Cyril needs a bit more swagger and a bit less schmoozing to put Malema in his place
Former British prime minister Gordon Brown became the butt of jokes a few years ago during the general election that turfed him out of office. In a televised debate, he kept saying "I agree with Nick" and "As Nick was saying" in reference to Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats.
Odd that Brown should seek some validation from a rival who led the smallest of the three main parties. Brown's Labour Party went on to lose power, while Clegg's fortunes soared, becoming deputy to Conservative prime minister David Cameron.
While President Cyril Ramaphosa does not run the risk of suffering the same fate, his pandering to Julius Malema can sometimes rankle. Put crudely, he's sucking up.
Even Ramaphosa's fiercest rivals will agree that his state of the nation address, presented just days after Jacob Zuma's midnight swansong, was skilful and in a stroke transformed him from the loyal, almost docile, subordinate - even enabler - of a dishonourable potentate to a confident skipper brimming with ideas on how to tackle the many problems confronting the country.
Once he got into his stride, you could see that he was enjoying himself. He commanded the house. His upbeat address lifted the national mood after the gloom of the Zuma presidency. For the first time in many years people felt South Africa was in competent hands.
But there was something that jarred - his constant off-the-cuff chitchat with Malema (mara wena mara!). It spoilt what was a flawless performance. No one else, other than former presidents, was accorded such presidential attention. Poor Mmusi Maimane. He thought he was the leader of the opposition. And Malema basked in the attention. He laughed heartily.
Ramaphosa repeated the performance at Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's funeral at Orlando Stadium last weekend. Malema's rabble-rousing speech brought the house down. But he was on the whole shaving the truth, even peddling fiction. Nobody seemed to care. They seemed determined to rewrite and glorify a revolution they were never a part of. Ignorance is bliss.
And for good measure, Malema threw in the widows of Marikana (will politicians ever stop using the departed to advance their careers?). Marikana has become a ready-made rod for Ramaphosa's back. He should have learnt how to deal with it by now.
Ramaphosa made a point of addressing Malema directly. It was a mistake. He'd go to meet the widows of Marikana, he said, and he'd take Malema with him. Again Malema guffawed.
Why does Ramaphosa (he's the president of South Africa, for heaven's sake!) need Malema to hold his hand to Marikana or anywhere in the country? Doesn't he know his way there? Wasn't he a director of Lonmin?
The fact is Ramaphosa didn't pull a trigger in Marikana. He was nowhere near the place. He was not even in government. The people responsible for the massacre - the ministers, including Zuma - have been let off scot-free.
Ramaphosa did what any director would have done in his place. His mistake was to initially ignore Marikana as an irritant that would eventually go away. It probably would have faded had he not decided to be president. Now it's an albatross around his neck. He now has to beg Malema to take him there, as if Malema holds the key to the place. But Malema, too, should know that once he chaperones Ramaphosa to the place, Marikana would immediately lose its potency as a political weapon.
You have to give credit to Malema. His party has 6%of the vote and yet a person arriving from Mars would think he's running the country. He's dictating the national agenda.
The point, though, is that Malema and Ramaphosa - with their respective parties in tow - are sizing each other up. In Zuma, the EFF has lost a convenient target. And it isn't sure yet whether to love or loathe the ANC, which, with a new and seemingly incorruptible leader, sans Marikana, could begin to eat into its constituency or limit its appeal.
There's been much talk of the ANC wooing Malema to rejoin the party. I'm not sure Ramaphosa would want Malema back. After all, he was party to his dismissal from the ANC. But he was bounced into the idea by David Mabuza's unscrupulous "unity" campaign during the ANC presidential election that presumably would have seen everybody in one tent. That was just Mabuza's way of advancing his own interests. And he's left lots of bruised egos in his wake.
Malema would be too much trouble for the ANC were he to come back. He's tasted untrammelled power, and would be uncontrollable. He and his "fighters" would shake up a staid ANC and probably compel it to adopt some of the EFF's reckless policies.
What the ANC would like is not so much a merger but a less hostile relationship, weaning it from its coalition with the DA in the metros and have it ready as a coalition partner in case it didn't win an overall majority in the next elections.
But by fawning over Malema, Ramaphosa is helping to increase the power and effectiveness of his rival while reducing his own. He may think taking him on is not a good idea, and he's probably right. But the schmooze doesn't work either. He's got to realise he's the top dog. He's got the power. A bit more swagger will do.