One of the most awesome things about being human is our capacity to imagine. We can invent worlds that do not exist by just using our imagination. We can play with myths and let them amuse us, inspire us, entertain us or even distract us from reality when we need a little respite from the burden of facts.
Sometimes what we imagine is something innocent, small and even fun, like the invention of the tooth fairy. Of course, for working class and unemployed parents the tooth fairy can be a menace if your darling little boy hopes he will get even just R5 in the morning when he wakes up after having left a tooth for the tooth fairy. The darn tooth fairy may be competing with the following day’s bread budget. But, for the most part, this is a myth that makes our childhoods fun.
Santa Claus, that capitalist pig, is a myth that was fun until he stole way too much of our hard-earned money. Which is why January has become Januworry for many of us. It takes anxious weeks to recover in the new year from the materialism that this myth occasions, without fail, in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Myths also exist in politics. They can play a powerful role in all sorts of ways. Americans internalise the myth that they are the greatest nation on Earth, and that in the United States, through “rugged individualism”, you can achieve whatever you set out to do in the imagined land of opportunity that supposedly enables flourishing and rewards sheer hard work and determination. This is a flawed myth that has been shown up, repeatedly.
The US is, in fact, a hot mess. But the basic coherence of this superpower cannot be understood, from a political sociology point of view, without understanding the role of political mythmaking in American politics. Even the most jaded citizens love occasionally rallying around a pleasing myth that provides a little respite from the burden of facts.
The myth is like an organising principle around which the nation state can be constructed.
South African politics isn’t immune to mythmaking. The biggest myth here is that of the rainbow nation created by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. It imagines a divided society that bridges deep historical differences and structural injustices.
This myth has been critiqued cogently by many writers. It is, at best, a myth that embodies the sincere aspirations of South Africans and, at worst, it is a dangerous myth that distracts us from confronting urgent and ongoing injustices. I don’t want to rehearse these arguments because a new myth, the Ramaphosa myth, needs slaying.
Political myths, in general, aren’t intrinsically problematic. If a myth can catalyse a society into becoming that which it isn’t yet, then it acts as a motivator to get us from an undesirable status quo to a better society. But, as time passes, we must be honest in our assessment of whether the myth is still serving us. Which brings me to the Ramaphosa myth.
When Ramaphosa ran to become ANC president and did so successfully at Nasrec in Johannesburg in December 2017 at the ANC’s elective conference, many South Africans reinvented him. Ramaphosa went from being a human being with constrained abilities to a mythical superhuman who could fix both the ANC and South Africa.
At most, the myth lacked a magic wand and so the mythmakers begged for a little bit of time from the realists. But the mythmakers internalised the conviction that Ramaphosa did possess these fantastical qualities that would soon see the ANC “renewed” and the country walking briskly along a high growth path.
It is the beginning of 2020 and none of this has come true. The ANC is still a hot mess. It remains deeply divided; the remnants of the state capture project seem determined to remain and to neutralise Ramaphosa. No ANC faction has a clear advantage in the battle for what is left of the ANC’s battered soul, despite the powers ascribed to the mythical Ramaphosa.
To continue to believe in the Ramaphosa myth, despite these facts, is the equivalent of an adult believing in the tooth fairy. At some point reality should bite, if you are a functional adult.
The same goes for Ramaphosa’s performance as president of the country. He oversees an economy that is broken, and which cannot deliver the necessary levels of sustained growth required to decimate the grotesque levels of inequality, poverty and unemployment that make South Africa one of the most socially unjust societies on the planet.
Yet, the mythmakers were convinced that he is imbued with superhuman business acumen and skill that would see the country magically become an economy that is bigger than ever, and more equitable in how the spoils of productivity are divided.
The mistake many made was to refuse to accept that Ramaphosa is a mere mortal, and he didn’t help the situation by not explicitly telling his superfans to stop ascribing magical powers to him. He should have kept it real from the beginning; instead he simply smiled and played along. Now it is as plain as daylight that he is not bigger than the weaknesses of the ANC. It is also clear that the state, which had been preyed on for the better part of a decade, can’t be easily repaired.
In fact, the president is now facing an emerging credibility crisis, part of which is his own making. It is not clear that he can deliver on what he promises, from keeping the lights on for the period he guaranteed us they would be on to building houses in places like Alexandra township, with ambitious targets that won’t be met. This means that whenever he speaks, we cannot take his word at face value, which creates a credibility gap.
He is, in the end, going to be just another ANC president and, at best, have a legacy of being corruption-free but with not much positive effect to brag about it. We will simply, in the best-case scenario, not collapse wholesale under his watch but we can all stop dreaming of a South Africa in which there is a “better life for all”.
So where did it all go wrong? The most basic error many made was to assume that Ramaphosa could be the first ANC president to be stronger than the ANC itself. The reality is that the ANC will continue to outlive, with its strengths and weaknesses, any individual president. Therefore we should be paying attention to the organisational truths about the ANC more so than our best wishes for the incumbent president.
Recent ANC history speaks for itself on this score. Despite a resolution to that effect, the ANC had failed to usher in the “decade of the cadre”, a decade that was meant to see the development of technically and ethically excellent ANC members across the country who could be seconded to the state to deliver on the promise of “a better life for all”.
The ANC’s political school, a theoretically good move, never delivered leadership of that quality. All of the various deployment committees have played politics rather than caring about helping to develop a bureaucracy that is fit for purpose. In essence, it has been corruption and self-serving careerism business as usual, for the longest time possible, and Ramaphosa, as mere mortal rather than as superhuman, was never going to be bigger than his organisation. Not even the mythical Nelson Mandela was bigger than the ANC.
So where, with brutal honesty, does that leave all South Africans? Each one of us must now accept that the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, American “rugged individualism”, the rainbow nation and the mythical Ramaphosa do not exist. The implication of accepting the latter is that we can begin to confront an overdue question: “What does a project of repairing the country look like in a scenario — call it reality — in which we accept that Ramaphosa is a mere mortal who cannot fix the ANC’s myriad organisational weaknesses?”
Only once we have slain the Ramaphosa myth will we have the space to think clearly about how to tackle our most urgent problems collectively, despite his leadership weaknesses, rather than because of his mythical superpowers.