President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/Jeffrey Abrahams
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/Jeffrey Abrahams

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s question-and-answer session with journalists on Wednesday evening was a valuable exercise for the media and the public and hopefully also for the president.

While Ramaphosa does a large number of public events and answers questions in parliament with regularity, taking questions from the press is an important part of accountability. Journalists — if they take their privileged position in society seriously — should be able to raise the concerns of the public directly with the highest office in the land. The president has agreed to increase the frequency with which he takes media questions in the future and generously acknowledged that he too gains from the interaction.

So how did he do? Ramaphosa plays the statesman role well. He has gravitas and decorum and is disarming when confronted with hostility. He enjoys interacting with people and is used to a warm and fuzzy relationship with the press. So it was unlikely that he had expected the extent of the criticism of his leadership on Wednesday evening. The repeated theme of the questioning was: why is everything taking so long? Why is it taking so long to execute economic reforms that have been on the agenda for years? Why is it taking so long for the criminal justice system to put anyone on trial for the appalling corruption that has crippled the state for the past decade? Why do you need to consult forever?

The tone was markedly different from the last interaction six months ago.

When Ramaphosa began his presidency in February 2018 he underplayed the damage that had been done to both the state and the economy by a decade of Jacob Zuma rule. It was after all his own party that had wrought the damage, while he had looked on passively for much of the time. Ramaphosa eventually did let it slip that SA had experienced “nine wasted years”, in what looked like an unguarded moment, but the overwhelming thrust of his message to South Africans was that “a new dawn” was upon us and that economic growth “was just around the corner”.

Ramaphosa now sees he can’t bluff his way through any more. In his interaction with the press on Wednesday he described the state he had inherited as “wrecked”, suffering from the “incapacity of a war zone” and that SA had been “on a one-way ticket to complete dysfunctionality”. From now on his concern will be with implementation, he said, and implementation will be the only game in town. He appealed to journalists to understand that these are dire circumstances that are not of his making. He is painstakingly putting things right and “history” will absolve him.

But will it? If Ramaphosa continues in this vein — in which directors-general implicated in the theft of funds for state funerals remain in office for months on end; in which it takes his office 12 months to change the terms of reference of the Zondo commission to allow the National Prosecuting Authority use of its evidence; in which his cabinet ministers refuse to show any urgency in dealing with the energy supply crisis crippling the country — he will be no hero of history.

These three examples are not legacy issues. He appoints directors-general; he appoints cabinet ministers and he has an office of his own, staffed with technical experts and advisers of his choosing.

For the country’s sake we need Ramaphosa to get the government moving. No-one else can do it and it is his central and overriding responsibility. We do not need more interministerial committees and lekgotlas and expert reports. Ramaphosa pledged in his first state of the nation address to act as CEO of the government, make it fit for purpose in hands-on interaction with and overview of departments. He has not done anything like that and has shown that he tolerates mediocrity, laxity and even corruption on his watch.

It is only two and a half years in but his legacy is already on the line. The country needs him to fight for an honourable place in history.

Correction: September 11 2020

In an earlier version of this story, we said that Ramaphosa began his presidency in February 2019, in fact, his term began in February 2018.

Former president Jacob Zuma was set to appear at the state capture inquiry this week. However, his lawyers said he was preparing for his criminal trial, and was advised by his doctor to limit his movements because his age increases his risks during the Covid-19 pandemic.Deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo said he would send the former president a summons to appear in front of the inquiry in November 2020.

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