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President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS

I’m not saying politicians shouldn’t be allowed to use symbols and metaphors, but as I watched President Cyril Ramaphosa get applauded for standing next to a tap, I wondered: is it too much to ask that they be accompanied by a trained professional, like a writer or at least a half-decent propagandist?  

In theory, the weekend’s photo-op was electioneering gold: the ANC state overseeing the completion of a water scheme in rural northern KwaZulu-Natal, with a local woman happily turning on the tap to the sound of applause and ululation.  

In practice, though, it was proof of how few competent spin doctors still work in the ANC; how the Mac Maharaj generation has been replaced by people so unconscious that they turn even the most foolproof photo-op into a cry for help.  

Not that this is new. Last week Eskom confirmed that it remains entirely committed to not reading the room, pushing ahead with the tender to create a new logo and what the press called a “new corporate identity”. 

To be fair, I understand the urge: changing your identity is the first thing you do when you’ve decided to cash out and disappear. But spending energy and money on a rebrand — and what a lot of money Eskom will no doubt spend — feels far too much like the crew of the Titanic being ordered to stop lowering the lifeboats so they can all go and paint “Not The Titanic” on the side. 

No, there are all sorts of reasons why somebody thought it would be a good idea to pose Ramaphosa next to a tap, and why nobody understood the fundamental flaw of the symbolism they were trying to profit from. 

I doubt anyone in the ANC is reading this, being far too busy figuring out how many seats the party is likely to lose in 2024 and Googling, “What is a job and how do you get one?” But on the off chance that someone close to the president stumbles across this, I would like to explain: comrade, the problem with your symbol wasn’t the tap. It was the guy you chose to stand next to it.  

I know. You thought bigger would be better; that a president standing at the tap would say much better things about the ANC than if it were a local mayor or councillor. But, dear comrade, here’s the thing. When a minor functionary attends the turning on of a tap it is a symbol of solid governance, not just in the municipality where the tap has been installed but all the way up to the very top. 

The presence of that functionary implies the existence of a long chain of increasingly important people, each too busy to attend this happy but relatively insignificant event because they’re all in their offices, doing their job.  

At the end of that chain (the inherent symbolism of the tap switch-on implies) there is the president who, it being election season, is off doing things like cutting the ribbon on a new bullet train or giving the graduation speech at one of the many training colleges his party opened 20 years ago, which have produced hundreds of thousands of highly sought-after engineers, teachers and doctors since.  

But when it’s a president standing at that tap applauding the water coming out of it, in a country in which his party has been in power for 30 years, the symbol says something quite different. 

It says, simply, that this tap is worthy of a presidential visit. It says this little pipe in the ground, a technology available in more or less the same form to the ancient Romans, is our bullet train, our hall full of graduating engineers. It says this tap is the best he and his government can do.  

Of course, presidents are always being trotted out for all sorts of man-of-the-people events like pardoning turkeys, or introducing their pets to the press. But Ramaphosa is not that kind of president.  

He is a president staring at an energy crisis, the collapse of SA’s ports and roads, pretty much the worst youth unemployment in the world, a worsening crime pandemic and an accelerating outflow of capital and skills.  

When Ramaphosa pardons a turkey it’s because he fears an insurrection, and when he introduces his pets to the media — “You can call him Fiks or secretary-general, but he doesn’t really respond to either” — it’s to buy their loyalty for a few more years. 

It’s possible that Ramaphosa’s handlers genuinely believed the tap turn-on would look good; a lighter, less formal moment carved out of a president’s busy schedule of doing important things. But if that was their intention, they were misguided from the start.

After all, lightness and informality need to be earned by piling up actual achievements year after year. There are few things more unbearable than an incompetent boss who wants to be your friend.  

No wonder then that they couldn’t understand how symbols are changed by failure; how, when a party has melted down, the symbols it once took for granted have also melted and turned into something quite different. 

In 1994, a president applauding a new tap was a perfect symbol of progress, renewal and the humility of power. In 2023 it is just an admission of guilt.  

• Eaton is an Arena Holdings columnist.

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