President Cyril Ramaphosa has to “watch his back” instead of focusing on solving the country’s “massive challenges”.
President Cyril Ramaphosa was this week lavishly praised by both a British peer and a Chinese diplomat. Ramaphosa is the “last hope of this country”, Lin Songtian, the Chinese ambassador to South Africa, said in a Reuters interview.

In similarly flattering vein, Lord Peter Hain said the international community was baffled by the “vilification” of Ramaphosa and Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan.

“It bewilders international investors that the ‘good guys’ are being attacked... and the ‘bad guys’ swagger around at will,” Hain told Fin24.

If the president had to “watch his back” instead of focusing on solving the country’s “massive challenges”, the distraction would ultimately damage South Africa.

Although our embattled leader is no doubt grateful for any help he can get, from whatever quarter, being the object of foreign veneration is not an unadulterated good.

When the leader of a country starts getting from abroad compliments and expressions of support against rival factions, it’s a sure indication that he is deep in the political crap.

But however well intentioned these kind words might be, they can hinder as much as help. After all, why would anyone endorse a rival nation’s president or prime minister, except to benefit oneself or one’s own country?

Hain was quick to blame all South Africa’s woes on Ramaphosa’s internal opponents, whom he does not name but are clearly the clique rallied around former president Jacob Zuma.

“What astonishes me about the faction that tries to drag Ramaphosa back and tries to get the opportunity to climb on the gravy train again is that they seem to have no regard at all for the plight of the country,” said Hain.

Hain’s exoneration of Ramaphosa is ludicrously generous and also misguided. At this moment, what is most holding back South Africa is not the danger posed by the Zuma-ites, but the inexplicable timidity of the president.

Unemployment has just hit 29% for the past quarter, with youth unemployment almost double that. Yet Ramaphosa’s choice as Labour Minister, Thulas Nxesi, continues to insist that well-paid work remains the primary goal.

Interviewed by the Mail&Guardian, Nxesi says: “There are some who argue that an any jobs (approach) - which yields more jobs - is better than the decent jobs we are striving for As South Africans, we are not going back to those dark days - certainly not under the watch of this government.”

Such a purist, ideological approach may find favour with old Struggle stalwarts like Hain. Less so with the infinitely pragmatic Chinese. Explaining the absence here of the kind of major infrastructure projects that the Chinese have implemented elsewhere in Africa, Lin was forthright.

“Why? Because we don’t only need the concept of a project” and the projects suggested by South Africa authorities “lacked feasibility studies capable of reassuring the Chinese government and banks of their profitability and sustainability”.

Lin was similarly unambiguous about Eskom, just one of the many imploding state-owned enterprises that is straining the economy.

“Eskom is a debt trap. China gave them some loans before. And now they become very cautious.”

Even if we lay the blame for all our woes at the foot of the Zuma faction, it doesn’t explain why one of the obvious causes of fiscal strain, gross levels of overmanning in the SOEs and government, is not being tackled.

Eskom is estimated to be 66% overstaffed, but the unions have flatly rejected any retrenchments and Ramaphosa has meekly backed down. And last week, national Treasury’s Director-General, Dondo Mogajane, told City Press that the “National Treasury’s box is empty” and the best way to plug the gaping hole in the fiscus may be for all state employees to take a 10% cut in salaries and wages.

Of course, that’s simply not going to happen.

It’s inconceivable that Ramaphosa, who has just already backed off 30000 voluntary retrenchments of public servants because of union opposition, will now dare to cut pay.

It is probably true, as Hain and Lin assert, that Ramaphosa is the only person in the government who could save South Africa. Unfortunately, he also appears to lack the courage to do so.

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The Independent on Saturday