Ramaphosa is no cow­ard; he is sim­ply a true demo­crat

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So Malusi Gi­gaba is look­ing sickly, Tom Moy­ane is down and out and Ace Ma­gashule keeps glanc­ing over his shoul­der.

The bad guys are not feel­ing so good and the sub­urbs are once more in love with Cyril Ramaphosa. Just a cou­ple of weeks ago they couldn’t stand him; he was mealy-mouthed and weak. Now he is Mr Fan­tas­tic. When the his­tory of these strange times comes to be writ­ten, the chap­ter ti­tled “Cyril and the Sub­urbs” will be among the strangest.

It is a tale of manic de­pres­sion. When the po­lit­i­cal process is widely be­lieved to be rot­ten to the core, the only hope is a mir­a­cle — a su­per­hero who sweeps in and does his su­per­hero stuff to save the day. And when he shows that he is only hu­man, the spell is bro­ken, the fan­tasy shat­tered and the sub­urbs are left with the shock­ing knowl­edge that life will go on as be­fore.

That is one ex­pla­na­tion for the crazi­ness of the ride. But there are other, more trou­bling, rea­sons. The su­per­hero thing is not quite right. It is more an old Western that is play­ing out. In the sub­ur­ban dream, Ramaphosa is John Wayne; he rides into a cor­rupt and bro­ken town, rounds up the bad guys and has them un­der­stand that they are not wel­come any­more.

That is pre­cisely the prob­lem. For the point about Ramaphosa — the golden, in­valu­able, prayer-in­duc­ing point — is that he is not a char­ac­ter from the Wild West; on the con­trary, his mis­sion is to mend the in­sti­tu­tions of a con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy.

Ramaphosa came to of­fice in mid-Fe­bru­ary. March was barely upon us when the com­ments sec­tion of this news­pa­per filled with howls of rage. Why has he not fired Shaun Abra­hams? Why has he not ar­rested Ma­gashule?

The writ­ers of these com­ments have a chilling idea of what gov­er­nance is about. Their un­der­stand­ing of ex­ec­u­tive of­fice is much the same as Ja­cob Zuma’s: you put your guys in and you screw the guys you don’t like.

The anger with Ramaphosa, I’m afraid to say, does not stem from his dither­ing or his cow­ard­li­ness; it stems from the fact that he is a con­sti­tu­tional demo­crat. Per­haps SA was so long with­out a pres­i­dent who re­spects the rule of law that many don’t re­mem­ber what it is.

Dur­ing his short time in of­fice, Ramaphosa has over­seen the res­ig­na­tion of a cab­i­net min­is­ter for ly­ing — a first in SA his­tory. He has fired a se­nior bu­reau­crat be­cause a tele­vised com­mis­sion of in­quiry ex­posed his de­struc­tive­ness. And he has fash­ioned a trans­par­ent pro­ce­dure for ap­point­ing a new per­son to the most sen­si­tive bu­reau­cratic po­si­tion in the coun­try: the na­tional direc­tor of pub­lic prose­cu­tions.


Ramaphosa’s job is not to chase the bad guys out of town. It is to re-es­tab­lish the pro­cesses, the in­sti­tu­tions and the spirit that make it pos­si­ble to gov­ern this coun­try at all.

The list of things that may de­stroy his project is omi­nously long. Fore­most is his party. Hav­ing cham­pi­oned the writ­ing of a fine con­sti­tu­tion, it is now clear that much of ANC doesn ’ t care for its own cre­ation. Can a con­sti­tu­tional demo­crat leave a last­ing legacy in such a party? It may be that Ramaphosa’s work is writ­ten in sand and will dis­ap­pear in the wind.

It is pos­si­ble, too, that Zuma has al­ready de­stroyed SA and that fuse is sim­ply tak­ing a while to burn down. Whether the de­struc­tion he wreaked upon the state-owned en­ter­prises will bring the whole house down is a story that has not yet played out.

How the tale ends will in part be shaped by the va­garies of a global econ­omy over which Ramaphosa has no con­trol.

The jury is out on Ramaphosa’s project. But the cho­rus of sub­ur­ban cheers and boos is not that jury. The mea­sure of his suc­cess is not how fast he can draw his re­volver. It is whether through his ac­tions as a law-abid­ing pres­i­dent he can re­store the in­tegrity that the con­sti­tu­tion en­vis­ages to the three branches of gov­ern­ment. On that project ev­ery­thing hinges.

● Stein­berg teaches African stud­ies at Ox­ford and is vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at Yale


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