President Cyril Ramaphosa. FILE PHOTO
Pull out of the nosedive. Step back from the abyss. Don’t crash into the buffers.

The metaphors are irretrievably hackneyed through endless media recycling and boil down to the same thing. Survival. For at least a decade, the public conversation has been around what South Africa must do to elude impending disaster.

With the arch-villain Jacob Zuma consigned to the outer darkness of Nkandla, President Cyril Ramaphosa was anointed to the starring role of superhero in this docudrama. But saving an entire nation is an unlikely casting for an avuncular billionaire.

CR simply may not be tough enough. His lack of resilience was cruelly exposed as far back as 1998, in the contest to be Nelson Mandela’s successor, where he was comprehensively out-manoeuvred and out-boxed by Thabo Mbeki. When, a couple of years later, he again tried to throw his hat into the ring, Mbeki effortlessly routed him for a second time.

A lack of appetite for confrontation may be a fatal trait in a superhero. His greatest strength, according to his acolytes, is his talent at being “inclusive” - uniting disparate and fractious forces long enough to forge a compromise - and they cite as evidence his key role in the Codesa negotiations that delivered the peaceful surrender of white power.

But, South Africa has changed substantially since the early 1990s. Given the dire situation the country is in, an endless negotiating of compromises that skirt around realities will no longer suffice.

While Ramaphosa’s consummate negotiating skills might hold the ANC alliance together through a two-term presidency, for that to be his priority would be a betrayal of his oath of office. The priority now is to save the country, and for that, some bare-knuckle fighting is necessary.

I wrote last week that an important test would be the ANC national executive committee meeting that’s just taken place. CR had to ensure that Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s recently proposed economic reforms were accepted as policy. That meant an end to the appeasement of those in the tripartite alliance who doggedly maintain that the failing state-owned enterprises (SOEs) can be transformed into engines of growth.

That’s not how it played out. After four days of wrangling, the NEC decided that the micro-economic aspects of the Treasury’s strategic plan would be implemented, but none of the macro aspects of labour market reform and substantive interventions in the SOEs. In other words, the paralysing ANC fudging of key differences continues.

Ramaphosa’s supporters see the fudge, not as an indication of CR’s weakness, but entirely necessary, even admirable. By this analysis, Ramaphosa, above all else, has to continue to survive as president.

We are assured that this reluctance to confront his opponents within the party does not indicate a lack of presidential resolve. BusinessLive’s Peter Bruce insisted this week, in a column headlined that Ramaphosa has “a tiger in his tank, not a kitten”, that CR is quietly positioning himself for the “bigger momenta major confrontation”.

Presumably, when the moment is right - and ignoring for a moment the inconvenient fact that tigers don’t occur in Africa - CR will shed his Puss-in-Boots costume and his habitual purr, instead, emerging as a ferocious, roaring carnivore, to rip his hard-left tormentors to shreds. What appears to be prevarication and obfuscation, will be proved to have been guile and strategic genius.

The problem is, unfortunately, a lack of time. South Africa has already lost two year’s of Ramaphosa’s supposed “long game”. We cannot wait for 2023, for if and when he has secured a second-term, for him to act.

That makes for a dangerous and depressing possibility. To harness the clichés, that South Africa does, indeed, spiral into the ground, hit the buffers, plunge over the cliff, and sink to the bottom of the pit. It is not inconceivable.

It may be that a South African disaster will occur before the ANC will face reality. It’s unfortunate that, along with the ANC, the entire populace has to survive the life-changing ordeal of going through the wringer of economic and political collapse, before facing decades of painful recovery.

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