Covid-19

Strong leadership from Ramaphosa gives SA a better chance against more than one deadly malaise

22 March 2020 - 00:00
The cabinet met on Saturday after the country recorded its 38th case of coronavirus.
The cabinet met on Saturday after the country recorded its 38th case of coronavirus.
Image: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/BERND THISSEN

Welcome back, Mr President. That's more like it. But where the hell have you been?

President Cyril Ramaphosa, after keeping the country waiting for two hours last Sunday, strode to the podium and spoke like the president he ought to be and the leader people had always thought he was.

He was lucid, authoritative, assured, persuasive and — dare I say — presidential. It was a far cry from the apologetic, grinning figure who always seemed eager to please. Long may this transformation last.

Ramaphosa's reluctance or refusal to deploy the enormous political power — and goodwill — at his disposal to tackle the gargantuan problems facing SA has mystified friends and foes alike since he took office.

There was a great deal of enthusiasm and public support when the corrupt Jacob Zuma was forced out two years ago. Ramaphosa's first state of the nation address convinced many of his compatriots that he was indeed the man of the hour.

It was also thanks to his popularity that many people were persuaded to give the ANC a thumping majority in last year's general elections. Mmusi Maimane is now unemployed partly because some DA supporters thought that by breaking ranks and voting for the ANC they would stiffen Ramaphosa's resolve.

But, with all that wind in his sails, he's utterly failed to deal with issues that have seriously disfigured society, such as crime and corruption.

That has given rise to a widespread belief that he doesn't have the bottle for the job, especially in tackling corruption, which implicates many in the leadership of his party.

Ramaphosa's defenders say he has to tread cautiously because he only squeaked through with a slim majority at the ANC conference in Nasrec.

But that's a lot of hogwash. He's the man in pole position. He's got the mandate to lead, however slim his victory. He's got to wield the axe.

Power, if it is not used, tends to dissipate. His timidity has emboldened his foes in the party who are determined to frustrate his efforts to set the country to rights. Many simply fear that, should Ramaphosa succeed, they will end up behind bars.

Now the country is on tenterhooks. Along with the rest of humanity, it is facing an unprecedented existential danger in the form of Covid-19.

It's a mammoth challenge, especially to the country's leadership, which hasn't covered itself in glory in the past. How the government deals with such a rapacious disease is uppermost in the minds of the populace.

Ramaphosa passed the test last Sunday. He seems to have found his voice and his footing. His newfound assertiveness seems to have rubbed off on his cabinet colleagues. People like to be guided by a confident, forceful leader.

Health minister Zweli Mkhize is a leader reborn. This huge challenge hasn't weighed him down; instead he's taken to it like a duck to water. At the same time, if Ramaphosa is seen to be doing well, his detractors are unlikely to have the temerity to either rock the boat or to mess with him.

It could seem a bit fallacious to be obsessing about the twists and turns of one man's career in the midst of such an extraordinary crisis.

But we've been told that in this disease, we're facing a formidable enemy that has to be engaged head-on, and that we, the population, are the army. And soldiers cannot be expected to follow their commander — Ramaphosa — if he's not sure-footed and doesn't have his wits about him. He has to be fully in charge to inspire confidence in his troops.

One of the consequences of the Covid-19 outbreak is that life as we know it has almost ground to a halt, and that includes political activities. One of the most anticipated political events of the year was this winter's ANC national general council (NGC), at which scores were apparently going to be settled.

The Zuma faction, which lost at Nasrec, was hoping to corner Ramaphosa and probably strangle him. He was to answer to all sorts of misdemeanours, like the failure to nationalise the Reserve Bank, tardiness in the implementation of expropriation of land without compensation, and everything and anything else into the bargain. Now the cancellation of the NGC means swords will have to remain in their sheaths. It also gives Ramaphosa some respite, time to retool his own arsenal.

The Covid-19 outbreak will change society and bring about a new and unpredictable political reality. It's virgin territory. We've never been here before. Nobody knows what lies around the corner, or even under the ground on which we're standing. Well-laid plans and conventional strategies are likely to be obsolete.

One looks at what's happening in developed countries such as Italy, Spain and France and shudders to think of what could become of poor us. At difficult times such as these when we seem up against it, we should — when searching for inspiration — always cast our minds back at our greatest triumphs and think about what made us succeed.

It was great leadership, for instance, that helped chaperon us through some treacherous terrain 25 years ago, while at the same time deficient leaders were plunging Rwanda into an unspeakable civil war. The US, with everything going for it, is making a fine mess of the outbreak because of the staggering shortcomings of its leader.

Has Ramaphosa finally found his purpose? Could this mark the turning point, the transformation, of his presidency? One swallow obviously doesn't make a summer. But who knows, maybe once he's tasted the fruits of good leadership — the universal accolades that come with it — he will relish it, and never let go. An apprehensive public will fervently hope he does.


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