During the Cold War, a new profession emerged – “Kremlinologists”, a hodge-podge of academics, journalists, other scoundrels, and commentators, who would study every minute detail of the behaviour of Soviet Union leaders when they were in public.
They examined who stood next to whom, whose chair was closer or further away from the leader, who looked at whom and who was ignored. And then came to profound conclusions about the intentions of the old Kremlin.
The Germans invented a rather better word for it - “Kreml-Astrologie” (Kremlin Astrology), reminding us that quackery of this sort is generally just plain wrong.
Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa, the new president of South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress (ANC), is generating a similar type of interest and a new industry of Cyril-ologists. The commentariat has been in overdrive since the ANC’s elective conference in December, trying to tell South Africans (and Ramaphosa) exactly what he’s thinking, what he’s missed, what his strategy is or will be, and what he should do. They tell the country how he will play the short or long game against President Jacob Zuma’s faction in the ANC, or what he will do against others in the “top 6” leadership of the governing party. And on and on it goes, based on very little.
Many are pushing their own agenda, rather unsubtly; but in large part this is occurring because Ramaphosa plays his cards close to his chest, and allows South Africans to inscribe onto his image the leader they wish him to be.
He is, of course, a highly adept politician. He can’t really lose if every possible future action has been rehearsed by one soothsayer or another.
Saint or sinner?
The challenges are twofold: one is trying to work out what Ramaphosa is thinking and planning, which is reasonable enough; the second, however, are the commentators demanding that he follow this or that course of action. He “must” fire Zuma or he “must” build unity or he “must” leave the Reserve Bank alone …. on and on the list of demands goes.
But how rich is he in reality? No one has a clue.
But mention land expropriation and he turns from saviour to sinner in a flash. The admiring Cyril-ologists who want “stability” are reduced to shock and horror when he talks of using the land productively, or economic transformation, or uses the word “radical” at all, as if the inequality bred from the status quo is not about to sink the entire boat.
For others, Ramaphosa is an evil capitalist from whose hands the blood of Marikana – the scene of the death of 34 miners at the hands of the police – will never be cleansed. The evangelical left will never forget or forgive him for this – and they may be correct. But at some point the findings of the Farlam Commission that there was no causal link between Ramaphosa’s e-mails and the appalling events that unfolded will have to be accepted.
For others, simply not being Zuma, or in the “state capture” crony list, is sufficient. This is a man who didn’t even make the index at the back of Jacques Pauw’s explosive book, The President’s Keepers, in which so many of the ANC glitterati played a starring role. Ramaphosa doesn’t need to be a saint, just not a sinner of Zuma’s magnitude or ineptitude.
And for yet another camp, this is a second (and possibly final) chance for the ANC, if not the entire progressive movement to (try again to) get it right. He is seen as the best (if not the only) chance the ANC has to return to a transparent, democratic project with progressive impulses that puts the needs of the poor ahead of the elite.
The will to believe this is surprisingly strong given that loyal ANC members have seen the party’s fairly radical programme of 1994 replaced first with strict fiscal controls under Thabo Mbeki and then with all-out looting under Zuma. Ramaphosa - central to the democratic project in the 1990s (and not an exile) – is the beneficiary of this almost mystical hope.
He is also frequently referred to as an enigma – describing himself as such to biographer Anthony Butler at their first meeting. The problem with enigmatic leaders is that they tend to be … well, enigmatic, and unavailable for “Astrologie” of any type.
Master tactician and negotiator
Perhaps it is easiest to use two categories that actually matter – his business interests are of limited interest as he heads to the Union Buildings, so too his enigmatic charm, or knowing the exact composition of his backroom team, or what he had for breakfast.
What matters is that he is a politician and a negotiator. Nimble and tactically shrewd seem perhaps more useful labels than saint or sinner. He plays the long game. Most commentators forget that, and demand immediate action - including the firing of some ministers and incompetent heads of state owned enterprises. They also want immediate judicial proceedings against the entire basket of deplorables in government, and other dramatic interventions.
Ramaphosa has been negotiating for the last 40 years, starting during his days in the National Union of Mineworkers followed by talks under the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) that ended apartheid, and topped by his role holding together the entire Constitutional Assembly that wrote the country’s new constitution.
It’s remarkable – and a little ridiculous – that a man who crafted his victory against a formidable and highly resourced machinery, in a context of violence and fear (and considerable loathing), is expected suddenly to make rash moves to satisfy whoever is making their demand. So much for ‘Astrologie’.
One thing South Africans can probably be sure of: we won’t know what Ramaphosa plans to do until it is done.
We can watch who stands near him, who he smiles at and who not, who he backslaps and with whom he shakes hand, or read the entrails of a slaughtered beast – and be none the wiser. There will be few dramatic announcements, sudden ruptures, or grand gestures.
This is not a man to challenge at chess. He is also not a man who likes to lose. He may well be the only man able to get South Africa out of the looming economic checkmate bequeathed it by his predecessor.