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Facing Down Your Boss

Cyril Ramaphosa's Challenge

You really have to want to be a leader.

It’s a huge privilege to have the opportunity to lead others, but it’s always been a difficult role and so it must remain.

Leadership has many responsibilities that affect people’s lives and should therefore be taken very seriously.

The Responsibilities Of A New Leader

It is never a good start to focus on the decision-making authority that a new leader will acquire, it must always be about the serious (and usually challenging) responsibilities they will have to deliver against.

When the leadership opportunity is to be the next head of state, when you are the Deputy President, reporting to a President that you fundamentally disagree with, then the huge responsibilities simply multiply and are under incredible and sustained public scrutiny.

Cyril Ramaphosa has proved over the years that he can lead in a multitude of environments. Ramaphosa is a qualified lawyer, a former trade union boss and anti-apartheid campaigner.

Many thought his time had come to be the next President of South Africa when Nelson Mandela gracefully stepped down in 1998.

Desire and Energy are Formidable Assets

The analysts were convinced that he was Mandela’s first choice to succeed him, and there is some truth in that, but life is rarely that straight forward.

He was thoroughly disappointed when he was passed over. It hurt even more when he was not considered for the post of Deputy President.

He then threw his hat in the ring to become Minister of Finance, but that didn’t work out either.

Passed Over

There are only so many disappointments anyone can take, and he was soon to turn his back on politics and would go on to make his fortune in business.

Whilst he had been away, the political situation for his party, the African National Congress (ANC), only got worse, and things have started to look extremely bleak.

Quiet Behind The Scenes Approach

This time around Ramaphosa campaigned vigorously using his quiet ‘behind the scenes’ approach to win the Presidency of the ANC by the skin of his teeth.

The party remains deeply polarised, however, every day that passes sees the Head of State, President Zuma, become a little weaker as Ramaphosa becomes a little stronger.

Nothing Starts Without Hope

He has already brought much hope, as the value of the South African Rand has spurted upwards since the announcement of his success. The real work starts now.

I was recently a guest at a very special South African society wedding in upmarket Johannesburg.

The weather had been kind to us, and the sun was bouncing off the glittering dresses and the bright African sartorial elegance.

But it was Saturday 13th of January and this prestigious wedding was inadvertently competing with the ANC’s 106-year anniversary celebrations being held in East London over in the Eastern Cape.

Oliver Tambo Airport was unusually jam packed first thing on a Saturday morning.

The normal airfare to East London was ramped up from R6,000 to R15,000, as just about anyone with political aspirations made their way to East London to listen to the recently elected President of the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa, make his first address to the party as leader.

Surprisingly, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Ramaphosa’s chief rival for the ANC presidency, was a guest of honour at our wonderful wedding, and had not made her way to East London – maybe she now realises that her leadership moment has perhaps come and gone.

Poor Leadership is Worse than No Leadership

South Africa has suffered from indifferent leadership since Nelson Mandela.

But at the age of 65, and having made millions in his time in business, is Ramaphosa really the answer? Is he the leader that will heal the divisions, mend the broken economy and take a hard line with the corruption and graft which has become the byword for Zuma’s time in office?

Ramaphosa was born in Soweto in 1952. His paternal grandfather walked for 3 months to get to the mines, where he worked for 6 months, before having to have to walk 3 months back again to get home.

These memories of hardship and hard work are not likely to be forgotten and have helped to forge who he is today.

If You’re Not Bold You Will Fail

This may just be his perfect opportunity.

Ramaphosa is one of few senior government and African National Congress (ANC) officials who have called out the disparaged Gupta family for their influence on big government decisions and deals.

He now needs to act, and act fast and assertively. He is already starting to demonstrate that he has the guile and the stomach for what will be a bitter and tenacious fight to clean up both the government and ANC.

Whilst the voting of the ANC delivered him his victory, it also delivered the top 6 elected officials of the ANC. Many of them were Zuma loyalists, he needs to crack this – and soon.

Strong and Forceful Negotiations

Traditionally, the ANC has been run by consensus, not by voting. His reputation for strong and forceful negotiating will be needed again and again.

The ANC usually goes for a clear slate by backing a leader who is surrounded by their loyal supporters. This time things are very different, they have clearly gone for a ‘mixed’ slate, knowing full well that the top team’s allegiances may well be split.

Charm and Charisma

Ramaphosa has a carefully managed reputation of being charming, charismatic and strong willed with high self-confidence.

He is not known for dramatic statements and actions, as he continues to manage both his persona and image extremely carefully.

This is a lesson hard learned from his previous tilt at the top job.

He operates brilliantly behind closed doors without fanfare or trumpets.

Tellingly, he is the first President of the ANC who does not come from the exiled wing of the ANC leadership. This is a huge and symbolic change from the past.

What do You Stand For?

They might just be on to something here.

He has started well, and everyone needs clear symbols of change, and he took all of the top 6 of the ANC to visit the Zulu King and then took all of them again to visit the Xhosa King.

These are two very influential tribal leaders and was a visible and instructive signal of inclusion.

The Big Question

The big question everybody is asking is when will President Zuma go? And will Ramaphosa move to push him out soon?

In South Africa there are three ways to get rid of a president; a vote of no confidence, impeachment or resignation.

Given that Ramaphosa is a smooth operator, it would make no sense for a fiery and destructive confrontation. If there is one thing we have learnt from recent history in Africa, when the ‘Big Men’ do eventually go, they are soon forgotten.

Just Go And Be Forgotten

Just think, Dos Santos in Angola, Jammeh in Gambia and of course, Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

Whilst it will infuriate many who would want Zuma brought before the law courts, the best way forward might just be to let him go quietly – in return for going quickly.

Ramaphosa will look to provide Zuma with an elegant exit and just let the nation move on positively.

When it comes to Africa, we tend to overestimate the short-term impact of key decisions, whilst underestimating the long term hard work they bring. Just let him go, as with him out of the way, the painstaking hard work and rebuilding can commence.

There’s Never a Perfect Moment

Sometimes in politics, timing is everything. Whilst the ANC is divided and needs strong leadership to get it back on track, the opposition parties are all distracted as well.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) is also divided and the leadership is busy taking lumps out of each other.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), whilst talking up their ability to potentially become the king makers in a tight presidential election, still appear far too raucous and reckless to come anywhere near being close to power.

Which Way To Go

A big question for Ramaphosa is which way to go? In Africa, popular and powerful rhetoric can give the leader all the powerful influence and control they need, but most in South Africa have become fed up with words and now demand tangible action.

This always takes so much longer than the effective soundbites.

There are a few other supplementary questions that need to be asked:

  • Can he bring Business and Government together?

  • Can he bring South Africa into Africa?

  • Can he heal the vicious divides in the ANC?

State Capture

It is obvious to all where he needs to start, and that’s the sorting of the big systemic issues around corruption.

The buzzword in South Africa is ‘State Capture’, which pointedly refers mainly to the Gupta Bothers.

They have become billionaires in South Africa on the back of their extremely close and insidious relationship with President Zuma and his family.

As an earlier line of defence, the Gupta’s used the now discredited and broken UK PR agency, Bell Pottinger, to create a storm (and a smokescreen) around the other favourite South African buzzwords ‘White Monopoly Capital’.

White Monopoly Capital

This is a euphemism for the whites still running the country, and having the blacks still serve them.

This has led to one of the most powerful criticisms thrown at Ramaphosa. His previous life as a business tycoon, making huge amounts of money, has made it easy for some to question his independence from South Africa’s business barons.

This begs the question does business lead politics or does politics lead business in South Africa?

One thing we do know, is that it is politics leads the economy.

The recent wall to wall media coverage can inadvertently make many perhaps feel that the perpetrators of this state corruption are all Black or Indian.

The recent Steinhoff business debacle moved the corruption beyond the Blacks and Indians, there is no racial monopoly when it comes to corruption, there are far too many greedy noses of all backgrounds in the trough.

The Prize is Huge

If he could even just begin to sort this current mess out, there is so much international and African goodwill readily available, not to mention the mountain of eager international credit ready to come piling into South Africa.

It is still a really easy place for multinationals to do business and it may not take that long to have the welcome signs up and for the trade flows to become positive again.

But it will not be straight forward.

Deep Set-In Rot

An example of how deep the rot has set it in, is the national flag carrier, South African Airways (SAA).

The airline has had a chequered recent history that matches the failings of the South African government.

It should be one of the bright stars, if not the leading lights of African aviation. But it has had to be continuously financially supported and bailed out by the government.

It has been a visible and disgraceful shambles of management.

Aviation is one of the toughest and most unrelenting industries of late, it’s not a place for well-meaning amateurs.

The political appointees have had zero experience or expertise in the aviation industry, and as each one has had to be removed another wrong-headed appointment is lined up to deliver even more losses.

Another Bailout

Last month, the airline received another bailout, of about R2.3 billion, with no stringent conditions attached.

The newly appointed CEO comes from Vodacom and is the first permanent appointment since November 2015.

Everybody knows that SAA needs to be much smaller, far better run with a much lower cost base, making it fit for purpose.

There are many strong businesses still providing backing and support for SAA, but how long can they continue doing this whilst substandard politically appointed CEO’s just take the business backwards and makes South Africa a laughing stock.

Think Big – Act Small

However, business confidence is already growing since Ramaphosa’s appointment.

The Rand is getting stronger and the very strong and capable Central Bank team and a strong Treasury team, are well equipped for the challenges ahead, but as ever the issue is politics.

As we know, leaders need to really want the job and Ramaphosa really wants the job of President of South Africa. He doesn’t need the money and he has fully embraced the vision and values that Nelson Mandela had for South Africa.

Fresh And Selfless Approach

Ramaphosa would benefit from bringing a much needed fresh and selfless approach to the leadership of both the ANC, and potentially, South Africa.

He should consider the following:

  • Speaking out, especially when it’s not convenient or safe to do so

  • Being his authentic self, and resist playing to the gallery

  • Not everything will be perfect, but he must still try without fear of favour

  • The old ways are broken, time for a bold new approach

  • Think and act beyond ethnicity, race, gender, religion and political persuasion

Ramaphosa’s Past

Zuma’s allies have been rifling through Ramaphosa’s past trying to find some skeletons.

All they have found is a few emails to some former girlfriends, which is unpleasant, shameful and of course should have never have happened, but there was nothing there strong enough to bring him down even in today’s turbulent times.

Throughout all of this recent mayhem, the judiciary, the media and civil society in South Africa have all stood out against all the turmoil by being independent, strong and vociferous.

Ramaphosa’s Promise for the Future

Ramaphosa may have latched on to something that may just differentiate him from the previous leadership.

He has promised to bring free higher education, who knows how he will pay for this, but it is precisely what the increasingly influential younger generation need to hear.

Ramaphosa’s opponents should be wary of lumping together the claims that he is under the influence of white minority capital, with his closeness and understanding of the need to have business closely aligned to the necessary transformation of South Africa.

Rather than tarnishing the former they may find they are de-legitimising the latter.

Maybe something unique is happening in southern Africa, as in both Zimbabwe and Angola autocratic presidents who had been in power for almost four decades lost power in 2017 in very different ways.

The Greatest Glory

South Africa also deserves better leadership and demands it now. And in the words of the father of the new South Africa, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall” – Nelson Mandela.

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