President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: ELMOND JIYANE/GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: ELMOND JIYANE/GCIS

In his famed George Macaulay Trevelyan lectures delivered nearly 60 years ago, the renowned Cambridge historian EH Carr reflected on “the great-man theory of history”, subsequently published as What is History? Carr warned against the “cult of the great man” and castigated “the view which places great men outside history and sees them as imposing themselves on history in virtue of their greatness, as (and here he quotes another historian, VG Childe) “jack-in-the-boxes who emerge miraculously from the unknown to interrupt the real continuity of history”.

Carr’s words ought to be heeded by those voting on May 8. This is especially the case for those characterising President Cyril Ramaphosa as a “great man”. Admittedly, the ANC leader is no “jack-in-the-box”; but his task is to “interrupt the real continuity of history” — or at least that of the ANC. Voters should think deeply about this. They should know that Ramaphosa is intricately mired in the politics of ANC and its power struggles.

Importantly, the venality of the ruling party is, by now, beyond question and its track record, especially since 2009, astoundingly poor. As the latest Economist shows in its special report on SA (with a smiling Ramaphosa on the cover), the country is at a crossroad.

If the Economist is right, SA’s future lies in the hands of Cyril Ramaphosa. It quotes Colin Coleman, CEO of Goldman Sachs in Sub-Saharan Africa, as saying that Ramaphosa “is the last hope for democracy in SA”. If Coleman is to be believed, the future is bleak. To be sure, his assessment is disturbing — a huge indictment on the country and the ANC.

Ramaphosa is faced with huge challenges and contradictions, while simultaneously having to keep his enemies at bay. Hitherto, he appears to have gauged how much room he has had to manoeuvre

The Economist, however, does add that it is naïve to put too much hope in one person. It notes the huge challenges to be overcome and the vested interests that could strangle Ramaphosa’s options. He will need support. And it is far from clear that he has it in the ANC. And there in lies the rub: Ramaphosa operates in a toxic and divisive context, flanked by comrades, many of whom have at best a demonstrable lack of ability, and at worst a propensity for thievery and duplicity.

The ANC-led government has failed on almost every measure. SA remains riven by racialised inequality, its ugly legacy far from healed. The country lacks capacity at almost all levels. Education is a disaster, the economy is in tatters, poverty is horrendous and state-owned enterprises are close to collapse. Corruption across the board characterises the new SA.

No more honeymoons

Nelson Mandela’s presidential honeymoon will not be afforded to Ramaphosa after May 8. The rating agencies are watching, skills are exiting, and the population is angry. Ramaphosa’s colleagues too will watch every move; some determined to fight back and to avoid the “orange overalls” that many South Africans are demanding. Thus far, Ramaphosa has shown he is beholden to the old guard. The slow pace of policy change and the ANC electoral lists confirm this.

Ramaphosa’s success will require collegial support and favourable conditions. Both are lacking. Great leaders need an appropriate context. “Had Bismarck been born in the 18th century,” writes Carr, “he would not have united Germany and might not have been a great man at all.” Or, to quote the great historian of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, “Times must be suited to extraordinary characters”.

Ramaphosa has undoubted ability, but his 15 months in power have revealed a weakness to lead. It seems unlikely that he will rise to the occasion and impose himself. He appears too cautious by far and does not, or is unable to, lead. The ANC, we are reminded repeatedly, works collectively.

Ramaphosa is faced with huge challenges and contradictions, while simultaneously having to keep his enemies at bay. Hitherto, he appears to have gauged how much room he has had to manoeuvre and what alternative courses of action are possible. But the fiscal cliff on which the country is now perched shows that this has not been enough.

Niccolò Machiavelli, the Italian diplomat and philosopher understood the art of political leadership and his insights remain relevant. One passage in The Prince should be absorbed by voters before the poll: “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”

FW de Klerk seemingly understood Machiavelli. When he called a referendum to create a new order in 1992, he knew he would benefit from the vote of the anti-apartheid opposition. He also understood that most white voters wanted change. Those voting next Wednesday for the DA will — as Tony Leon has pointed out — similarly be helping Ramaphosa. He needs this support. His real opponents are in the ANC.

• Shain is professor emeritus of historical studies at UCT.