In a situation fraught with great and even intimidating problems within the ANC, which is seriously troubled and suffering deep and debilitating factionalist divisions, some might suggest that Cyril Ramaphosa’s winning the ANC presidency, and shortly thereafter, replacing former president, Jacob Zuma, might prove to have been a poisoned chalice.
Add to that a crisis-ridden South African and global economy, seriously dysfunctional municipalities, the festering scourge of mass unemployment and widespread social unrest and the poisoned chalice metaphor becomes more apt.
But often in history, which always consists of fluctuations in fortunes, such dire situations have been turned around.
The question then is whether Ramaphosa possesses the leadership qualities to carry out the task of converting a huge and multifaceted crisis into a constructive opportunity with which to change South Africa, especially in the interests of the black working-class majority.
No doubt, he has been very charming and actively and creatively engaging the citizenry across the country, trying to inspire confidence in both his leadership and vision of transforming the country.
The very first thing we need to realise is the enormity of the crisis Ramaphosa has inherited on many fronts in our economy and society, especially at a time when we and the world at large is experiencing a socio-economic crisis of unprecedented magnitude.
To appreciate the enormous challenges that Ramaphosa faces within that depressing context is very important, without which we cannot assess transformative prospects and his leadership.
Key to understanding the adversities he has inherited is to appreciate the severe damage Zuma’s disastrous leadership caused both to the social fabric and image of this country, inside and outside it.
So deep and devastating is that legacy, that to turn things around is an enormous challenge, no matter who the new leader would have been. It is also of limited importance to point out that Ramaphosa was Zuma’s deputy, and therefore that he must shoulder responsibility for the latter’s failures. That view does not reckon with the serious limitations of the deputy presidency. Though greater than just a ceremonial role the deputy president does not have as much power as people imagine.
But what has been striking is the exuberant and somewhat contagious manner in which he has criss-crossed the country, busy wooing citizens, over the past few months.
“Thuma mina ezizweni!” (I wanna be there!) and his “send me” quote, are some of his ingredients in such tilling of a rather rancid soil, bequeathed by Zuma.
Ramaphosa has to assiduously till the soil after the devastation wrought by Zuma.
Indeed, during that period, corruption was literally oozing out of the rotting pores of our society, thanks to the most insidious and pervasive looting of the public purse which largely characterised the Zuma presidency.
It is against that background that, both psychologically and politically, such morale-boosting visits to various parts of the country were important for Ramaphosa, in order to lay a basis for whatever transformative vision he has. There is no doubt that after the dreadful Zuma years, Ramaphosa found it necessary to try and restore public confidence that was shattered.
What interests me is how he will utilise his considerable political and organisational experience in navigating his presidency through the inevitably choppy waters in the years ahead. That he is very serious about uprooting corruption wherever it has occurred in the state, at all levels, is undoubted.
It is important to bear in mind that this seriousness was already evident last year when he took a strong and courageous stand against the rampant corruption in the state, especially since much of it was directed against the nefarious influences the infamous Gupta family, through their links with Zuma, had on various government departments.
He also appealed to the ANC to listen to what grievances both members of the ANC and the public might have with the presidency of Zuma and not project a knee-jerk dismissal of such concerns. The reason why this last point was significant is that it indicated in advance that should he win the presidency, he would not regard himself beyond reproach, but would instead listen to what might be good reasons why people may not be happy with both his leadership and the ANC.
It is also important to consider how courageously Ramaphosa openly expressed his support for the former minister of finance, Pravin Gordhan, when he was facing an orchestrated campaign to discredit him by a certain faction in the ANC, known to have close links then to both Zuma and the Guptas.
However, there must be no doubt that Ramaphosa’s presidency is going to be severely tested between now and the 2019 election, not only how best to deal with an entrenched, persistent and festering factionalism, which is going to tear the ANC apart if not effectively addressed, but with what is the most important matter right now: the land question and the related notion of “radical economic transformation”.
In this regard there must be no doubt that his commitment to the expropriation of land without compensation, though the constitution might provide for it, is something no previous president of the country has been so serious and emphatic about. But it is going to be easier said than done.
This Ramaphosa knows well, which is why he addressed the Afrikaner Bond (AB) recently. The reason why he did well in that address is that he made it clear that it would not be business as usual, and that basically, there was now no turning back from the commitment to fundamental land reform and that the AB would have to learn how best to live and co-operate with that reality.
My sense is that one of the big strengths Ramaphosa has is rooted in his experience in the National Union of Mineworkers, which prepared him well to deal even with the worst and toughest employers then present in the mining industry.
For someone who was a fellow unionist then, I know what a powerful source of ability and confidence trade union experience was. Ramaphosa is right now exuding palpable confidence.
This I witnessed when he delivered the keynote address at the Inclusive Growth Forum, organised by the Kgalema Motlanthe Foundation, in Magaliesberg, over the past weekend. That he is a man on an unstoppable mission was made very clear in that speech.
I am, however, concerned that while he spoke at length about the theme of the day - “inclusive growth” - he did not deal with the systemic factors which impede and deny the black majority working class from benefiting equitably from economic growth.
The biggest beneficiaries of economic growth have been white capital, dating back to the 19th century. Until today that is the dominant reality.
Unless Ramaphosa recognises the structural causes of such gross exploitation, which are the real roots of persistent mass black poverty and unemployment, and does something serious about it, his presidency will achieve limited success.
* Harvey is a political writer and biographer of former president Kgalema Motlanthe.