Having placed three bets on a Joe Biden presidential win, I was greatly relieved when the US networks called his election last week, even if the votes are still being counted and recounted, and Donald Trump refuses to concede and proclaims he was cheated out of victory.
Six bottles of France’s finest bubbles have already been delivered; perhaps the other two losers are awaiting final certification by the electoral college in mid-December.
To be sure, President Cyril Ramaphosa was genuinely warm in his congratulatory call this week to Biden. After Trump referred to Africa as s***hole countries, Ramaphosa called him out. And he and the departing president of the US are from different political planets. Still, there is a part of Ramaphosa that mightily envies the “defeated” US strongman.
Notwithstanding the now 7-million and rising votes separating him from Biden and a decisive loss in the electoral college, Trump still exercises an iron grip on his party. The fear of offending Trump and more likely his impressive 73-million voters (up from 62.9-million in 2016) has rendered most Republican leaders deaf to reason and the blindingly self-evident fact that Biden will be the next US president.
Back in September 2018, not far from Trump Tower in Manhattan, Ramaphosa advised the Wall Street Journal that “we were too slow with some reforms [but] now the reforms will come fast and furious”. Beyond a penchant for movie titles, this is simply the stuff of imaginings.
On the eve of this week’s investor conference, Telkom — the biggest sponsor — had to resort to a full-page advert in this paper to declare, under the signature of CEO Sipho Maseko, “Telkom is bullish on SA but wants urgency on policy reforms.”
This masterful understatement and diplomatic appeal reflect the bald fact that it is now 13 years since the rollout for high-demand spectrum allocation began — when Thabo Mbeki was still president! Three presidents and a dozen ministers later we inch forward at a glacial pace. Even Namibia and Botswana are ahead of SA on the shift to digital broadcasting.
There has been nothing “fast and furious” on the deal-breakers that really will offer the country a fighting chance to recover from the lockdown economics and all the political pathologies that predated it. Here too, Ramaphosa has been long on rhetoric and short on action: remember the 2019 promise to move SA 20 places up in the World Bank’s ease of doing business ranking? We actually slid down two in 2020 (82nd to 84th). Or his promise of a “lower debt trajectory”? Debt-to-GDP is estimated to reach an all-time high of 85.6% in 2021. The list is long, and it is depressing. Ramaphosa would never be able to campaign on the Trump slogan “promises kept”.
The simplest explanation beyond the Covid-19 crisis for all the missed targets, from job creation to “million paid internships” to the forgotten Tito Mboweni Treasury paper tepidly endorsed by Ramaphosa is this: implementing any requires a hard choice, an offended constituency, a divested interest group. Placating each of them, substituting lofty rhetoric for hard action, simply ensures enervating and continuing failure.
Little wonder then that Ramaphosa’s opponents dancing in support of criminal accused ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule could burn T-shirts with the presidential image fearless of consequence, beyond an admonitory press statement.
Once again, fine Ramaphosian rhetoric and metaphors about his party being “accused number one” or “hyenas feeding” result in no action by his party against the predators and the vain hope that the courts will somehow compensate for the absence of presidential, let alone party, action. Worth noting is that Jacob Zuma was first served his criminal corruption summons in December 2007 — just months after action was promised on digital migration.
There is also a lesson for the opposition in the US results. It is too facile to simply moan about the grip of identity politics here and across the world. This is indeed an important phenomenon but is not always a determinative one.
Correctly or not, Trump was pilloried by his opponents and most of the media (bar Fox TV) for being in league with white supremacists and against the advancement of minority interests. Yet he achieved one of the highest scores for a Republican of the modern age among black voters ( 12%) and outperformed his 2016 total among Latino voters in Florida (32%). And while gay, lesbian and transgender voters are automatically assumed to be Democrats, no fewer than 28% of them voted for misogynist Trump.
To be sure, these are still relatively low totals. But imagine the transformation of our local electoral map if 12% of black SA voters put an “X” next to the DA. It would crest well over 27% in the next election and could result in the ANC losing its majority.
Trump was the unlikeliest tribune for nonracial inclusivity, and his bellicose rhetoric offended many. But as unorthodox conservative writer Andrew Sullivan noted: “The American people surgically removed an unhinged leader and re-endorsed the gist of his policies.” Precisely for this reason, a Biden presidency now confronts a reduced House of Representatives majority, a likely Republican Senate and an energised opposition.
Sullivan offers one explanation for the essence of Trumpism: “Nationalistic, culturally conservative, geared towards the losers of capitalism as well as the winners and mildly isolationist. It speaks the language that working-class Americans understand devoid of the woke neologisms of the educated elite.”
Meanwhile, since Ramaphosa was credited by ANC elections head Fikile Mbalula as the sole reason his party did not slip below 50% in 2019, perhaps he could use his mandate to lead. And while doing so, he might finally reveal, three years on, what Ramaphorism actually stands for. Beyond lofty rhetoric, missed deadlines and unmet promises.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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