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Responses to criticism against President Ramaphosa should be rational and consistent

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Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA) President Cyril Ramaphosa engages media in parliament about current issues including the break in at his farm and the foreign currency that was stolen.

By Bheki Mngomezulu

Responses to criticism against President Cyril Ramaphosa should be rational and consistent Recent criticism levelled against Ramaphosa by his predecessors has triggered incessant debates across the nation.

This has even transcended the political spectrum. In an unco-ordinated development, former President Thabo Mbeki and former President Jacob Zuma individually took a swipe at their successor, President Ramaphosa on various issues.

These two leaders were joined in their criticism of Ramaphosa by former Caretaker President Kgalema Mohlanthe who was asked to finish President Mbeki’s term in 2008 when Mbeki was instructed by the ANC to resign or face being removed by his own party as the head of state. Later, Julius Malema, Leader of Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) added his voice when he argued that South Africa is on an auto-pilot. In his view, the country has no leader since Ramaphosa is busy amassing his wealth at Phala Phala farm instead of leading the nation.

Among other things, these former heads of state complained that the country is not being steered in the right direction. They argued that Ramaphosa is corrupt, indecisive, inconsistent in his actions and generally lacks astute leadership credentials that are needed to take the country out of the present predicament of the triple challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment. All these leaders painted a pessimistic picture about the future of South Africa.

In not so many words, the leaders tacitly advanced the view that South Africa will not prosper with Ramaphosa at the helm. Importantly, the image of the ANC will continue to be tainted – something that would cost the ANC dearly in the upcoming 2024 general election.

But, apart from his debatable leadership strategies, what has put Ramaphosa on the spotlight even more and actually dented his political image is the break-in and theft of money from his Phala Phala farm in 2020, that allegedly was not reported to the police as should have happened. There are other ramifications of this incident that have not assisted Ramaphosa’s defenders.

These include allegations of taking the law into his hands by tracking down the criminals, subjecting them to torture and subsequently bribing them to keep the theft a secret. Other issues such as not declaring the money at the South African Revenue Service (SARS), keeping large sums of cash in the house and in foreign currency (US Dollars) and other related accusations have not assisted Ramaphosa’s cause.

While different state institutions continue to ventilate these issues, there has been a state of euphoria which involves politicians and ordinary members of the public alike. Some have decided to ferociously and unapologetically defend the president from what they consider to be unfair and unwarranted criticisms levelled against him. Moreover, they advance the view that such criticisms should actually have been channelled through ANC structures and/or platforms as opposed to being laid bare to the public through media briefings.

On the other hand, there are those who fully agree with the former Presidents and feel that the accusations are warranted and justifiable. They blame Ramaphosa for failing to implement many of the ANC resolutions of the 54th national conference which was held at Nasrec in Johannesburg. In the same vein, they argue that Ramaphosa has failed to better the lives of the people of South Africa since ascending to the presidency in 2018 when he finished Zuma’s term and then from 2019 following the ANC’s victory in the national election – albeit with reduced numbers.

My aim in this article is not to embrace either of the two diametrically opposed viewpoints.

In other words, I do not intend to promote one view at the expense of the other. Such would make it almost impossible for me to provide a balanced analysis of the responses to the accusations levelled against President Ramaphosa.

Instead, my primary objective is to sound a warning that rationality and consistency should be the two guiding factors when people engage on this subject. Anything short of that would not add any value into the debate. In a nutshell, my argument is that comments on whether Ramaphosa has done well as a leader or not should be devoid of emotions and subjectivity.

Conversely, it should draw from history, be consistent and rational.

When Ramaphosa assumed office as the country’s President to finish former President Zuma’s term in 2018, he gave the impression that he was coming as a “messiah” to “rescue” the ANC and the country from everything that had gone wrong under his predecessor. This stance was encapsulated in his famous phrases such as “nine lost years” under Zuma’s administration and “the New Dawn” that he was bringing with him.

Four years down the line, it still remains unclear if the promised New Dawn has arrived or if the situation has deteriorated. Intermittent power cuts and constantly increasing petrol/diesel prices negate the “New Dawn” narrative.

The irony is that Ramaphosa was Zuma’s Deputy – both in the ANC and in the country.

Therefore, if there were nine lost years as he claimed, he was also part of that. Secondly, the issue of the New Dawn was misplaced. There could not be a New Dawn from someone who came from the same organisation to implement the same policies.

Noticeably and intriguingly, Ramaphosa made these statements while he was outside the country in Davos, Switzerland. However, the noise that we have heard following the statements made by the senior leaders was never there when Ramaphosa publicly accused Zuma without going through ANC structures as some insist now. The question becomes: is there consistency in the criticisms levelled against Mbeki, Zuma and Mohlanthe? Why was the same criticism not made against Ramaposa following his Davos statement(s)?

Addressing members of the media recently, Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya did not mince his words. He took issue with the former presidents and other critics who accuse Ramaphosa from the rooftop instead of following ANC channels. On more than one occasion, he complained about “inuendo” directed at Ramaphosa.

There are two sides to Magwenya’s concerns. On the one hand, he was correct in saying that the ANC has channels to deal with such issues. He even responded to media questions that these former leaders have a direct line to the President. Pule Mabe, ANC spokesperson, also referred to the NEC as one of the appropriate channels through which concerns could be raised. However, the other side of the coin is about rationality and consistency.

For instance, did Magwenya and Mabe check if Mbeki, Zuma and Motlanthe did not touch base with Ramaphosa on the issues that they later made public? Specifically, was Mbeki wrong when he said that they had suggested to Ramaphosa to temporarily step aside while the Phala Phala matter was being dealt with – to which the President responded by saying that the law must take its cause? When that suggestion was made, was it meant to judge the President before he was found guilty by any court of law or was it meant to save the integrity of the ANC and to remove the mounting pressure from his [Ramaphosa] shoulders?

It is by responding to these questions that rationality becomes possible. Failure to do so can only lead to emotional and irrational responses which are also inconsistent when compared to what happened to former President Zuma.

Following criticism against Ramaphosa, provinces like KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and Northwest came out openly arguing that what was done by the former leaders was not in line with the ANC’s processes. The ANC leadership from Limpopo even requested a meeting with Mbeki.

In principle, they were right. However, regarding consistency, they were found wanting. For example, where were they when Ramaphosa publicly blamed former President Zuma without following the same ANC processes? What did they say about the fact that Ramaphosa was not even in the country when he made his accusations? Did Ramaphosa not have a “direct” to Zuma?

The ANC’s upcoming elective conference in December 2022 should not dissuade any of the commentators from remaining rational and consistent in the manner in which they ventilate issues. The ANC conference will come and go but South Africa as a country and the ANC as an organisation will remain. It is not advisable to make comments based on emotions but devoid of rationality and consistency.

The English proverb which says: “What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander” bears relevance in this regard. The proverb is against double standards and hypocrisy. Importantly, this proverb creates a space for rationality and consistency. It is my contention, therefore, that while it is true that everyone has the right to make comments about the actions of the three former leaders, it is even more important to keep emotions out of the discussion. Instead, people need to consider facts, draw from history, understand the context, and remain consistent on how they deal with issues of this nature.

Any deviation from this process would render their criticism irrational, bias, emotional, opinionated, inconsistent and irrelevant to the debate. Hence my plea for rationality and consistency.

Bheki Mngomezulu is Professor of Political Science and Deputy Dean of Research at the University of the Western Cape

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.