SAM MKOKELI: Moving beyond the silver tongue of Cyril Ramaphosa
It is hard to disagree with those who marvel at President Cyril Ramaphosa's disposition and his statesman-like conduct. He oozes dignity, a very important trait for a number of reasons. The Zuma era showed that a clown in the highest seat gets in the way of the mission. ANC veteran Pallo Jordan put it succinctly in 2012 when he said: "Jacob Zuma's own actions have also stripped the office he holds of dignity."
In many ways, Ramaphosa's task is easy, at least in so far as the dignity part is concerned. The bar could not be lower. But the task is incredibly hard and requires a herculean effort. On Sunday, he wrapped the ANC's campaign, delivering a speech in front of a capacity Ellis Park Stadium crowd (with about 70,000 people crammed in), with his typical statesman tone. He bragged about the positive manner of his campaign: that he focused only on his party's message and promises, instead of going all negative, and deriding his opponents.
The DA has struggled to counter the man who oozes all manner of positive attributes. He does what DA leader Mmusi Maimane is meant to do a hundred times better. Ramaphosa appeals to the business community without even trying. The white constituency responds to his pull too. He has a silver tongue. When he speaks, honey drips out of his mouth, giving his words a sweet melody.
That is the easy part. On Sunday, Ramaphosa's speech delivered a thinly veiled sting, undertaking to take on the rogues in the party head-on after the elections. He referred to an "arrogant" group that did not see the need to apologise for its record of corruption and mismanagement of the state and the economy: (read Zuma). This suggests that Ramaphosa plans to do things his elegant way, and not take the fight directly to his opponents.
The president has so far, through his public relations efforts, managed to pull key figures behind the camp that is built around his own image. Kgalema Motlanthe, Thabo Mbeki, both former heads of state, have endorsed his ANC. No doubt both men are not unquestioning friends of Ramaphosa, and our recent history is littered with many incidents of deep conflict between them. That they have decided to get out of their retirement from ANC politics to campaign now helps to shift things, to help give momentum to the creation of a strong body of people who are not Zuma-like. It helps to isolate Zuma, Ace Magashule and others.
The road ahead will require more than just diplomacy, and the constant facade of a statesman. Rome is burning, and that requires quick, and decisive action and not just some public relations-level fiddling. Ramaphosa's time in office shows he prefers to use the legal sphere to assert his political authority, and he has no appetite for the dirty fight in the party itself. His biggest victims - or only victims - are civil servants so far. Tom Moyane at Sars and senior prosecutors such as Nomgcobo Jiba and Lawrence Mrwebi.
The trio's dismissals were based on scathing findings of quasi-judicial hearings, giving Ramaphosa the confidence to act. And if they opposed his actions, they had to use the legal route too. But in politics, the game is different.
Ramaphosa has not taken the fight directly to the Zumas and the Magashules simply because they can bark back at him, and with no negative consequences to themselves.
It is clear, therefore, that Ramaphosa will rely on the help of like-minded people in the ANC and civil society to turn the situation in South Africa around. His time in office already suggests he is not going to get his hands dirty, but will rather carry on dishing out words wrapped in honey.
His critics will pounce on this, calling him weak and a lame-duck. They may well be right. But as the president said in his State of the Nation Address in February:
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
He was using the words of Theodore Roosevelt, delivered in 1910 in what became known as the "man in the arena" speech. What is lacking from Ramaphosa's campaign are his own, authentic words to describe the moment.
He has relied on many historical moments and metaphors to describe his situation, as the man to pull South Africa back from the abyss. He may never be able to put a personal stamp to the effort, or offer authentic, moment-defining lines. While the real Ramaphosa may never ever step forward, signs of victory, at least politically, will be in the demise of the likes of the Zuma and Magashule gang. The New Dawn (yet another line possibly ripped off from the Roosevelt era) cannot coexist with the Zuma-Ace (let’s call it Zace) brand.
Sam Mkokeli is a journalist and freelance contributor for Eyewitness News.