Simnikiwe Hlatshaneni
Premium Journalist
3 minute read
18 Jul 2018
6:00 am

Obama’s visit has given Ramaphosa’s presidency some polish

Simnikiwe Hlatshaneni

Zuma could not invoke Mandela, but Ramaphosa can. He can leverage the aura of Mandela much more successfully, a political analyst says.

Former US president Barack Obama greets Graca Machel during the 16th annual Nelson Mandela Memorial Lecture at the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg, 17 July 2018. Picture: Refilwe Modise

Praise for his ability to inspire, from both Nelson Mandela’s widow, Graça Machel, and former US president Barack Obama, may go a long way towards boosting President Cyril Ramaphosa’s own image. According to analysts, this alignment of Ramaphosa with the legacies of Obama and Mandela may be a political masterstroke, as the battle leading up to next year’s elections intensifies.

Machel told the crowd at Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg yesterday that Madiba would be smiling to hear her call on “President Ramaphosa”.

Shortly thereafter, Obama gave a well-received 16th annual Nelson Mandela Memorial Lecture, but not before an unprecedented one-on-one meeting with Ramaphosa.

This was notably the first time Obama has had such a meeting with a sitting South African president, leading political analyst Professor Andre Duvenhage to suggest his visit to the country was also strategic for the Ramaphosa brand, which is largely based on the Mandela legacy.

It was also another sign, Duvenhage suggested, of Ramaphosa’s attempt to cosy up to Western countries to undo the work of former president Jacob Zuma’s regime, which moved from the West to the East in forming strategic international alliances.

“We need to analyse this from two angles. Ramaphosa wants to walk the same road as Mandela,” said Duvenhage, adding that Ramaphosa’s attempt to encourage a moderate political climate resonated with Mandela’s politics when he was president.

“The second and most important thing is that it seems Cyril is working to strengthen South Africa’s ties with the West, and what better way to do this than to bring in Obama, who is not only a popular representative of the US, but also a black person with a moderate approach?

“He is also against (US President) Donald Trump and there is a lot of sympathy across the globe for the opposition to his regime.

“We also need to understand the broader context of Obama being a black moderate politician who had a healthcare programme that did not succeed after he left and the fact that there are some similarities between Obamacare and the National Health Insurance, which government is in the process of enacting so close to an election.

“So it’s all a case of the right person at the right time in the right circumstances.”

Fellow analyst Daniel Silke said Obama had effectively given Ramaphosa further legitimacy, even if only on a mostly superficial level.

“Having Barack Obama seen together with President Ramaphosa in meetings and on stage adds to a sense of legitimacy and respectability for the South African president in the aftermath of the Zuma era.

“The optics for Ramaphosa are all positive, with him basking in the reflective glory of a very popular former US president.

“Importantly, Ramaphosa is attempting to rekindle a ‘Mandela-esque’ identification in the hope that he can restore some lost support and political credibility to his presidency in the tough, early days of his tenure in office.

“Zuma could not invoke Mandela, but Ramaphosa can. He can leverage the aura of Mandela much more successfully than Zuma ever could.”

Obama’s emotive lecture was laden with calls for an end to the resurgence of divisive politics, the rise of nationalism and authoritarian rule.

Alluding to the tumultuous political climate of Trump’s US and the Brexit debacle in Europe, he expressed concern about weakening media freedom and undue influence of capital interests over government, which he described as an attack on democracy.

Obama warned the world was at a crossroads where the old order of discrimination and oppression was rising up at an alarming rate against democracy and freedom. He called for increased efforts to promote “inclusive capitalism” with “progressive taxation”.

“There is only so much you can eat,” he quipped. “There is only so big a house that you can live in.”

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