JUDITH FEBRUARY: Ramaphosa is losing the PR battle
Barack Obama was famously nicknamed “No drama Obama” for his unflappable manner in the midst of all kinds of global crises. Obama was also regularly criticised for this very reason, be it on foreign policy or domestic issues. He was known for turning things over and thinking, some may say too much.
Is President Cyril Ramaphosa our very own ‘No Drama’ version? The past few weeks have been difficult ones for South Africa. They have required a visible show of leadership, which ‘No Drama’ Ramaphosa seems to eschew at the best of times.
In a sense, this period has exposed the Ramaphosa Presidency for what is at its heart. It is not quite the technocratic and bureaucratic one of the Mbeki years. Its communication is also not as convoluted and Ramaphosa is not as ‘imperial’. But if anything is beginning to mark this Presidency, it is its understated and slightly-behind-the-news-narrative manner.
The media narrative is largely that this is a president who has lost his way, who is weak, beholden to his party and therefore unable to act. There are urgent matters to attend to and Ramaphosa seems to be moving at the proverbial snail’s pace.
Added to this is the endless evidence from the Zondo Commission of Inquiry, which is beamed daily and directly into our living rooms. The corruption and state capture of the past 10 years seems to have no bottom. While everyone understands that we need to get to the root causes of corruption, the more we know, the greater the level of despondency becomes.
‘Do something!’ is the mantra most heard at this time. The growing impatience with Ramaphosa’s uncanny ability to set up commissions and govern by a plethora of action plans seems to be at its peak. If we add to that the dismal economic numbers, which are in part a ‘lag’ from the Jacob Zuma years, it’s a pretty grim picture.
So, Ramaphosa has a lot on his plate.
In the midst of it all came the murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana. Her murder was by no means the first instance of femicide - in fact, it came in a week of horrific murders of women in the Western Cape - and it will not be the last. Yet there was something about the visceral response from citizens also in a week of almost unending xenophobic violence and looting that seemed to signify an increased impatience with the state’s inaction on several levels. Protests made global headlines.
Yet again Ramaphosa seemed behind the narrative. In Cape Town, he was attending the World Economic Forum Africa meeting while students marched to Parliament. It was only when the protests reached uncomfortably close to the locus of the international event that Ramaphosa eventually stirred. A pre-recorded statement was broadcast on national television and radio. That was a moment missed. Someone should have whispered in the President’s ear that the people are tired, frustrated and angry (he should know). At the very time we all read with horror that a Post Office employee murdered Uyinene, the moment shifted from mere anger to searing collective outrage, which found its voice on the streets.
Ramaphosa’s broadcast statement simply felt insipid and he himself looked weary. He is quite obviously not a heartless leader and we know that he understands citizen action of a South African kind. We also know that he understands the impatience of citizens on state capture and the economy.
During the recent question time in Parliament, where he virtually said as much, he seemed most comfortable. Ramaphosa clearly prefers the more formal setting of the legislature where he can, in a composed and rational manner, speak about our challenges and the progress his Presidency is making. He is also able to bat away most of his opposition MPs’ questions since they generally have syriluch a weak grasp of the issues.
Ramaphosa, after all, is first and foremost an institutionalist and so perhaps this should not surprise us. But he was also a negotiator and a ‘union man’. We need to see more of those raw political instincts coming to the fore - now more than ever. After all, he clearly used them in order to win at Nasrec.
The country is weary of seeing Ramaphosa constantly reacting to events, be it protests, xenophobia or ANC secretary general Ace Magashule contradicting him at every turn.
The problem is that Ramaphosa is, crudely put, losing the ‘PR battle’ and the ability to set the terms of the national mood and conversation.
Where is Ramaphosa’s ‘fixer’? Where is the person he should rely on to take the political temperature and advise him on a response? There doesn’t seem to be anyone who is a David Axelrod to Barack Obama, a George Stephanopolous to Bill Clinton or, heaven forbid, an Alistair Campbell to Tony Blair, or even an Essop Pahad to Thabo Mbeki. Of course, it’s only Donald Trump who keeps his own counsel, such as it is.
Whether these advisors were good or bad, can be debated. But at various points, they were the President’s ‘eyes and ears’ and when needed, ‘attack dogs’.
Stephanopolous had to deal with Clinton’s indiscretions and the impeachment saga. But his message on the economy was also always clear - ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ Axelrod was often Obama’s ‘lightning rod’ during the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Campbell’s ‘We don’t do God’ became infamous, as was his dogged defence of the government’s position on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction.
All these men tried to keep the message and create the narrative. One need not succumb to some of the cynical ‘spin doctoring’ of the likes of Campbell to see the value of someone unstintingly fighting the President’s cause, expanding the narrative and speaking for him when he cannot.
There is no doubt that Ramaphosa is working hard and trying to fix what is broken. We know that this will take time. The problem is that we simply don’t hear about it all in a coherent manner, which tells a story about the pragmatic and systematic if slow, improvement on matters of governance in particular.
In the 17 months of his Presidency, much has happened. We have a new Sars commissioner who is serious about getting Sars back on track despite the headwinds he faces, the SABC has mercifully lost Hlaudi Motsoeneng, Eskom is in the midst of some restructuring, even if cumbersome. State-owned enterprises are being cleaned up though the task is Herculean. Shamila Batohi heads up the National Prosecuting Authority and Hermione Cronje is heading up the Investigative Directorate in the Office of the National Director of Public Prosecutions.
For better or worse, the Zondo Commission is defining the problem of state capture and ensuring that our intolerance for pure criminality by those in power increases. Ramaphosa believes in the power of institutions to do the work of uncovering corruption and then that these same institutions will ensure the accountability necessary.
Last week the President called a special Joint Sitting of the Houses to put forward a concrete plan on gender-based violence. A billion rand was allocated to this cause. It made the news, but so much else overtook it. The narrative had again overtaken the ponderous president. And speaking of missed moments, while we know that the ANC’s notions of African solidarity can at times be warped and dependent on struggle history, Ramaphosa really should have been astute and chosen to represent us all at the funeral of rugby legend Chester Williams at Newlands last week. Instead, he spoke to a sparse crowd gathered to memorialise Robert Mugabe. It seemed out of kilter (as did television stations carrying that event live in its entirety. How much interest do we actually have in Mugabe and his rotten legacy?). Williams was an icon of his generation and a nation-builder. Above all, he was a decent man. Ramaphosa might have made a more judicious choice to be at Newlands honouring a South African who belonged to us all. This especially at a time when our society needs male role models above all else.
Being president is about the nuts and bolts. It is about democratic institutions. But it is also about taking the people along with you, capturing their imagination and showing that another country is indeed possible. In our context, it is also about sketching the challenges carefully.
Ramaphosa is on a journey, but he cannot be on it alone. With ‘Thuma mina!’ he tried to bring us along with him, but that narrative needs to be sustained more forcefully. It is faltering partly because we are not provided regular updates on the progress being made in dealing with challenges. This provides the space for those like Magashule, Julius Malema and others to dominate the news cycle with mindless propaganda. Ramaphosa needs those in government and those closest to him to repeatedly and painstakingly chronicle the successes and the challenges so that we retain a realistic gaze on the future. But for this to happen, Ramaphosa will also need to assiduously cultivate relationships with civil society and business so that the story belongs to all of us. Some of Ramaphosa’s reluctance to discuss our challenges openly may well be because he finds himself unable to cast aspersions directly on Zuma and what was his profligate and corrupt administration. It is why he needs other political ‘attack dogs’ and allies to say that which he cannot say directly.
In August, a frustrated Pravin Gordhan called in to a radio station to express his frustration with the presenter who was equally frustrated at what seemed like a lack of action on SOEs. Gordhan’s words were, “we are in control. We’re working very hard… it will certainly become more apparent in the next few weeks…”
Now, if Ramaphosa had astute advisors around him, Gordhan would not have needed to make that call. The one truth is, as Ramaphosa said in June: “There are no shortcuts… if ever there was a notion that… we would have a magic wand and change the trajectory of our economy overnight, I should disappoint you.”
That pragmatic, honest message must be heard loudly and clearly - there has been progress, but we will all need to cultivate patience for the long road to recovery. And for the recovery to succeed, we all need to be in it together.
Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy' which is available. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february