As myriad problems weigh on President Cyril Ramaphosa, his grasp on the presidency appears to become more tenuous.
Ramaphosa is besieged by problems including a growing power crisis, debilitating party rivalry and economic headwinds that are fuelling dangerous civil discontent.
Given the difficulties the nation is experiencing, it is perhaps natural that the angered citizenry should demand relief and ask questions of their president; ask, as many are doing, whether he is the right man for the job.
For the purposes of judging Ramaphosa’s performance, a comparison with his predecessors would be a pointless exercise. Each presidency is characterised by its own unique problems. Rulers don’t get the historical luxury to choose their problems. Also, there is rarely total consensus when measuring the performance of leaders in office.
Ramaphosa’s tenure in office must be assessed on his own promises to the people — after being installed on a wave of goodwill from a nation weary of the corruption-ridden rule of Jacob Zuma, details of which were laid bare by the Zondo commission.
After Zuma, the nation’s spirits were buoyed by Ramaphosa’s promise to fight corruption, which had resulted in the destruction of key state institutions and siphoned billions of rand from state coffers.
Though Ramaphosa did not shoot the lights out, his position seemed unassailable for a while. Many were willing to forgive his government’s lacklustre performance, as he was seen as the best leader that the governing party had to offer.
Even during the harsh Covid-19 lockdowns, which played havoc with the economy and people’s livelihoods, many were prepared to trust that his restrictions were for the common good.
In his own party, the ANC, his enemies have struggled to put forward a credible candidate to challenge him. After winning most showdowns in his party’s higher structures, such as the step-aside rule, he looked destined to clinch a second term as president of party and state.
But that was before the perfect storm of post-Covid economic stagnation and rocketing unemployment levels coupled with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which affected the world economy, causing increasing hardship. These events were beyond Ramaphosa’s control, nor were they of his making.
Talking about promises, the president needs to be advised that making them and not fulfilling them erodes his credibility
However, there are other things that Ramaphosa has himself to blame for, which have undermined his public standing. In the face of a debilitating electricity crisis, he has lacked the courage to take steps which suggest an urgency to solve the problem.
Where logic dictates otherwise, Ramaphosa has chosen to continue the illogical arrangement where the provision of power falls between mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe and public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan — though the two don’t seem to see eye to eye on the matter.
If they prove to be a hindrance, would he be prepared to sacrifice one or both of the ministers, known to be among his staunchest supporters? More curiously, Ramaphosa appears to have resisted calls to declare a power state of emergency to alleviate the crisis, which would enable the government to bypass much of the red tape delaying the introduction of new generation capacity. This is even though he himself has acknowledged that power cuts, which have reached stage 6, are the biggest threat to economic growth.
Ramaphosa will probably take the plunge in the end and declare an emergency — though by then much valuable time will have been lost.
On the national security front he has not covered himself in glory either. In the wake of last July’s riots, which he described as a failed insurrection, he promised consequences for the perpetrators. A year later, no-one has been criminally punished.
Among the politicians and state officials who failed to perform their duty of securing life and property, there have similarly been no consequences.
But this should not surprise us, as the president has allowed indiscipline in his own cabinet, where ministers have publicly countermanded him with impunity. Instead of making him popular, such behaviour will bring him more disdain and disrespect. Politically, it projects weakness to enemies and doubt among loyalists.
And talking about promises, the president needs to be advised that making them and not fulfilling them erodes his credibility. He can only spin so many yarns before the game is up. For instance, in his state of the nation address he said the country would have a social compact (an important intervention in seeking consensus among economic stakeholders) within 100 days. That deadline came and went. The nation still waits. Who wants a leader with the reputation of a used-car salesman?
Ramaphosa has squandered the goodwill and benefit of the doubt that the country gave him. He did this by failing to act courageously and urgently when required, choosing instead to preserve so-called unity in his party and avoiding the tough decisions. It is the nation that pays the price of that paralysis.
He has behaved like a man who has forever to make decisions and to address the many, and compounding, problems facing his country. Thanks to that tardiness — whether in dealing resolutely with his political enemies or timeously with the country’s problems — he will soon be completely overwhelmed by his troubles.
Now, caught between party enemies who smell blood and a restive public, with his anti-corruption image severely tarnished by the Phala Phala affair, he himself must wonder how long he will hold on as the republic’s first citizen.