As he starts his term of office proper, President Cyril Ramaphosa will leave Loftus Stadium in Pretoria a president and a statesman whose words have filled his people with great hope.
The fact of the matter is that no head of state ever walks into office promising to be a wrecking ball. Like beauty pageant contestants, newly minted heads of state all tend to promise to save the fish, the water and the fisherman.
It does not always end well. The history of the world is littered with heads of state who betrayed their own struggles for justice and fairness, let alone their words.
If President Ramaphosa fails on his lofty ideals and moving words, he will not be the first and certainly not be the last.
Yet in him, South Africans have a good reason to believe. For the first time in 10 years, South Africa will have a president who seems to get that the first office demands that the incumbent leads the way in treating it with dignity. The first citizen’s responsibility is to secure the esteem of the office.
Inevitably, a new president will always be compared with their predecessor.
Luckily for President Ramaphosa, the bar is very low. But even if it were not so, the personal charisma and depth President Ramaphosa carries suggests that he would have emerged a statesman regardless of who had occupied office before him.
President Ramaphosa has that intangible entity that makes others pay attention and assume he has something important to say.
As president, he will make many speeches with varying historical importance and gravitas. Yet, it was probably a simple 36-word sentence that might just set the scene for his presidency.
“I will seek to act and be the president of all South Africans and not just the president of those who voted for the party I lead and those who voted for parties that are here…”
President Ramaphosa said as he responded to congratulatory messages following his election as president by the South African Parliament.
Juxtapose this with: “…I argued one time with somebody who said that the country comes first, and I said as much as I understand that, I think my organisation, the ANC, comes first.”
The above statement was uttered by Ramaphosa’s predecessor Jacob Zuma in 2015. The former president volunteered this statement while speaking to ANC members in KwaZulu-Natal.
By then, it had been six years since he had stood in front of the now late Chief Justice Pius Langa and said: “I, Jacob Zuma, solemnly swear … that I will observe and maintain the Constitution of the republic and I solemnly and sincerely promise that I will always promote all that will advance the public, and oppose all that may harm it…
“I will devote myself to the well-being of the republic and all of its people, so help me God,” he had said to loud applause, the loudest probably coming from those who had hoped for a more sympathetic ear than they had had during President Thabo Mbeki’s era.
Either the then President Zuma had forgotten he had pledged to promote “the well-being of the republic and all of its people” or he did not mean it at the time. The third alternative is that he did not fully appreciate the import of his oath.
This is probably why when cornered about the comments he responded: “Don’t conflate the two things. When I speak to the ANC members I speak to the ANC members. When I speak to the country I speak to the country and I made the distinction between the two.”
By this point, anyone who cared for the integrity of the Office of the President would have hoped that a new scandal would arise and shift the fickle media and public attention to someone or something else.
Back to President Ramaphosa. ANC’s Head of Elections Fikile Mbalula confirmed what had been anecdotal when he admitted that “CR17” had saved the party from a historical election loss.
Mbalula said the party’s own polls had shown them they were staring defeat in the face and could be saved only by the party president’s personal charm and personality.
This view did not please party Secretary-General Ace Magashule who insisted that the ANC’s 57, 29% win was a collective effort. Interestingly, Magashule did not dispute the existence of the poll or its findings.
“Ramaphosa was a game changer. He [Magashule] knows that. Of course it is not a one-man show. The president knows that, we know that. We came into the election with the stigma that we were corrupt and only listened to ourselves,” said Mbalula in a frank interview with broadcast news service Eyewitness News.
Ramaphosa’s statesmanship could also be read in how virtually every political party that made congratulatory remarks after his election to the presidency, pledged their co-operation.
Even the EFF which had once threatened to have Ramaphosa charged for what the party saw as his part in the Marikana Massacre, was cordial towards their one-time nemesis.
Ramaphosa’s enemies inside and outside the party know that in the trade unionist-turned business tycoon, the ANC has a formidable votes magnet.
The best the opposition parties can hope for is that internal ANC dynamics work against Ramaphosa because on his personal charisma alone, coupled with the opposition parties fielding relatively weak or ethically questionable leaders, President Ramaphosa will walk an election any day.
The internal ANC contradictions present an opportunity for President Ramaphosa. Instead of looking to ANC traditions as the ultimate guide, he can choose to shape the Presidency into his greatest and long-lasting legacy.
In his congratulatory message, ACDP leader Rev Kenneth Meshoe said: “My prayer for you, Mr President, is that you’ll be like a living fish. You know a dead fish flows down the stream. It goes where the stream goes. A living fish can turn away from the stream and go where it wants to go.”
This may very well turn out to be a prophetic message by the Meshoe. President Ramaphosa has the personal credibility and the political mandate to be the fish that turned upstream and swam to where it wanted.