Ramaphosa is executing a constitutional about-turn on the strength of someone else's convictions
It took Menachem Begin to make peace with Egypt. Yitzhak Rabin proposed something equally significant, though less dramatic or adventurous, but was deemed a traitor and was killed.
It was Mikhail Gorbachev, groomed to preserve the Soviet empire, who instead painstakingly dismantled it amid the perorations of perestroika and glasnost. He was buried in the rubble.
Nearer home, FW de Klerk, who'd earned a reputation as an arch verkrampte (remember those appellations?), came to power and quickly released Nelson Mandela and unbanned the ANC and the communists, unleashing the liberation forces that it had been the instinctual tradition of his ancestry for centuries to suppress. He, too, was soon out on his ear, a victim of his own handiwork.
PW Botha, De Klerk's dour predecessor, had a few years earlier walked to the water's edge, demurred and then retreated, with calamitous consequences for an economy already battered by international sanctions. Interestingly, it was chiefly De Klerk who had caused Botha to deliver that disastrous Rubicon speech.
It often takes a person or leader with credibility with a particular constituency to force that constituency to swallow a bitter pill or face uncomfortable realities.
This week marked the 44th anniversary of Richard Nixon's resignation as US president following the Watergate scandal. It's worth remembering that it was Nixon, a fire-eating anticommunist conservative, who made that ground-breaking visit to communist China at the height of the Cold War. Only Nixon could have pulled off such a feat because he had an unassailable reputation among his supporters. Anyone else could have been dismissed as a communist lackey.
Cyril Ramaphosa finds himself between a rock and a hard place on the land question. His party, ensnared by the EFF, has agreed to change the constitution to allow for private land to be usurped without compensation. Ramaphosa is lamely going along.Will Ramaphosa, so closely identified with the drafting of the constitution, be the one to dismantle and ultimately destroy it? And will we, because he has credibility on that front, cheer him along as he shreds it?
A few years ago any intimation of tinkering with the pillars of the constitution would have brought the rafters crashing down. In fact, the focus of opposition parties' election campaigns a few years ago were to deny the ANC a two-thirds majority so that it would not be able to amend the constitution. Not that the ruling party had even insinuated that it intended doing so.
But the fact that Jacob Zuma was party leader gave people the jitters. Such a deeply flawed man could not be trusted with our future. And so a whole activism started around protecting and defending our cherished constitution. It was in mortal danger as long as Zuma and his cronies were in power.
And of course the Constitutional Court judgment on Nkandla only confirmed people's fears. He was not only corrupt; he had also breached the sacred document he had sworn to uphold. The judgment was so damning, the justices must have expected Zuma to vacate his office or be fired. It was, however, not their place to say so. But his party, including - it must be said - our current president, stood squarely behind him.
When Zuma's term expired, we chose sides based on our perception of which candidate was either not corrupt or did not pose a threat to the constitution. Ramaphosa won, and we sat back and relaxed, even celebrated.
We've seen this movie before. After apartheid was defeated, those who'd spent a lifetime fighting the system heaved a huge sigh of relief. Our people, they said, are now in charge. And so they relaxed. B
ut of course "our people" didn't adopt new ways of doing things, or do any of the things they promised when they were in opposition. They took to the old corrupt ways of their apartheid predecessors like ducks to water. Frantz Fanon was prescient when he warned years ago about the new bourgeoisie's "scandalous enrichment [which is] speedy and pitiless" while the rest of the population continues to wallow in poverty. We're not alone in this; the rest of the continent and indeed most of the developing world have trodden the same path. But that doesn't make it any less outrageous. I digress, though.
What's interesting about Ramaphosa is that the public is much more patient and tolerant of him tampering with the constitution than it would have been had the fiddler been Zuma. The country would have been up in arms. And yet the outcome is or will be the same.
People like Begin, Gorbachev and De Klerk, who found themselves pursuing policies that were contrary to their core beliefs or to the values that they had espoused over time, had at least been convinced by facts on the ground to change their minds. Ideology, always pliable, had had to come to terms with immovable reality.
They were converts to their respective causes in a way that Ramaphosa isn't on the land question. The reality on the ground hasn't changed. Neither have his views on the matter. The policies that he's about to implement are not his, but those of his political foes. He's putty in Julius Malema's devious hands.
Will the gamble with the country's future pay off and be a fillip to his political career? Or has he - like the string of illustrious names before him - mounted a tiger that will ultimately devour him?