term after the 2019 general elections which the ANC won with 230 seats compared to the DA’s 84 seats in the National Assembly. On assuming office, Ramaphosa first complained about the wasted 10 years but soon cut off one year to talk about “nine wasted years”.

Including 2018 would have implicated Ramaphosa because he was in office for the better part of that year. Second, the president talked about the so-called “New Dawn” under his administration. Given the many challenges the country is confronted with, including load shedding, it is difficult to accept that the “New Dawn” has descended. Part of the assessment of Ramaphosa’s presidency would be incomplete if it did not address this issue.

Some will use this to reflect on Ramaphosa’s leadership rather than the claim that he has been the most-challenged president since 1994. Among the issues which are said to have haunted Ramaphosa during his first term are the Covid-19 pandemic and the implementation of advocate Thuli Madonsela’s recommendation that the capture of the state must be investigated.

While it is true that the pandemic was a serious natural disaster, it transcended geographical boundaries and was not confined to South Africa. Therefore, it would not be fair to claim that this pandemic posed a challenge to Ramaphosa. Moreover, he did not have to deal with the challenge alone.

Cabinet ministers, such as Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize and Dlamini Zuma who was the minister of co-operative governance and traditional affairs, assisted the president in carrying the load. The Zondo Commission was appointed by Zuma but carried out its duties during Ramaphosa’s term. Two issues are worth noting in this regard.

First, Ramaphosa was not an outsider to the State Capture saga. He was Zuma’s deputy in the ANC and was also Zuma’s deputy in the government. Second, in his capacity as deputy president of the country, Ramaphosa was the leader of government business. Therefore, if the Zondo Commission gave Ramaphosa a headache, he cannot act like an outsider or someone who only came in to bear the brunt.

He was there when it all happened, even if he was not directly involved in what was happening. The reality is that leaders emerge in times of trouble, not when everything is normal. Anyone can claim to be a leader until there is a testing moment or moments. Complaining or playing the victim does not cut it. Indeed, Ramaphosa is a human being. He cannot be infallible or omniscient as that would be impossible. In fact, anyone who lays claim to those labels would be untruthful.

Within this context, it is important to assess Ramaphosa fairly and like any human being who is in a leadership position. First, consultation is part of the ANC’s culture. Therefore, when Ramaphosa consults, he is not doing the wrong thing. But the challenge is that he tends to consult too much. This exposes him to being accused of being an indecisive leader as opposed to being a victim of the challenges posed by Covid-19 and State Capture.

Therefore, the claim that Ramaphosa has been the most-challenged president since 1994 does not hold firm.

Professor Bheki Mngomezulu is the director of the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD) at Nelson Mandela University

This article is original to The African. To republish, see terms and conditions