The unreal suburban dream of Captain Fantastic saving SA
It is a tale of manic depression. One day all is up, the next all is down. Let’s get real about Cyril Ramaphosa
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 and the ANC was just the ANC. 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. One day all is up, the next all is down. It is in part a symptom of despair.
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 sections of news sites filled with howls of rage. Why has he not fired Shaun Abrahams? Why has he not arrested Ace Magashule? Why is he putting so many Zuma people in his cabinet?
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 directorship 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. Who knows whether he will succeed.
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.