When Cyril Ramaphosa took over as president of South Africa in early 2018, there was a great deal of talk about a “new dawn”. But his term in office has failed to deliver, raising the question: has the legendary deal-maker lost his touch?
When Ramaphosa replaced former president Jacob Zuma many South Africans believed he would usher in a new era after the disastrous reign of his predecessor. The country and the governing African National Congress (ANC) both urgently needed rescuing from the malaise.
Ramaphosa inherited an unenviable hand from Zuma – state institutions had been weakened, the economy was in a parlous condition, the ANC was in internal turmoil, and the political elite regularly exposed for fraudulent and corrupt activities, which culminated in “state capture”.
Ramaphosa promised to rectify the situation through a series of initiatives. These included reforms to state owned enterprises, economic growth and job creation as well as an anti-corruption drive.
Yet, two years on, very little has changed. In fact, things have deteriorated markedly. Even Ramaphosa was forced to admit that any positivity he once stimulated is now over.
His legendary negotiating skills have been incapacitated in the face of South Africa's current predicament.
South Africa's current predicament is well documented. It is characterised by interlocking crises encompassing growing unemployment, negative growth and unsustainable national debt. State-owned enterprises such as South African Airways and Eskom, the power utility, are failing. And, a “junk status” rating is looming.
Factor into this scenario a renewed series of xenophobic attacks against foreigners, the military deployment in Cape Town to curb gang murders, and a half-hearted response to the #AmINext movement protesting against gender violence.
Add to these the ongoing conflicts within the ANC, with leading cadres taking to Twitter to express their divergent opinions, and it is abundantly clear why there is growing public frustration with the Ramaphosa administration.
It was not supposed to be like this. Ramaphosa was the president who would save South Africa. Almost universally revered, expectations were running high that he would make use of his impressive political credentials, not least his record of past achievements that bore testament to his success as a deal-maker.
Ramaphosa has a formidable political pedigree that stretches back to his struggle activities in the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1980s, through to his contribution to the constitutional negotiations to end apartheid in the early 1990s.
These different experiences forged his reputation as a wily, tough and pragmatic deal-maker. Over the last 40 years he's shown time and again his ability to broker major deals. Just look at the wage concessions he extracted for mine workers and how he helped establish the basis for the country's new Constitution.
Ramaphosa's negotiating style is based on debate, building trust between participants, manipulating proceedings to his advantage and reaching consensus through rounds of dialogue. Even those on the other side of the negotiating table recognised his skill. Former apartheid-era President FW De Klerk once described him as “coldly calculating” and silver tongue[d]).
Compromise based on a position of strength is integral to the success of his negotiating strategy. Most notably this came to the fore during the challenging constitutional talks.
Ramaphosa had established a close rapport with reformist MPs from the National Party, which ruled the country then, such as Roelf Meyer. These men were willing to negotiate with the ANC. More importantly, they were willing to make significant compromises to achieve an end to white minority rule.
Talks, debate, and compromise were the foundations for these negotiated outcomes.
Competing economic and social pressures, as well as the internal battles within the ANC, don't allow for Ramaphosa's preferred style of negotiation or leadership to succeed. In retrospect the belief that he could address the challenges by finding a common position through a debate-led strategy seems naive at best.
A key problem is that Ramaphosa is constrained by his tenuous control over the ANC, while the party elite is locked in a factional conflict for power and influence. The historic “unity” of the party is disintegrating as rivals such as Secretary-General Ace Magashule, threatened by the promised reforms and anti-corruption initiatives, undermine Rampahosa's leadership.
There is no room for debate in this febrile atmosphere, and definitely no appetite to seek common ground when disloyalty from within the party is so prevalent. When power and survival are at stake, compromise as a negotiating position goes out the window.
The upcoming National General Conference of the ANC, scheduled for June, will only threaten Ramaphosa's position further. The conference is held halfway between the party's national conferences, to debate the “strategic organisational and political issues” it faces.
Meanwhile, the economic and social challenges require tough and decisive action. Yet, the ANC's January 8 statement marking its birthday, repeated old adages of unity, growth, employment and transformation. It offered nothing new in terms of vision or solutions .
Ramaphosa's favoured strategies continue to be through commissions and joint working groups. Yet a consultative approach is time consuming and will simply not succeed when space for debate is marginalised and vested interests are at stake.
Is there a solution?
Fundamentally an immediate change to his negotiating strategy and leadership is required. Although decisive action is not in his play book, Ramaphosa can no longer hope to appease everyone through consensus-based leadership. Structural reforms to prevent further economic decline are required quickly. These involve painful decisions and a stronger vision for the future, none of which are evident at the moment.
But, to implement economic reforms and to strengthen anti-corruption initiatives will be immensely unpopular, especially among the ANC hierarchy. Many don't support Ramaphosa. Others fear the loss of their patronage.
Unless Ramaphosa can exert control over a recalcitrant ANC to make difficult decisions, he'll stay stuck in a no-win situation, caught between the need to avert economic meltdown or keep the party intact.
The choice ahead for Ramaphosa lies between what is best for South Africa, or for the ANC.
Matthew Graham does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
By Matthew Graham, Senior Lecturer in History, University of Dundee