The question is whether the president has the temperament to see SA out of this political and economic quagmire

Roelf Meyer, National Party chief negotiator during SA’s dramatic transition from apartheid to majority rule, once recounted an interesting behind-the-scenes moment with his opposite number from the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa.

It was mid-winter, July 1992, and in a bleak squatter camp called Boipatong, south of Johannesburg, 45 people were “shot, stabbed and hacked to death”, converting the area to a grim killing field — emblematic of the Inkatha-ANC war in which the ANC believed the hidden hand of the apartheid state was either complicit or inattentive. Nelson Mandela went on television, shaking with anger, and announced his party’s withdrawal from the stalled constitutional negotiations and the commencement of mass action, which ensued for a rather terrifying three months.

Meyer later recounted that while he was watching Mandela’s TV denouncement of his party and his leader, FW de Klerk, his telephone rang. Ramaphosa was on the line asking when the two of them could meet.

Patti Waldmeir provided the detail in Anatomy of a Miracle, the most informed account of the negotiations: “While Mandela and De Klerk were trading insults from Boipatong to Bisho, their young lieutenants — Ramaphosa and Meyer — were meeting secretly to look for a deal. Between June and September 1992, they met something like 43 times in what became known as ‘the channel’. More than any two men, indeed arguably more than Mandela and De Klerk themselves, it was Ramaphosa and Meyer who opened the road to peace, and kept it open right up until the election.”

As an eyewitness to those times, I can attest that Ramaphosa’s negotiating skills were certainly in the mix of the successful outcome. Back then, 39-year-old Rampahosa and his canny tactics were allied to a mass movement with the wind of history, struggle and international support behind its back. It was perhaps easier to perfect the political end game. Today as president, a 65-year-old Ramaphosa faces an array of economic crises, at least equivalent to the political challenges he squared away with Meyer 26 years ago.

Reflecting on Ramaphosa’s attempts to kick-start an economic recovery, DA MP David Maynier suggests that far from being the key man to unlock the slammed door of low growth and high unemployment, the president is a barrier. Writing in the Financial Mail, he opined: “The biggest obstacle to recovery, to a large extent, is Ramaphosa himself. The president does not appear to have any authentic ideas of his own on the economy, or if he does, he does not share them. And when faced with tough decisions he tends to equivocate and call summits and conferences.”

However, in the same article, Maynier also cites “temperament” as being the key characteristic in the presidential demeanor of famed US president Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal steered his country out of the great depression. During UN General Assembly week in New York in late September, I witnessed both versions of the public Ramaphosa in action, at an event perhaps indicative of where SA stands in a hyper-competitive world. The SA embassy hosted a business seminar at a midtown hotel at which the audience was respectable rather than huge. Trade and industry minister Rob Davies warmed up the event with two business endorsers of the country’s business attractiveness, Procter & Gamble and IBM. However, their representatives were middle management rather than senior leadership.

To be perfectly fair, however, Ramaphosa did remark in his own speech that this was his “10th address” of the week, and he certainly enjoys the counsel of mega-billionaire, philanthropist and wannabe-president Michael Bloomberg. As he had done for Ramaphosa a few months before in London, Bloomberg squired him around his home town as well. However, in his public remarks, Ramaphosa revealed FD Roosevelt-style reassurance — “temperament” — but utterly minus the “bold persistent experimentation” the US president provided. Unless one counts expropriation without compensation in this corner.

The very next day Ramaphosa informed the Wall Street Journal that “I like the long game… we were too slow with some reforms but now the reforms are coming fast and furious”. There was no menu of such reforms announced in his remarks the day before. Or since. Instead — and this is a curious investment pitch to hard-bitten Americans — he invited the audience to “join South Africans on a journey of transformation”. He omitted to unpack just how arduous this voyage can be, with policy uncertainty, stringent BEE codes, rigid labour laws and a now highly intrusive and interventionist competition policy aimed at foreign investors.

Of course, Ramaphosa honed his political and negotiations skills literally at the coalface of the National Union of Mineworkers. However, now the once bedrock industry, which employed over 500,000 people when he was in the thick of it, is in the sharpest decline. One clue for this was provided last week at the Joburg Indaba mining conference. Former fund manager and Anglo American director Jim Rutherford informed the gathering that “SA does not feature on the international investor radar … international mining equity investors have largely given up on direct exposure to SA mining … The reasons you constantly hear are that they find the place too complicated, they don’t see an environment conducive to making returns, and they see better opportunities elsewhere.” That probably sums up investor sentiment in a large swathe of the world.

In his New York address, Ramaphosa pledged to be open to “listening to ideas both locally and internationally”.

Since Maynier bewails our president’s paucity of original ideas, it might be no bad thing provided he takes his cue from the investors who actually determine the direction of their deal books. Then again, for all his mellifluousness, the most depressing aspect of Ramaphosa’s speech in New York was its most predictable part. He correctly acknowledged the lamentable crisis in education and the local skills deficit. He then, however,  directly elided past the past 24 years and blamed the entirety of the problem on apartheid.

The 2018 Budget Review reminds us that education spending is the top budget item as it has been for the past two-and–a-half decades, yet SA’s current educational outcomes are among the worst in the entire world. If your government has been at the helm for two generations of schooling it simply strains credulity to accept not a jot of personal and political responsibility for this disaster. Ramaphosa owned up to none of it.

Maybe he is more candid in his off-the-record discussions, just as he was during the epic constitutional negotiations. However, our economic malaise is only going to be reversed when the president joins up his private negotiations with public action.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London.

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