22 December 2022
Cyril Ramaphosa and the Middle Way
Before the year goes out, and for the sake of a bit of sanity in our upside down world, I want to defend a man. His name is Cyril and his surname Ramaphosa. He is the president of South Africa.
The reason why I want to do this, is because he is walking a dynamic middle way that is very little understood, much less appreciated.
I say “dynamic” as I am not talking about being centrist. I am talking about the ability to stride extremes on both sides and carve out a balancing act. I am talking – also – about the middle of being, the heart area. The heart is dynamic, as it pumps blood that serves all parts of the body, as it brings together the power of the instinctive lower body and the diversity of the sensory upper body, the mind.
That makes Ramaphosa, per definition, a politician. Because politics is the business of the heart, the bringing together of the whole, the life pump that ensures the whole is nourished, not only to ne nourished, but to be spirited and alive.
We appoint politicians to ensure and protect just that: the life of society. A well-functioning society has an ongoing relationship with its leaders, an ongoing conversation around needs, priorities, strategies and the responsibilities going along with bringing all of that to fruition.
Therefore, there is something incongruous about a left wing or a right wing politician. And in practise, a politician’s views are often powerfully checked by the very job he or she is taking up. All politics has a tendency to draw to the centre. It is those politicians, through hard headedness or stupidity, that cling to more extreme positions, who often bring the house down.
Those who are regarded as great leaders all have this in common: their ability to bring together across the spectrum, to draw a community closer to itself, who are able to stand up for the health of a people, or even the world at large. And the test for such success does not lie in high ideals, battlefield victories or growing economies, but in the trust they earn from their subjects.
Ramaphosa is lambasted, labeled and regularly written off from the left and the right and even those who present themselves as unbeholden to partisan positions. And yet, consistently, he is trusted by the majority of South Africans, and the majority within his own party.
And this is the story of his whole career, spanning form the seventies through to today. In all the spheres he moved through, he earned trust quickly and was time and again elected to leadership positions.
The common expectation of a leader today is that it should be a kind of CEO. “Come in and fix!” “Hire and fire, rebrand, put us on a path of growth, outdo the competition, show profits!” This can-do image of the ideal leader is the easy go-to whenever things go wrong. “Fix it! That’s why we elected you!” From the less priviledged, the call is slightly different: “Give it to us! We demand!“ but boils down to the same. In effect, it is a cry for the authoritarian. And it is not only a populist cry. The implication is often well and alive in the “main stream” media and circles: if the problem persists, get a new leader!
But, if I have to say this again and again, a community is not a business entity. A country is not a company. Politics does not deal with goods and services. It deals with people. Like a bloodstream, it facilitates the network of human relations, balancing individual freedom with the purposes of the whole. Relations are not “fixed.” They are healed through ensuring there is a healthy flow of feelings. A heartbeat does not hire and fire. It keeps finding connection.
What marks Ramaphosa most is his ability and commitment to finding connection. This enabled him as a young leader to bring together the strongest labour movement the country has known, as a vehicle at the time to oppose Apartheid. As soon as that system crumbled, he was at the forefront (and often instrumental) in ensuring that negotiations succeed to bring a battered country together, to craft a constitution that became the envy of the world.
When his leadership ambitions were put under a ceiling, he entered the business world, a move that was widely seen as a bitter one. And yet, in accordance with his character, I believe he saw an opportunity to go and view the world from the side he used to fight against: the world of capital. Like the Buddha, he first tasted poverty, then wealth and worldly success, and when the time was right, he found his “middle way”, returning to politics with a much broader understanding and experience of South African society and the world at large.
Of course, the left cannot stand the riches he acquired, calling him a sell-out that was “bought over” by the white capitalist class, while this very class won’t fully accept him either, because his “political connections” and race favoured him, not his acumen. On the other side, for the white right, he remains a socialist with links to communism and therefore not to be trusted at all. Conspiracy theories abound around his “hate” for white people and his underhand scheme to destroy capitalism.
Most commonly, he is regarded as “indecisive” and not living up to his promise.
Now, the country he leads is a country in need of healing. The self-interested ones are looking to him to apply the scalpel, the chemo therapy, disregarding the damage and division that such an approach will bring along with it, especially in a complex society like South Africa. The crooked ones hate the fact that he is rebuilding state institutions to safeguard them from corruption, re-introducing a culture of accountability. They are longing for the days of the flawed ex-president Zuma, who set an example of lawlessness that grew throughout the fabric of society like a cancer.
And yet, being the man that he is, he is both sensitive to criticism, ready to stand back if found guilty, and at the same time, steadfast in his integrity. He does not prance around on social media, but consistently communicates on all relevant topics through his honest and thoughtful weekly newsletters. When accused, he does not go on wild defenses or counter accusations. He bides his time – to the frustration of the hype-addicted media – and allow established processes to take their course and independently establish his guilt or innocence. Such it is with the whole “Phala Phala” saga, prompting prominent writers to call him a “dead man walking”. But Ramaphosa will prevail. Not doggedly. But because he is not easily thrown off balance.
Treading the middle ground through making decisions on a consultative basis, will inevitably lead to instances of murkiness, to slight errors in judgement, to technical slips or taking questionable positions. For myself, I am disappointed in his soft stance regards Putin and the Ukraine invasion, but I also understand something of the African context regards the West, stemming from having been a play ball for the superpowers during the Cold War, for instance. As for the Marikina massacre and his role as director of the Longman mining group, his choice of words at the time was unfortunate, but I agree with the commission of enquiry into that tragedy, that he should not be held accountable for those 34 deaths. It is in any event totally foreign to his character and history, to encourage a lawless and violent assault on workers.
The reality is that, as president, he has steered the country away from the cliff of becoming a mafia state, even as the fallout from State Capture and the decimation of parastatals like ESCOM is bedeviling his tenure to an intense degree. Not to mention having had to handle the COVID crisis, for which he was internationally commended.
While he is the natural politician, he is also has a strong drive to succeed. The mantle of leading a challenged and potent country like South Africa, is one that he takes on very seriously. And he mirrors his success to that of the people of the country, who continues to largely trust and support him, notwithstanding the noise of critics.
He is a man, also, that defends and promotes women. He straddles his own masculinity and femininity in ways that are not commonly found. He is one who leads somewhat in the background. But leading he is. In this way, he keeps confounding those who write him off. It is easily forgotten how he outmaneuvered his extremely sly and cunning predecessor, exactly through his capacity for patience and not overplaying his political hand.
In the age of self-promotion and the click-byte, he is old school. And yet I feel far more safe with him than those who impress the headlines and Twitter frenzies.
His influence and capabilities run through the domestic scene, Africa and the globe. He connects as naturally with people on the streets as with statesmen. Say he is boring, but he is trustworthy. Say he is too soft, but reconstruction is happening in all the unseen places of our land. Say he is too rich, but know that money does not drive his politics. Say he is too indecisive, but see how he brings a whole country along with him.
Sometimes I come across a more sane commentary about him, and I want to conclude with such a recent view: that we are insane if we think Ramaphosa is dispensable. Leaders like him does not come along every other day. Complex societies often fall for either anarchy or autocracy. That’s why we had Apartheid for so long. Ramaphosa is a Mandela, yet a Mandela who can also run a country on a practical level. He gets his fingers messy. And one should not confuse that with messiness itself.
If I defend a man like him, I also defend politics as a domain of feelings that is not well served by the prevalent political party system, where ideas are often more important than people, and much energy is wasted on the prospects of a party rather than that of the community it should serve. Ramaphosa and leaders like him point to a future where we’ll need to have far more participation in politics, with a devolution of power and resources to more local levels. They point to our maturity as a global human community. These leaders, with all their weaknesses and humanity, need our support more than the easy criticisms we are currently throwing around.
And now, I am adding this paragraph. All the previous was written a few days ago, before Ramaphosa’s re-election as ANC president today. From the reports I read, the conference was marked by more discipline and more broad acceptance of the results – a far cry from the chaos and shouting factionalism of the previous two conferences. Again, you might differ from him, but if he exudes trustworthiness, it is easier to accept a leader’s election and to work along with him or her. And, just now, I read an article that, while sympathetic to “CR”, yet finds him lacking “true vision.” And again, to me this smacks of a misunderstanding of politics. Leave the vision thing for us crazy artists! It’s the politician’s job to facilitate the well-being of society – all of its members included. And you do not need a vision for that. Together, we intuitively know what the basics are, the future we long for. A true leader taps into that and is there to make sure that we do not forget who we are.
And that, Cyril Ramaphosa has just done. Again.
With regards, best wishes and thanks to you all
HA!MAN (Francois le Roux) spontaneous performer in partnership with Joke Debaere
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