YONELA DIKO: Julius Malema and the politics of hysteria


Julius Malema's politics have always been a mixture of character assassinations, unfounded assertions and a bag of hysteria. He has always understood that facts, issues, programmes are too weighty for his base and simplistic enough for the cheerleaders who have no appetite for complex problems.

His latest bumper sticker assertions, that President Cyril Ramaphosa is unreliable, Ramaphosa is incapacitated, Ramaphosa is incompetent and that Ramaphosa is a lackey of white interests, is yet another attempt to keep the hysteria going and drown out any serious evaluation of facts, issues, challenges, and progress.

It is true that parties that have tried to flyspeck the president on every issue have also come back short and discredited themselves, losing a lot of political capital.

Malema took time to find his opposition feet after the horror show of the last African National Congress administration. He waited for hard reality to hit the president and for the country's Ramaphoria to wear off before beginning to sound off hysterically.

Unfortunately, whatever the economic challenges of the moment or the ANC's unending noise, the president has not been a wrecking ball and remains decent and honorable. It's an armor that the drum of invented ideas, unfounded allegations and lies, pounded daily and thrown into the social media machine to build some momentum, cannot penetrate and is the opposition's only way in.

The biggest aim with being inventive with innuendos and entendres about the president has not been to win any rational voters who clearly know a president who is trying when they see one, but on consolidating the base and keeping the Twitter streets abuzz.

So, Ramaphosa has to represent everything the base loathes: he has to fit caricatures and doctrinaire expletives. Once this finds resonance with the base supporters, it's a political homerun that guarantees at least the current political Economic Freedom Fighters' fortunes are sustained.

Honest evaluation of the President

Like all presidencies preceeded by euphoria, they later breed their own excesses and are hamstrung by the realities of daily administration, which sucks life out of even the most buoyant change champions.

This leads to people, the media and the opposition feeling the excitement drifting away. They start searching for it at press conferences, hounding ministers at various events, complaining about unreachable spokespersons - "what happened to the promise?" The limits of political leadership begins to show and the gap between promise and delivery stares us all in the face.

That is, unfortunately, the story of leaders around the globe, found in all of history, as our expectations always wear rose-tinted glasses when facing reality.

It is true that Ramaphosa's election as president immediately restored citizens and business confidence in the countries executive, pulling the ANC by its tattered bootstraps and bringing a breath of fresh air into the countries body politic that had been mired in unbearable stench for a decade.

There was a sense of renewed hope in the ability of government to solve problems, work with others and put the country first, after what seemed like unending dread of the previous president's reign.

It was impossible not to feel confident about the future and the president wasted no time in calling everyone, all of us, to pluck shoulder to wheel and do our part. Everywhere you looked there was work to be done, communities to fix. It would take all of us, individually and collectively, to change the trajectory of our country.

As with any exhilaration, hard reality confronted it and it did not measure up as planned. The cynics and pundits, who had been feeling out of place and drowned out by the jubilation of Ramaphosa's presidency, finally got their pound of flesh.

Measuring up against the hard reality

There are always legitimate reasons for criticising a president, as there would be reasons to find fault with even the best students. But there is a difference between lambasting a student for not performing as well as expected and chastising another for finding a gun in his bag. That is the difference between the current president and his predecessor.

Ramaphosa took over a government that was battered, in reputation, confidence, its fiscus and policy. Despite attempts to turn things around, with a much better cabinet, state-owned enterprise boards and policy certainty, things have been tougher than anticipated. His presidency, however, is far from the circus of his predecessor.

What has been accomplished

Political and trend analyst at the University of Free State, JP Landman, says that "we must distinguish between what is happening in the state, and what is happening in the party… South Africa is more than what’s happening in the ANC…." This is true in so far as the ANC's chaos playing itself out in public drowns out the real achievement of the very ANC government in question. It is in fact the successes of the ANC in government that are causing the unravelling in the party.

Ramaphosa made the fight against corruption one of the pillars of his presidency, making crucial and consequential changes right at the beginning of his term. While many in the party may have thought this was mere public relations in line with Ramaphoria, the anti-corruption stance was a clear threat to many within the ANC (and EFF) whose lives were sustained by inexplicable wealth.

Ramaphosa began by making vital and necessary leadership changes at the country's state institutions, including SARS, Transnet, Eskom, Treasury, the Public Investment Corporation, the Special Investigating Unit and the Hawks. This was followed by comprehensive and far-reaching investigations into the depths of rot at these institutions and what led to their paralysis.

Charges and arrests followed, up and down the social spectrum, and finally gave the Hawks the teeth they long needed and their money's worth. Due to investigations, Eskom has been able to recover R1 billion from McKinsey and R150 million from Deloitte, with Transnet able to get back R618 million from South China Rail.

Ramaphosa also undertook multiple initiatives, measurable and consequential, especially on the economic front. After his election as president of the ANC in Nasrec, the Rand Merchant Bank/BER business confidence index (BCI) jumped by 11-index points, from 34 in the last quarter of 2017 to 45 in the first quarter of 2018. RMB said then that such a leap in BCI has only been witnessed nine times since 1975.

Since then, Ramaphosa has attracted close to a trillion rand in new investments. The enduring economic challenges and now the pandemic may well have been worse without such buffer and the long term fruits of such investments will later be fully realised.

Ramaphosa also introduced the minimum wage, which lifted millions out of slave wages. There has also been shaper focus on critical issues, jobs, gender parity, African development, and all these have signalled a government at work.

Like all presidents who must dig their country out of a sinking hole, sometimes the hole is too deep and bottoming it may take longer than could be impatiently expected.

There is no amount of political hysteria that can cloud citizens' awareness that Ramaphosa has been the only grown-up in the room. His government is at work.

Yonela Diko is the former spokesperson to the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. You can follow him on @yonela_diko.

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