YONELA DIKO: Is Ramaphosa a great president yet?
President Cyril Ramaphosa's leadership can simply be described as bland. It offers no edges for passionate criticism nor compliment. Besides his very first state of the nation speech immediately after former President Jacob Zuma's removal, I know no other memorable speech by him, and his media engagements, rare as they are, are also not indelible. One can see why his detractors (though probably not for the same reasons) can even conceive contesting his second term. He seeks to offend no one, carrying the unity platitudes that is as believable as Ace Magashule's, being generally a nice guy who is likeable but not yet admirable.
Ramaphosa's personal career has an extraordinary range; from unionist, politician and then businessperson to statesman, so his uninteresting orating is not because he lacks capacity or knowledge. In my considered assessment, is due to a lack of communication skills.
This lack of communication skills leads to a few cardinal sins, one being inability to sell a vision with the passion that draws people in and make them believe. The President lacks the ability to articulate all that he is doing into a recognizable, clear and credible mission. It has never been enough to have ideas, to assemble the best minds, or have a great plan. The ability to communicate your vision and ideas, in a way that captures the country's imagination, and captivate people to seek to be part of that vision, even to champion it is the ultimate purpose of leadership.
Unfortunately, effective leadership is effective communication.
Great Leaders are great communicators. There is rarely if ever, a great leader who is not a great communicator. If you want to lead, communication cannot be one of your weaknesses. Communication is of itself, in itself, leadership.
A major part of communication for a leader is making speeches. The energy, structure and tone of the speeches are critical. Developing great content, delivered using great communication techniques and cadence can be an effective way of delivering a memorable speech. Even simple things like repetition of words, placed tastefully, can reinforce your message and give people a take home message that they can own from your speech. It is said that Martin Luther King repeated "I have a dream" eight times in his monumental speech of the same name, and now it's all that we remember. It is also no small thing for a leader to be a good story teller.
Over the past two-and-a-half years, it has become clear that Ramaphosa is no great communicator and his speech delivery leaves a lot to be desired. Fortunately, he is not the first leader to have a huge responsibility but does not give great speeches and therefore less effective.
Great leaders of the past invested a lot in their communication skills. This helped them develop an ability to tap into people's emotions and instincts, to have the needed cadence in their speech deliveries that is a hallmark of soaring orators and consequential speeches. These past leaders even worked on their pitch tone. It is through communication training that these Leaders tapped into their charisma, and were able to pull in their citizens like a magnet, into the hope and strength of their words, especially during challenging times. In times of devastation, a leader's charisma can make all the difference, and Ramaphosa does not have much of it.
A leader must communicate, communicate often and communicate effectively. Relentless streams of information is the key imparting facts. It must be often, it must be short and straight to the point, and people will never forget your message. This is something the entire administration has not been very good at. Communication, that is regular, that is not contradictory, helps your team to be clear, to avoid confusion and frustration. One may argue that it took a pandemic for our government to realise the Importance of regular and effective communication.
Secondly, a leader must address problems immediately and head on. This has not been Ramaphosa's greatest strength. Issues linger without being addressed, festering and becoming bigger than they really are. For example the imaginary contest between himself and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma during the pandemic, where he unbanned cigarettes and Dlamini-Zuma later appeared publicly taking the opposite posture was left unaddressed for too long, turning his minister into the enemy of the smoking world (a large portion of the population). Such gaps, if not closed immediately and effectively, can be exploited by those who want the ANC to fail.
Most importantly, communication must be human - it must always be about people's experiences. In this regard, the president does have a human touch, and much more could be done to unclothe him of the perception of being an executive of the business class. This idea has also been left unaddressed for far too long.
There was, however, good communication regarding the management of the pandemic, and credit must be given to the president, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, and cabinet. But communication lapses remained. The confusion around the cigarette ban was one issue, but there were also times of communication by ministers ahead of the president's, including gazetting lockdown extensions before the president announced whether he was in fact extending the lockdown. There were also leaks to media, arguably from ministers, which contributed to the confusion effective communication is meant to eliminate.
Thirdly, a leader must be able to respond to tough questions with great answers, and he must be able to convince even the hardest of critics of his position. However tough questions may be, it's critically important for a leader to still communicate boldly, and not hold back. Again, the Bushiri matter showed this avoidance of difficult questions.
READ: Did Malawi win the Bushiri communication battle?
Lastly, communication provides your administration an opportunity to be metric driven. An administration that is not constantly talking to people, modelling and testing feedback and the impact of its work on the public will have no reflective capacity and be motivated to adjust course. Only when you communicate do you add pressure on yourself and ask whether your particular message will work, whether it will inspire others to alter their ideas, make people feel safe, and encourage discipline.
Despite some glaring communication challenges during the pandemic, it can be argued that the president's steady hand, coupled with his timely and regular communication, was the singular difference that saw us perform much better than our counterparts in Europe and the Americas. But the president's communication was more an attempt for an orderly and safe period, and less an inspiration for people to take the fight against COVID-19 personally - something that was and remains needed.
Today, as the numbers of infections are growing and the option for a hard lockdown is undesirable, an inspirational speech that could help people take personal responsibility for the virus could make all the difference.
Given the president's record so far, he seems incapable of giving us such a speech. This is unfortunate because there has been no strong leader in history who was not an inspirational communicator.
Yonela Diko is the former spokesperson to the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. You can follow him on @yonela_diko.