Cyril Ramaphosa has had to tread a fine line in moving from the role of negotiator to that of South Africa’s new president. The man who helped the country navigate a peaceful transition from apartheid to inclusive democracy now has to appear “presidential”, as the Americans like to call it.
In the US this is popularly taken to mean the twin superficialities of “height and hair” – taller and better looking candidates have fared better. But in a country like South Africa, the demands are far more diverse as well as culturally specific.
So what makes a successful presidential performance in South Africa?
I would argue that, just as performance is not limited to action on a stage, performance theory can help us critique more than simply an actor’s work. If they’re successful, politicians are consummate performers and politics is often by turn a circus, a tragedy and a spectacle. That one sees the script behind the actor’s lines, the direction strategy behind the staging, is no bad thing. Rather – in all things – we should judge Ramaphosa on his delivery.
Within this framework, we can see that South Africa’s past presidents have performed different styles of leadership with varying degrees of success. The late former President Nelson Mandela was known for his shuffling dancing as much as his leadership qualities; stiffly cerebral Thabo Mbeki was out in the cold, no matter how intellectual his rhetoric and policy; and Jacob Zuma was known for his trademark song, laugh and dance moves despite his manifest lack of other leadership qualities.
Against this standard, how has Ramaphosa fared in his first weeks as president of the country?
The man has easy charm: buckets of it. He’s also shrewd. He has a performer’s awareness of the room, but a politician’s understanding of the moment. That combination will serve him on the South African stage.
Case in point
Look at his very first parliamentary addresses. In both his initial speech after inauguration and the formal state of the nation address, Ramaphosa broke from script. He grinned. He laughed. Not a Zuma “hehehe”, but a hearty, good-natured chuckle. At once disarming but also open to (mis)interpretation, a leader’s laugh is a high stakes game.
Yet under the easy style there was plenty of hard strategy. Ramaphosa began his first address with a casual but pointed observation about his relationship with the Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. He laughingly suggested the latter’s position could well have been his, if not for his distaste of the onerous robing demands.
This reference, though framed as a joke, had two serious purposes.
Firstly, it demonstrated a good relationship with a Zuma-appointed Chief Justice against the backdrop of a governing party that is seen as increasingly hostile towards the judiciary.
Secondly – and more pointedly – it was a less-than-subtle reminder of Ramaphosa’s own leadership qualities and legacy that, his speech hinted, had made him a candidate for Chief Justice under a previous (his implication is, almost certainly, Mandela’s) presidency.
The same address – outwardly collegial, often punctuated with disarming grins – saw Ramaphosa respond individually to each opposition leader’s public comments, in nearly every case reminding them of their joint history, whether in shared university days or activist deployment.
In both content and delivery, then, Ramaphosa pointedly delivered a mandate for respect forged from deeply intertwined political histories.
Ramaphosa is also sensitive to optics. There are simply no coincidences in his presidential performance: it has proven an extremely carefully staged affair.
After a photograph of him posing with five white women in kwik dry lycra on the Sea Point Promenade at dawn the day after Zuma’s resignation went viral, his team was quick to fashion an organised event in a less affluent suburb: a Gugulethu to Athlone 5km walk at 5:30am – powerwalking with the president. A “man of the people” who quite literally “walks among us” is being crafted step by careful step.
When it comes to style, his diamond-pattern red tie debut in Parliament on his inauguration clearly gestured to Zuma’s own blood-red tie in his Valentine’s Day resignation speech. In his dark purple state of the nation tie the following evening, Ramaphosa perfectly matched the colour palette of the Speaker of the House, Baleka Mbete, who walked him inside.
This sartorial performance meticulously played out a symbolic message: harmonious continuity in the ANC and power alliance above all.
Whether drawing on historical bonds or performing current alliance, Ramaphosa has employed time and tradition to work for him in these first days of office.
February 2018 has seen a political performance that pulled audiences both backwards and forwards through South African timelines. Through their invocations of history’s symbolism Ramaphosa and the ANC have understandably played to almost all time periods except the precarious present. Opposition leaders who seek to meet them on those grounds may well find themselves outplayed. Rather, they would do well to resolutely bring attention to the slippages of the past month – the incongruencies and sacrifices demanded of the present transition.
One such slippage was manifestly on display at the announcement of the cabinet reshuffle on Tuesday night. With the press conference delayed twice after an already last-minute announcement, it was patently clear from his less ebullient demeanour at the outset that the famously punctual Ramaphosa was displeased.
Starting with a laugh and feigned surprise at the press turnout, Ramaphosa initially performed the same easy charm on display throughout the previous weeks. Yet once into the meat of the announcement, Ramaphosa’s delivery became stiffly formal, his eyes locked between the page and a single point in the room, his delivery at times stilted and dry-mouthed.
We can look forward to far more developments in the weeks to come. Time will tell how Ramaphosa and the ANC will pick up the playbook from here.
In the main, however, this moment is all Ramaphosa’s. He should command it.