ANALYSIS: Hold your horses, Time. Cyril isn’t all that influential ... yet
There is no doubt that he has helped SA change course, but for Time to categorise him as one of the world's most influential people is perhaps rather generous
Two South Africans, President Cyril Ramaphosa and star athlete Caster Semenya, made Time magazine’s list of 2019’s 100 most influential people. Out of 7.5 billion people on the planet, it is of course an honour for two of our citizens to be listed – even though the magazine does not suggest that the compilation is of people with positive influence.
Semenya was among 14 people featured in the “Icons” category, including Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga and Spike Lee. She is undoubtedly making an impact on the world, and not just through her outstanding achievements on the track.
The tribute to Semenya, written by Olympic gold medallist Edwin Moses, states that apart from being a world and Olympic track-and-field champion several times over, she “caused us to question the justness of distributing societal benefits according to ‘male’ and ‘female’ classifications”.
Moses says that however the controversy over hormone levels for women athletes plays out, “Semenya will have already made a singular historical contribution to our understanding of biological sex”.
Ramaphosa made the list as one of the world’s most influential leaders, alongside people like US special counsel Robert Mueller, Chinese president Xi Jinping and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
The category also features the world’s right-wing poster boys, US President Donald Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Italy’s deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, showing that prominence does not mean good leadership.
The tribute to Ramaphosa, written by Time correspondent Vivienne Walt, does not, however, make a strong case for him having influence but rather that he could in future.
Walt says Ramaphosa has “perfected the art of patience”.
When he was sidelined for the presidency in the 1990s, she says “he harnessed his cunning and gregariousness to make a vast fortune in business, while his rivals sank the country into dysfunction and cronyism”.
He now “has the chance to end corruption and grow the stalled economy”.
“That could be his toughest battle yet. Blackouts, grinding poverty and massive unemployment have left millions desperate for quick results. Vicious infighting in his African National Congress party leaves him vulnerable to a coup, or perhaps an ouster in elections on May 8,” Walt wrote.
It seems that Time, like many South Africans, appreciates that Ramaphosa has the potential to make his mark in the world, but is not there yet.
His game plan is still not clear, even though he is in the presidency and on the home straight to being elected to the top job for the next five years.
There is no doubt that he has helped SA change course, but to categorise him as one of the most influential people in the world is perhaps rather generous.
Ramaphosa’s influence within his own party is debatable as his opponents continue to outmanoeuvre him and are laying the groundwork to sabotage his presidency.
There is no indication that Ramaphosa has the strategy to deal with the opposition faction in the ANC, and therefore remains vulnerable to their scheming. He has great appeal among ordinary people but there is widespread concern about his political longevity and whether his agenda as president will be viable when a significant lobby in the ANC will seek to torpedo it.
One of SA’s most temperate and astute leaders, Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba said in his Easter sermon that after a “horrendous period”, he believed that “we are about to receive our second wind”.
He said the elections “had the potential to be the genesis and catalyst of our nation’s renewal”.
“In past years at Easter, you have heard me warn against believing we will solve all our problems by replacing one president with another. Changing individual leaders is no panacea for all that is wrong with governance in South Africa today,” Makgoba said.
On the president, Makgoba had this to say: “For while President Ramaphosa has given us some of the hope and optimism I have referred to, he is not all-powerful. He too can be replaced – and the events of the past 15 months have shown us that we cannot rely solely on changes in the presidency to turn our country around.”
Former president Kgalema Motlanthe, another rational and sagacious voice amid the noise, also said recently that he did not see Ramaphosa as a messiah.
Although he is a close friend and comrade, Motlanthe warned against investing in Ramaphosa alone to change the situation in the country.
His foundation therefore began an initiative in 2018, the Drakensberg Inclusive Growth Forum, to facilitate dialogues “among equals” on how to tackle the country’s problems.
Makgoba and Motlanthe clearly have great respect for Ramaphosa but are channelling the concerns of many South Africans.
Both are also pointing the way to prevent SA’s destiny being exposed to the vagaries of politics.
Motlanthe has spoken repeatedly about the need to build a strong, capable state that is able to function efficiently irrespective of who is in government. His foundation’s inclusive growth forum report also speaks to the creation of a professional bureaucracy.
Makgoba said in his Easter message there is a new struggle about values and institutions rather than about personalities.
Parliament had “failed abysmally over the years to hold our government to account”, he said.
“Too often, the behaviour of our members of parliament has been disgraceful.”
People must examine the election candidate lists and not vote out of blind party loyalty, said Makgoba.
Meaning of power
New US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez features on the Time list alongside Ramaphosa. At 29, she is the youngest woman yet to serve in the US Congress.
Her tribute by Elizabeth Warren, Democratic presidential candidate for the 2020 elections, states that Ocasio-Cortez “fought back against a rigged system and emerged as a fearless leader ... committed to demonstrating what an economy, a planet and a government that works for everyone should look like”.
“A year ago, she was taking orders across a bar. Today, millions are taking cues from her. She reminds all of us that even while greed and corruption slow our progress ... in our democracy, true power still rests with the people.”
The meaning of power and influence is something we in SA must still learn.