President Cyril Ramaphosa. PIC: GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa. PIC: GCIS

There could not be a more important time to understand a man than when he is under scrutiny. The goodwill to embrace the stewardship of President Cyril Ramaphosa, contrasted with aspersions that he is weak and indecisive, is a reality that should be explained.

A hallmark of his leadership is that he has not shied away from grappling with matters at hand, at both party and government level. It may also be true that the optics of glamour, shiny shoes, song, dance and poetic exhortations are absent under Ramaphosa. He is not a singing, dancing president, nor a populist. That which has happened on his watch has taken time, but has resulted in decisions that were in the national interest.

Think back to what happened since Ramaphosa rose to the helm of the ANC in 2017: he has not sought accolades for decisions of the party or state. This is not unique to him, but insistence on the principle to work within a collective is worth mentioning. At the party level the president has tapped into the political counsel of organisational structures, in particular the national executive committee. This means he allows the tradition of debate to take centre stage to ensure informed decisions. Most critically, this approach avoids oversimplification of reality and eliminates the defence of the indefensible. 

The other debate is that the president seems to prioritise the party at the expense of the country. This is untrue because no leader of a political party should be considered unpatriotic for simply advocating the policies of his or her party. The concern about the conflation of state and party has to do with the quality of governance. Accordingly, the president has been bold in confronting any matter that borders on party over-reach. The prestige of the ruling party is slowly being reclaimed. Party arrogance is not condoned and thus there are no cover-ups. 

In recent times SA faced several economic recessions and the Covid-19 pandemic. These challenges call for leaders to be more factual, agile and meticulous in performing their duties. Practical successes on managing the pandemic were registered, saving many lives. There is stronger appreciation of technical skills, expertise and competencies at leadership level.

This fits well with Che Guevara’s notion that “to become a revolutionary doctor you must first make a revolution”. Revolutionaries should be at the cutting edge of innovation and development of their societies. Mediocrity should never be associated with our body politic. The era of taking counsel from professionals is with us in the most practical, significant and progressive ways. 

Recently we have seen political decision-making anchored in the facts of science. This means transformational leaders cannot be anecdotal when it comes to technical skills and expertise. Equally, we were reminded of Peter Kropotkin’s challenge that lawyers should go beyond proving that a case is legally indisputable; they should also seek to understand what the real lives of ordinary poor people reveal. Kropotkin challenged scientists to do more than “exercise their mental faculties” and “pass life pleasantly” because they would be no different from “drunkards who seek the immediate gratification that gin affords” them. The search for practical solutions to our challenges underpins Ramaphosa’s leadership. He has politely veered away from chanting slogans but nudged  us to be part of the solutions.

Colonialism and apartheid normalised corruption, and unfortunately this also found expression in the democratic space led by the ANC. The party’s 54th national conference emboldened the president and his collective to act. It takes strong and bold leadership to swim against the tide of self-interest and greed. Legendary revolutionaries such as Thomas Sankara suffered in the fight against corruption. It is inconceivable that this would not cause internal wrangling in the ANC. Ramaphosa is steering the country against the tide of corruption in a manner that upholds our democratic ethos. He has been exemplary in explaining his conduct on various platforms, which includes the courts of law.

The resolutions on radical socio-economic transformation have re-energised the movement despite attempts to vulgarise them. The culture of robust engagement without fear of victimisation is on the rise despite being sometimes mired in subjective organisational contestations. Tolerance of dissent enriches leadership. The focus on organisational discipline is on the radar to facilitate constructive debates. The patience exercised in dealing with organisational challenges accentuates respect for processes and the importance of being systematic. The foundation to sustain disciplined robustness is firming up again and will take the movement to greater heights.

When the people put leaders at the helm of the country through elections they are doing so hopeful that societal challenges will be resolved. SA’s socio-economic challenges are deep. Sometimes it is not success but the effort to resolve pressing matters that inspires a nation.

Ramaphosa’s determination to make decisions in the national interest has taken time and these are only announced once he has been certain of public support. He has to be convinced of democratic consensus, or at the very least give opponents a fair hearing. To accuse Ramaphosa of being indecisive is to forget how divisive decisions by those who came before him were, and how opposition to those decisions served as a distraction from the national interest. The president is clear that where there is political will, there is means to action. In his every decision as president since 2018 Ramaphosa has been swayed by an active citizenry in support of the public good.

The violent riots in some parts of the country in July have made clear that inequality and unemployment pose the most immediate threat to SA’s constitutional democracy. The unrest showed Ramaphosa and the ANC how easily the country could slip into anarchy. Ramaphosa is not indecisive, he is reluctant to allow the battle plan to go out the window when bullets are fired.

What is at issue is the national agenda; the ANC has lost electoral support as a result of corruption, but the national conversation is being led by those leading the fightback campaign against Ramaphosa’s reform agenda. His commitment to the principle of nonracialism in post-apartheid SA and the prioritisation of the unity of the ANC, refusal to bypass legal and administrative processes, and his desire to apply his mind — these have been subject to much criticism. The past 27 years of democracy, leadership and governance failures have taught Ramaphosa to pause, even if it comes at the expense of being called indecisive. 

• Besani is the head of the presidency in the ANC.

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