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Cyril Ramaphosa’s Poisoned Chalice

Sunday, April 15, 2018 12:11
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15 April 2018

 - Relief at the end of the corrupt and illiberal regime of Jacob Zuma has quickly given place here in South Africa to swooning adulation for the new President, Cyril Ramaphosa. South African political culture is very much leader-focused and the recent experience of democracy means that it is also naive. One realises that electorates get more sophisticated with time and even understand a bit of comparative history. That is how you get an electorate smart enough to reject the massively popular Churchill for the rather anonymous Attlee because the latter was better suited to the work of postwar reconstruction. No such scepticism exists in this case. Ramaphosa has known how to press all the right buttons and has led an extended charm offensive, piling on the rhetoric of consultation and conciliation with a trowel. The idea — clearly successful — has been to position himself as the man who negotiated the country’s first democratic constitution, who will bring the same skills to dealing with the country’s problems now, and fulfilling the promise of Nelson Mandela. This is heady stuff and were an election to be held today he would clearly win by a mile.

In large part this is due to sheer relief at the end of Zuma’s blundering and stealing and the way in which he allowed the state’s capture by a gangster elite. But this is a good moment to look at South Africa’s leadership under the ANC since democracy was won in 1994. Mandela was a dear old man, greatly loved, and his message of racial conciliation and forgiveness was just what the country needed. In every other way he was a hopeless president. He never understood or did the job, instead spending all his time with pop stars, sportsmen and the mega-rich. He neither presided over the cabinet nor even bothered to stay right through its meetings. There was simply a hole in the middle of government where there needed to be hands-on executive leadership. Corruption began to flower under his administration, particularly in the infamous arms deal of 1999.

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