Team Cyril can tweet all they like – we’ll decide if he deserves respect
Ramaphosa's title has to be earned through action, not the pouting rants of his inner circle
“This thing of referring to the President by his first name must STOP now. Cyril this Cyril that. Stop it. President Ramaphosa. Get it, media!”
It was a naively endearing tweet, and not a little bit surprising: it hadn’t occurred to me until that moment that Cyril Ramaphosa’s granny might be on Twitter, keeping a beady eye on the internet to make sure that little Matamela was being treated with the respect he deserves.
A moment later, however, I realised how unlikely this was. The president is, after all, 66 years old. No. The tweet had clearly been written by an angry six-year-old who had just learned what a president was and was seething with that particular sort of righteous fury that afflicts officious preteens when they see protocols being ignored.
But then my eye fell on the name of its author, and I became very confused.
Almost exactly a year ago, Tito Mboweni took to Twitter to share a Business Day article about Ramaposa’s first hundred days in office. His comment: “So far, so good Cyril.”
Yet now here he was – for yes, dear reader, the outraged six-year-old was the same Tito Mboweni – telling us that we had to STOP with the first name stuff.
So what happened? Has Mboweni had some sort of Damascene moment involving a flaming title in the sky? Or is he simply saying “Cyril” is acceptable if you’re an ANC big shot but filth like you and me need to touch our forelock and mumble “Mr President”?
Then again, perhaps Mboweni was just desperately trying to convince us Ramaphosa really is a president, seriously, for realsies. Yes, OK, he can’t pick the cabinet he wants, and sure, he can’t announce it when he wants, and yes, if he gets it wrong he might not have his job for very long, but HE’S PRESIDENT, DAMMIT, AND DON’T YOU FORGET IT!
It would have been admirable if it hadn’t been so arrogant. An ANC government can ask us to respect one of its appointees. It can promise us that its appointee will win back our respect. But to demand our respect after everything it’s done in the last decade – to order us, in capital letters, like some impotent, shrieking drill-sergeant – shows that it is still a party that thinks respect is a performance of veneration in front of a Big Man.
(It should be said that many people agreed with Mboweni, insisting that the office of the presidency is an institution that should be respected. I agree in principle, but how about, before we give the office our automatic respect, we first give it a once-over with some bleach, and perhaps get some UV light on the walls and carpets, and then wait until we have actual proof that it’s being used as an office rather than a clearing house?)
Still, I understand why Team Cyril – sorry, I mean the president’s inner circle – is so keen to trumpet his legitimacy.
The delay in announcing his cabinet wasn’t necessarily a sign of weakness – if you believe Ramaphosa is slowly picking off his opponents with slow but inexorable due process, he might simply have been making his position watertight – but it opened the news cycle to vocal challengers.
It should have been wall-to-wall Ramaphosa on the weekend of his inauguration. Instead, we had the public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane finding Pravin Gordhan guilty of improper conduct. (I would remind her critics that her job description doesn’t stipulate how much of the public she has to protect. If she’s protecting a few dozen people, well, job done, right?)
Speaking of which, we also had Julius Malema, parlaying his 10% vote into the usual 40% coverage, ordering the president not to put Gordhan in his cabinet because of – well whaddaya know? The Mkhwebane ruling! Isn’t that handy? That’s the kind of satisfying politics that makes a fighter just want to lie back and light up a smoke. If only they knew where to get cheap cigarettes …
We even had Jacob Zuma’s thoughts on all sorts of things, from being too busy to attend the inauguration to selling his clothes to pay his legal bills. (This last one isn’t a joke, by the way: despite having a pension that pays him well more than R200,000 a month, Zuma is reportedly flogging his hand-me-downs, so if you want a belt that’s never been tightened, give him a call.)
Somewhere in the middle of all of this, Ramaphosa took the oath of office and became the President of South Africa.
I hope that, in time, that title becomes synonymous with respect; respect that has been earned through brave, consistent, strategic action, not demanded in pouting tweets.
So will it be Cyril or President Ramaphosa? Time – not Tito – will tell.