Cyril Ramaphosa is like The Flash, whose greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. Barry Allen is so fast that he can zoom through time streams. But he can also run so fast that he can be pulled permanently into the Speed Force energy field that gives him his powers, killing him. His speed can defeat him. Cyril Ramaphosa’s greatest strength, his likeability, is also his greatest weakness, writes Mandy Wiener
This week you will read a lot of deep analysis about the upcoming State of the Nation address on Thursday evening. It is President Cyril Ramaphosa’s fourth SONA and his second since being elected President last year.
You’ll read about the slow growth of the economy, dismal investor confidence and the potential of a Moody’s ratings downgrade at the end of March with full-blown junk status looming.
Over the past month we have been consumed by the focus on State Owned Entities, particularly the business rescue of South African Airways and the attempts to turn around Eskom and it’s half-a-trillion rand debt bill.
But beyond the structural issues and the complex economics, we also need to talk about the optics of this SONA and the zeitgeist of the country at the moment.
Anecdotally, there seems to be a sense that the President is failing to show strong leadership, that he is indecisive and that the country is adrift without clear direction. He is taking too long to make tough decisions because he is consulting too widely.
Journalists at the African Union Summit in Ethiopia described Ramaphosa as looking exhausted.
It’s a description that seems to be more regularly used to describe him. A colleague who met him last week described him as looking “F*#@ng shattered”.
And I’m sure he is drained and tired – he has an enormous turnaround strategy to execute considering the ravaging state capture project that undermined the country during his predecessors decade in charge.
The reform project is a slow slog and it is facing resistance.
Curiously the impression that he is indecisive seems to be in direct contrast to a recently released Ipsos survey which shows that Ramaphosa is still very popular as a leader.
He achieved a 62% popularity rating according to the poll.
This was slightly down from the approval rating of 70% which he enjoyed when he became president in 2018. He is still seen as a stable leader who can assure the markets.
“There’s trust in him. He’s popular. They want him to take action. They want him to get a move on. Ramaphosa has the support of the population,” Ipsos director Mari Harris told the Daily Maverick.
At his SONA in June last year, Ramaphosa delivered a speech that was big on inspiration and visionary thinking. There was talk of bullet trains and smart cities that overshadowed his more practical commitments to halve violent crime, finalise a land reform programme and to create jobs.
But now more than ever, the President needs to deliver a SONA address that shows he is a man of action. As Business Leadership SA’s Busi Mavuso has written, “The country needs to take some extraordinary measures. As Ramaphosa said in his state of the nation address last June, ‘it is time to make choices. Some of these choices may be difficult and some may not please everyone’.”
If you have even the most basic understanding of the comic book concept, you will know that superheroes have strengths and weaknesses. For Superman, it’s is his immense physical strength and ability to fly which is debilitated by kryptonite.
For the Green Lantern, it is wood that makes him weak. Noise pollution incapacitates Daredevil.
In a way, Cyril Ramaphosa is like The Flash, whose greatest strength is also his greatest weakness.
Barry Allen is so fast that he can zoom through time streams. But he can also run so fast that he can be pulled permanently into the Speed Force energy field that gives him his powers, killing him.
His speed can defeat him.
Ramaphosa’s greatest strength, his likeability as shown in the latest Ipsos poll, can also be his greatest weakness.
He has a lack of appetite for confrontation.
He wants to be inclusive, to appease everyone, to lead through consultation.
It was these traits that earned him respect and credibility during Codesa and the transition of power. US President Donald Trump, with all his severe flaws and failures, has played to his base by making tough decisions without caring what anyone thinks about him.
Ramaphosa needs to be an action figure that shows he can bring down the villains of state capture, of corruption and of the economy.
Sure, he needs to deliver that through the minutia of technical plans, but he also needs to make the people of this country feel like they have a strong, decisive leader in charge, a superhero who will swoop in and save the day.