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President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: REUTERS/EMMANUEL DUNAND
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: REUTERS/EMMANUEL DUNAND

Cyril Ramaphosa says that no SA president since 1994 has had a tougher time than him. His deputy, Paul Mashatile, says there is a plot by unnamed conspirators to oust him.

For perhaps the first time yet both men are right at the same time.     

Well, at least as far as those two particular claims go. Ramaphosa remains misguided about a great many things, and almost immediately snatched wrongness from the jaws of rightness by dismissing Mashatile’s claims. 

Speaking to the press at the weekend, he explained that he had tried to allay his deputy’s fears, allegedly telling him: “I appointed you and I am the only person who can disappoint you.”

This is obviously not true: if recent allegations about Mashatile are to be believed, there are lots of people who can disappoint him, from friends telling him that their backup mistress is in town so Mashatile can’t come and stay at the mansion after all, to a number of forensic accountants and investigative journalists. 

No, in this instance Ramaphosa was wrong and Mashatile was right. The deputy president is a man with his finger on the pulse of the nation — how could he not be given how tightly the ANC is gripping its throat? — and he has clearly found evidence of a plot against him, presumably by going outside and speaking to at least two passers-by. 

That’s all it would take, because the conspirators are everywhere: whispering in corners, or chatting openly over coffee, or shouting into megaphones in stadiums, all refining their diabolical plan to remove Mashatile from office — and Ramaphosa and Gwede Mantashe and Bheki Cele — by not voting for the ANC next year. 

At least, that’s the plot Mashatile should be worrying about, but it’s not the one he will be worrying about. And who can blame him?

The ANC has ruled this country unchallenged for half of Mashatile’s life. For at least a quarter of his life, power has been something you take from rivals and cling to until it is wrenched away by other rivals.

If you managed to get past his security detail without being beaten unconscious, and suggested to him that power is something the voters lend the powerful, and that the voters will eventually take it away if the ANC continues to behave as it has, he’d be entirely justified in believing you had been kicked in the head once too often by his colleagues’ VIP protection gangs.

No, like everyone in the ANC, Mashatile doesn’t think his power and position are contingent on what the electorate wants, mainly because a large chunk of the electorate keeps telling him they’re not contingent on anything at all. In SA, ANC politicians fear only one thing: another ANC politician who is fractionally more focused on the real business of power than they are.

 I suspect that’s what Ramaphosa was talking about at the weekend as he unpacked his tiny violin and asked us to feel sorry for the terribly difficult time he’s had as president. 

I’m not sure it won him many friends declaring that the period since he became president “is possibly the most challenging period that any president in the democratic era has faced”. At best he came off sounding like a weak leader of a broken party making excuses. At worst, he sounded like a billionaire indulging in self-pity. 

I also suspect Nelson Mandela might have had a few thoughts on what exactly qualifies as a “challenging period” to become president, what with militant right-wingers still fomenting a race war and Zulu nationalists still wondering if they might want to secede from the Republic in 1994. But then again his SA was awash in donor dollars, and each of them was worth R3.50 and not the R11 they cost when Ramaphosa was sworn in.

Still, I have to admit that Ramaphosa spoke true. 

All our democratic presidents faced fearsome obstacles when they took over the reins of power. 

Mandela had to make sure a fractious and imperfect negotiated settlement — a kind of psychosocial and political emergency skin graft — took hold. 

Thabo Mbeki had to walk an extremely delicate and difficult line, on the one hand insisting that he really was an intellectual while on the other hiring Manto Tshabalala-Msimang to tackle the HIV-Aids crisis. 

Kgalema Motlanthe, for his part, had to sit extremely close to the microphone so that the people at the back could hear.

And as for Jacob Zuma, well, we know that he quickly found himself desperately trying to keep up with the extremely corrupt, highly manipulative and exploitative foreign predators who descended on him — and that was just Fifa.

None of them, however, had to deal with what confronts and confounds Ramaphosa every day: their legacies, and specifically that policy of systematic self-destruction his predecessors so blithely named “cadre deployment”.

Mandela conceived it, perhaps in hope, perhaps in love. Mbeki birthed it out of urgent necessity. Zuma alternated between spoiling it rotten and ignoring it. 

And now Ramaphosa is left holding the gigantic baby, an insatiable infant he can’t abandon but which he also knows can’t learn or grow or mature but can only eat and soil itself, forcing him to express his shock before he removes the reeking bedding and redeploys it to another municipality. 

Yes, for once, Mashatile and Ramaphosa are absolutely right. 

• Eaton is an Arena Holdings columnist.

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