At the height of America’s postwar supremacy in the 1950s, which birthed the baby boomer generation and saw the US standard of living soar, the country’s 34th president was emblematic of its elevated national mood and international standing.

President Dwight D (“Ike”) Eisenhower – Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during the war – and thereafter chief of staff of the US army – converted a stellar military career into a hugely popular two-term presidency.

While some found his style vapid and accomplishments in office tepid, he left the presidency after eight years almost as popular as when he entered it. He also helped contain the rising temperature of the Cold War and ended the hot conflicts in Korea and Berlin. Most of all, he presided over rising prosperity at home.

It is difficult from today’s vantage point of hyperpolarised Washington, where political divisions are as entrenched perhaps as they are in SA, to remember that Eisenhower’s Republican Party label was almost as accidental as his presidency. He did not thirst to be president but was sought for it by party bosses, both Republican and Democrat.

The fact that he preferred golf and an evening scotch and soda to the grim business of party politics gave meaning to the putdown provided by some intellectuals of his political programme: “His smile was his philosophy.”

America has replaced the smile with a snarl, and while Twitter in the 1950s was birdsong, today it is the essential means of communication for the 45th president of the United States.

Last week in SA, we elected a president who also enjoys golf and his beaming face from election posters and billboards might also suggest, in the absence of hard evidence of what he might do in office over the next five or 10 years, that his smile is also his philosophy.

Also, of course – though in an extraordinary public display of personal petulance ANC supremo Ace Magashule denied it – the popularity of both presidents far outstrips the standing of their parties. The Eisenhower winning slogan was “We Like Ike”. “The People’s Choice” – borrowed from the Nelson Mandela playbook of yesteryear adorned the ANC offering of Ramaphosa with nary a nod, mention or photo of the “collective” that Magashule parroted as the cause of the ANC electoral “get out of jail card”.

Far closer to the mark was Magashule’s bête noire, Fikile Mbalula, saying that without Cyril at the helm the party would have lost badly – polling in the region of 40% by his estimation.  

There, of course, similarities end between the 34th president of the US and SA’s fifth democratic head of state. He confronts not boundless postwar prosperity here, but its complete absence; and the worst conditions, according to one recent report, than any country not actually in a state of war.

Ramaphosa certainly has the smile, but the immediate question is whether he has the teeth and the appetite to tackle the tough ones that are piling up in the presidential in-tray at Union Buildings, and before then at ANC headquarters in Luthuli House.

He might also find that winning – in the face of huge headwinds a difficult election – is far easier than making some essential choices to bring this country back from the economic cliff edge and the social unease that accompanies him into office.

Here there is a huge difference between Ramaphosa and, for example, Eisenhower. The latter used the Republican Party as a flag of convenience into the presidency. Ramaphosa is a staunch party and union man. His hugely profitable diversion into business was not indicative of a deeply felt need to switch careers but essentially a means of accumulating enough money and time until the winds shifted in his direction to return to politics.

He will find, though,  one useful lesson from the world of finance and capital accumulation as a forward path to presidential action: the most capital you have is usually at the commencement of a venture, and to reap rewards you need to spend, or leverage, your capital to make real future gains.

Simply put, the most political capital you have is at the beginning of a political journey and for every hard decision you make, and every interest you offend or bypass in making it, the more of it is spent. But doing nothing, or simply presiding rather than leading, invites its diminution anyway.

So if you have an agenda to lead, then lead with it from the start since circumstances are never as propitious the further away you are from election day. Another American politician who had presidential aspirations he hesitated to fulfil and so died without achieving them was the governor of New York, Mario Cuomo. He offered this acute observation on the difference between the election and the aftermath. “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.”

Essentially the rhapsodic response of the business community here to Ramaphosa’s win is the triumph of hope over certainty. Although given the path to destruction on which Jacob Zuma was leading the country, this is understandable even if it is an evidence-free proposition that Cyril actually intends to reform the economy and make it fit for purpose to increase growth, attract investment, dent unemployment and appoint competent and incorruptible ministers.

We don’t even know, in the obvious evidence of a broken-backed state, whether Ramaphosa’s excursion into the private sector cured him of the socialist and communist ideas of his youth and union days. Or does he genuinely believe the primary purpose of government is to govern business, utterly ignoring the well-evidenced mantra that “the business of government is not the governance of business”?

Of course, the state has a regulatory role to play in levelling playing fields and holding private enterprise to high standards. But if Ramaphosa is to fulfil his February pledge to lift us 30 places up the “ease of doing business” index and save the declining tax base, simply seeing the private sector as a government piggybank and strangling enterprise in a wasteland of regulatory overreach will have to change and change very soon.

The next few weeks, with a new cabinet and the outlines of a legislative agenda, will give a clue to what lies behind the smile and whether the president sets his sights at the right targets. Because while like Eisenhower he enjoys an occasional evening tipple, the election results and the dark economic environment he confronts suggest both country and president are “drinking in the last chance saloon”.

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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