Yes, we want Cyril to get a spine, but we don’t want him to turn into Putin
When we call on Ramaphosa to act decisively and show a ‘strong fist’, we should be careful what we ask for
There is one thing President Cyril Ramaphosa is not short of: advice. Business, civil society, government leaders – everyone gives their advice to Ramaphosa in buckets. Of all the bits of advice he gets possibly the most frequent he is that he needs to act faster and more decisively. Everyone is tired of Mr Nice Guy.
In fact, it has gone further. Many well-meaning folks are now asking him to act “with force”. Many of my fellow commentators, exactly like me, have said he needs to show his mettle.
“Will Ramaphosa finally grow a pair?” asked Barney Mthombothi in the Sunday Times recently. Pieter du Toit, author of The Stellenbosch Mafia and Enemy of the People, wrote recently of “Ramaphosa’s limp-wristed leadership”. Academic and author William Gumede warned in his Sunday Times column that “unless Ramaphosa forges ahead with a stronger fist”, we are in trouble.
We all use this language. In November my column was headlined “Cyril must make like the Boks and show some spine to fix SA”. Intellidex’s Peter Attard Montalto’s recent column on BusinessLive broached the dreaded “dictator” word with regards to Ramaphosa.
“Being a leader is always some percentage dictator and some percentage clear communications, but mainly it’s action,” he wrote.
What do we want from our country’s leader at a time when the economy has tanked, junk status looms, Eskom cannot supply its own advertised product, unemployment is a crisis and Ace Magashule seems to be running the country by stealth?
We know what we should not want. We should not want a “strong-fisted” leader such as Vladimir Putin of Russia. Two weeks ago the former KGB officer put forward wide-ranging changes to the Russian constitution that would transfer power from the presidency, weaken his successor and allow him to take up a new role at the state council, a body that would now enjoy major new powers and open the way for him to run the show from a different seat. Putin has been in power for 20 years and has swapped the presidency and prime ministership to keep being the top dog in Russia.
Many other Rwandan dissidents across the globe live in fear of meeting the same fate as Karegeya. Kagame is someone many would describe as a man ‘with a spine’.
Would I say Putin needs to “grow a pair”? That he is “limp-wristed” or needs to be “a bit of a dictator”? I would probably be dead if I said it in Moscow. An estimated 21 journalists have been killed in Russia since Putin came to power in March 2000.
Would many of us say Rwanda’s Paul Kagame needs to forge ahead with a “stronger fist” or needs to “show some spine”? Well, we love Kagame in SA. Last year Ramaphosa told a rally that he plans to emulate Kagame’s successful clean-up of Rwanda’s streets.
“In Rwanda, one day in every month – whether you are the president or premiers or mayors or municipal managers – everybody wears overalls and cleans the town,” said Ramaphosa. Nice. An Associated Press story last year said: “Kagame is lauded by some as a driver of economic growth that has lifted many Rwandans from poverty, bringing improved healthcare and education.”
Yet, says respected journalist and author Michela Wrong, “there is absolutely no room for dissent within Rwanda”. Her assertion is backed up by numerous human rights bodies.
Indeed, our government here in SA has asked Rwanda to extradite two men suspected of murdering the country’s former intelligence chief, Patrick Karegeya, at the Michelangelo Hotel in Sandton in 2014. Many other Rwandan dissidents across the globe live in fear of meeting the same fate as Karegeya. Kagame is someone many would describe as a man “with a spine”.
As I have said, I too use this “spine” and “strong fist” language to refer to Ramaphosa all the time. I should be careful what I wish for. Words matter. Like most citizens and many of my fellow commentators, we want what is best for SA. We want Ramaphosa to be resolute, to be decisive – but we do not wish for him to become a Putin or a Kagame. I want SA to grow at 6% or 8% every year. I do not want an opponent of Ramaphosa to die in a hotel in some far-flung country at the hands of an SA death squad.
In 2016 former president Jacob Zuma expressed his frustration with democracy. Zuma told schoolchildren in Tembisa: “If you just give me six months to be a dictator, things will be straight ... At the moment to take a decision, you need a resolution or petition.”
Ramaphosa will get a heck of a lot of criticism from me, my colleagues and South Africans. Yet I hope he never gets tempted to try being a dictator for “six months” or whatever. He must just act, within the confines of the constitution he helped write.
Leading in a democracy is frustrating. It’s hard. Yet, to be led by a president who continues to act within the ambit of the law – and constantly reiterates his fealty to the constitution – makes this place one of the most incredible places to call home. I am proud my president is not a “strongman”. Long may it be so. Magashule must still go, though.