Ramaphosa finds Madiba magic: The morality ticket to the top
Cyril Ramaphosa had the one thing nobody else in the world could ever claim - Nelson Mandela's endorsement to be president of South Africa. He has never used this to further his political ambitions. But in a morass of multiple leadership failures, he is finding his place and making the right moves - all very subtly. This week he delivered a memorial lecture on Mandela, which hit all the right notes and presented the message a scandal-fatigued country needed to hear. Is it finally Cyril's time to shine?
Yes, Daily Maverick has certainly been writing a lot about Cyril Ramaphosa lately. How could we not? He is effectively running South Africa, taking the heat from the opposition in Parliament, fighting fires at the besieged parastatals, comforting the bereaved families when the bodies of those killed in the Nigeria building collapse were repatriated, and riding to Cosatu's rescue. While President Jacob Zuma occasionally dips his toe in the firepool, Ramaphosa is the one making a splash at the deep end.
Ramaphosa has been careful not to look and sound too ambitious, and makes it clear that he simply does what he is told to do. As Zuma continues to shy away from his duties, Ramaphosa ably steps in to fill the void, and has shown he is fully capable of steering the ship just seven months since joining government.
On Monday, exactly a year since Nelson Mandela was laid to rest at his home in Qunu, Ramaphosa delivered a memorial lecture hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation. There have been thousands of tributes to Mandela since his death, but there are not many that capture the moment and capture the man. He is one of the most quoted political leaders in history, often simply to add weight to politicians' speeches.
US President Barack Obama's address at the official memorial service at FNB Stadium was moving with a powerful underlying message. "With honesty, regardless of our station or our circumstance, we must ask: How well have I applied his lessons in my own life? It's a question I ask myself, as a man and as a President," Obama said. "And while I will always fall short of Madiba's example, he makes me want to be a better man. He speaks to what's best inside us."
Now a year later, Ramaphosa had his moment.
He started off with a delightful off-the-cuff anecdote about Madiba relating a dilemma he had, mediating a rather unusual conflict. A woman had come to Madiba, Ramaphosa said, claiming her neighbour stole her chicken. So Madiba summoned the accused and informed him of the allegation against him. The man admitted he had stolen the chicken.
"Where is the chicken," Madiba asked.
"I've eaten it," the man replied.
But the woman was insistent: "I want my chicken."
Madiba then asked the offender if he was willing to compensate for his transgression. The man offered to pay R25.
"No. I want my chicken," the woman responded.
The story had the packed auditorium at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in gales of laughter, as would anyone watching the live broadcast. The way Ramaphosa related the story one could almost imagine Madiba telling it.
Ramaphosa went on to say that he never heard the end of the story as they had been interrupted. He said he hoped a new book on Mandela's life The Presidential Years, a sequel to The Long Walk To Freedom, due to be released next year, would tell how the chicken story ended.
The anecdote provided an endearing backdrop to the speech Ramaphosa delivered. Apart from giving insight into Madiba's simple and amusing ways, it was a subtle reminder of their close relationship and mutual fondness. At a time when there is evidence of squandering of Mandela's legacy, Ramaphosa used the lecture to appeal to society to build on it.
He said there was always the risk that "in seeking to interpret Madiba's life and legacy, we emphasise that which serves the purposes of the present or, worse, that which seeks to advance our own interests".
"We should therefore proceed with caution, ever mindful of our responsibility to remember Madiba as he really was and describe his legacy as it truly is."
"For Nelson Mandela, morality was not theoretical. It was practical," Ramaphosa said. "Our struggle is a moral struggle. If we are to build on Madiba's legacy, we need both to continue the work that he began and hold true to the moral posture that he adopted."
It was interesting what part of Mandela's legacy he wanted to draw from, perhaps to fashion his own style of leadership. "Madiba was a person both of conviction and of conscience. He understood that revolution is grounded in morality. Politics must be bound by principle.
"As we work to build on Madiba's legacy, we need to constantly remind ourselves of this principle. It is a principle that must guide those who control the levers of state power. It must guide those who exercise economic power. We cannot accept the wasteful use of public resources. We cannot accept the misuse of public resources. And we cannot accept the theft of public resources."
You simply cannot read those lines without the silhouette of Nkandla creeping into your mind.
And then, the pièce de résistance:
"We need actively to combat a culture that associates public office with entitlement; a culture where there is a tenuous relationship between misdemeanour and consequence."
At a time when there is a lot of pretence in the ANC about political and social challenges, Ramaphosa said:
"These are the moments when we must consider not just the legal consequences of our actions, but also the morality of our actions. These are matters about which, as a society, we need to reflect deeply and honestly."
Ramaphosa might be the Number Two in the party and the state, but he is distancing himself from the rot.
"We seek moral behaviour not only among our public representatives and civil servants. We seek it too among our business leaders, professionals, workers and community leaders. If we are honest about our devotion to the principles that Madiba embodied, then we all need to act in a way that gives them meaning."
It was a speech that could be highly successful on the stump on the campaign trail. But Ramaphosa is not there yet. And he will by no means coast his way to the top.
Ramaphosa still has the shadow of Marikana looming over him, although it is unlikely that the commission of inquiry investigating the massacre will hold him culpable for the deaths of 34 mineworkers in August 2012.
It is also quite ironic for him to say "Our sense of justice should be deeply offended by a society in which islands of wealth are surrounded by a sea of poverty", when he amassed so much wealth as a businessman as poverty levels heightened.
But Ramaphosa is quite aware of how low the bar of good leadership is set right now. All he needs to do is look better than the incumbent - which is really not that difficult to do.
The morality train is however difficult to board, especially if the Marikana survivors pursue their mission to haul Ramaphosa before the International Criminal Court (ICC). Although that bid is bound to fail, as it will be difficult to make the case for "crimes against humanity" at the ICC, it will impact negatively on Ramaphosa's presidential campaign, when it eventually gets off the ground.
Before it does, Ramaphosa needs to determine his constituency in the ANC, as that is what ultimately matters to get elected. He should be mindful not to make the same mistake Tokyo Sexwale did, which was to overestimate his support and popularity in the ANC. Ramaphosa had been out of active politics for 18 years, and also alienated himself from the worker constituency he came from by immersing himself into business for personal benefit.
But Ramaphosa has one big thing going for him: he was Nelson Mandela's choice. By indicating now that he intends emulating Madiba's example and bringing morality back into the ANC and government, he is providing a way out of the current cesspit. It is a message the nation is desperate for, yearning for a return of good upstanding leadership it can be proud of.
Ramaphosa must be perfectly aware that as soon as he starts looking too good, the daggers will be out for him from conniving and ambitious people in the Zuma camp; he needs only ask one Kgalema Motlanthe about that.
So he will have to still manoeuvre carefully and not run too soon, a kind of tap dance that has never been easy to master. After years spent out in a sort of political wilderness that history's near-winners often occupy, Ramaphosa's big enemy could be time management of his campaign. And if he doesn't get his timing absolutely perfect, the Mandela chicken story might not be the only thing left unfinished.
This column first appeared on _ Daily Maverick._