The political fortunes of Joe Biden, who has just turned 80 and is the oldest president in the history of the US, are partly explained by comparative advantage. One of his favourite quips is: “Don’t compare me to the almighty, compare me to the alternative.”

In his 2020 presidential victory and in the US midterms this month, he and the Democratic Party, were up against a Republican Party which has become a franchise of the outsize personality of Donald Trump. And despite Biden recording high disapproval levels, a majority of unaffiliated voters detest Trump even more.

His fellow president, Cyril Ramaphosa — also entering the ranks of the  gerontocracy at 70 — has good reason to concur with the Biden view that the lesser evil is the better option.

The worst electricity blackouts in history, the highest rates of unemployment ever recorded and the lowest poll ratings for the ANC have all been on his watch. He is, though, based on branch nominations released this week, en route to a resounding second term win next month.

As the old Victorian nursery rhyme explains, “always fear to let go of nurse for fear of getting someone worse”. And though both ANC presidential candidates carry more excess baggage than an airport luggage carousel, it appears that Digital Vibes (carried by candidate Zwele Mkhize) outweighs Pahla Pahla (weighing down Ramaphosa). Or the real fear is the return — in new form — of Jacob Zuma.

As the ANC candidates list was unveiled in Johannesburg this week, Ramaphosa was suited in white tie and tails and sash enjoying the flummery and finery of a royal visit to Britain, the first of the “Carolean era” as the reign of King Charles is titled.

This honour also owes something to the Biden principle that the best option might be the least unattractive.

When I was in London recently, a journalist put it this way: “For symbolic and for commonwealth reasons it is good politics to invite an African head of state here, and Cyril is still the best of the lot.”

Cynicism aside, if you trawl the list of democratic heads of state from the continental countries that matter, the reasoning is sound.

Nigeria is embroiled in a fierce presidential election; Kenya’s new president William Ruto was subject to charges before the International Criminal Court for orchestrating post electoral violence in 2007 (which were later abandoned).

And the only winner of the Nobel Peace Prize still in office, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, prosecuted a violent civil war in his own country.

Whether by default or by design of the British royal family’s close affinity for South Africa, Ramaphosa’s week on the glittering stages of Buckingham Palace and the Royal Gallery in the Houses of Parliament certainly gave him the “15 minutes of fame” to which Andy Warhol allegedly said we are all entitled.

Whether Ramaphosa is flattered or irritated by the fact that every speech of welcome — whether by the king or the speaker of parliament — was referenced to a political deity, Nelson Mandela, is unknown.

Mandela exited the political stage more than two decades ago and has been dead for nearly nine years. But he is the unforgiving lens through which his successors are refracted, and it is not flattering to any of them.

A British parliamentarian who attended Ramaphosa’s address on Tuesday wrote to provide context: “There is a genuine affection for South Africa amongst all of us, and so many of us have visited the country. But there is also an intense sense of disappointment at the performance of the country, but most particularly that of Cyril Ramaphosa personally. Everyone knows about the dollars in the sofa, the continuing corruption and power blackouts.”

This diplomatic view was in sharp contrast to the more public and acerbic comments of British parliamentary observers.

Ramaphosa’s demand for reparations for climate change and that Britain and other countries pick up the tab did not play well.

Writing in The Times, Quentin Letts, its parliamentary sketch writer, waspishly noted: “Visiting heads of state are usually subtler about asking for money … Ramaphosa, not one of life’s charmers, demanded that Britain cough up for historical industrial emissions … Get out your cheque books. Actually, from what one hears about Ramaphosa, folding stuff might be preferable.”

Ramaphosa, to the extent he takes note, is generally used to more fawning coverage. But Letts was in Imbongi mode compared with influential political blogger “Guido Fawkes”.

Writing in, he noted: “The president spoke sombrely in a rich bass, and created a powerful sense that his country was in a pretty terrible state and that it was our fault … The worst thing about this form of guilt is that one feels so helpless.

“We in the Royal Gallery couldn’t even invite South Africa’s slum dwellers to sit on Cyril’s sofa, to at least give them a sense of the millions they might one day save of a head of state’s salary, should they achieve such a position.”

Ouch. But when our head of state goes to Britain asking for their pounds, he might be reminded of his own mysterious dollars in the sofa. A billionaire with a begging bowl is always at risk. At home and abroad.

Tony Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications. @TonyLeonSA