Douglas Gibson, veteran combatant of the internecine wars that felled the once mighty, now long vanished, United Party, offered a pithy put-down on the equivocating and irresolute leadership style of its long-serving chief, Sir De Villiers Graaff. “When in doubt, Div would appoint a committee,” he recalls.

Cyril Ramaphosa claimed in his state of the nation (Sona) speech last week that icon Nelson Mandela was his presidential muse.  Judging from his latest offering and the characteristic inaction, irresolution and procrastination that preceded it — amid an economic and energy catastrophe — he is channelling his inner Graaff.

The president has offered a “war room”, a “national energy crisis committee” and assurances dating back to 2015, when he personally was in charge of the Eskom “war room”, that “in another 12 to 18 months you will forget the challenges we had with power and energy and Eskom”. Last week it was not another committee or acronym on offer, but no less than an entirely new ministry.

And in another triumph of performance over calibrated competence he threw the entire country into another state of disaster under the fist of his nemesis, and the arch-enemy of both accountability and competent governance, Nkosasana Dlamini Zuma. Just look at the ruination of local governments under her watch and her refusal to provide civil society with any of the “reasons” for her arbitrary decisions during the Covid-19 disaster regime for clues on this latest wheeze. And the looting that was the hallmark of her previous turn at the wheel.

Not that the DA did itself any favours with its previous call for a state of disaster to be declared on the energy front. True, it nuanced its appeal with a demand that it be “ring-fenced”, but such subtlety proves elusive when even flat-footed Ramaphosa can credibly accuse the party of a U-turn now that it is drafting court papers to halt the declaration.

It is a little like the ill-fated presidential bid of US Democrat John Kerry, who voted in favour of the invasion of Iraq in October 2002 and then a year later voted against the $87bn funding required for it. But this is small fry compared with the gaping credibility gap that confronts Ramaphosa and his clapped-out government on the electricity and energy disaster, one entirely of their own making.

It was another US war in a far-off place, Vietnam in 1967, that introduced to the political lexicon the term “credibility gap”. As veteran columnist Walter Lippmann explained, “to avoid the embarrassment of calling a spade a spade, newspapermen have agreed to talk about a credibility gap. That is a polite euphemism for deception.”

But here and now in darkened SA there is nothing polite about the reactions and boiling fury over the previous deceptions and bland assurances given by Ramaphosa and company. They have devalued the currency of trust and transparency, and short of some extraordinary change of direction will not win it back soon.

Just what the “minister of electricity” will do (beyond saddle the taxpayer with an additional R37m of costs to set up the department and pocket the perks of office, according to the calculation of DA MP Leon Schreiber) is bewilderingly unclear.

In his speech Ramaphosa ditched plain language and spun his latest bureaucratic conjuring trick in management gobbledegook and verbal obfuscation. He said such a ministry will allow his government “a single point of command and a single line of march”, whatever that may mean.

Project manager

In fact, if misgovernance is his one calling card the other characteristic of the Ramaphosa presidency is his political ineptness and lack of courage. The new minister is apparently an elaborate feint to tiptoe around energy minister Gwede Mantashe, the person who in effect constructively dismissed Eskom CEO André de Ruyter by accusing him and his colleagues of “actively agitating for the overthrow of the state”.

In an interview with the Financial Times, De Ruyter credibly reasoned that Mantashe’s hostility to renewables being added to the grid is explained by the fact that “it is very difficult to steal the sun and the wind”. But Mantashe, who appears immovable from office, scoffed at the weekend (as so many ministers of Ramaphosa do towards him) that the new minister is nothing more than a “project manager”.

An energy expert wrote that the new ministry wrapped in a state of disaster now means there are now no fewer than five ministers dealing with the governance of electricity in the country: mineral resources & energy for electricity policy and regulation; public enterprises, which has oversight over Eskom; co-operative governance & traditional affairs, which is responsible for the state of disaster; and the National Treasury for the funding. And now another minister is placed into this fetid, underperforming mix.

Like Graaff’s United Party, the ministers and their underlings are in a state of ideological war and bureaucratic conflict with each other, precisely because their appointing authority, the presidency, is seen to be weak and indecisive.

Ramaphosa’s limp solutions to his cascading crises was saved only by the “dead cat strategy”, though in the case of his state of the nation address the strategy was activated by his “frenemies” in the EFF. With their typical one-note brand of uncivil thuggery, EFF Gucci-shoed MPs stormed the stage to stop Ramaphosa’s speech. Protofascism in action it was. But as economics writer Tim Harford defined it, “when losing an argument at a dinner party, throw a dead cat on the table. The awkward argument will cease instantly, and everyone will lose their minds about the cat.”

So, shorn of credibility and long on rhetoric and short of results as Ramaphosa is, the EFF display was a potent reminder of an even worse alternative waiting in the wings. But once again contradiction rears its head. For all the contempt Julius Malema spits at Ramaphosa, the ANC in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal are plotting and scheming with the EFF across a belt of municipalities to take them over and install ANC and EFF governments.

Perhaps this too could come into Ramaphosa’s “single point of command and single line of march”.

• Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs a communications company.