Cyril Ramaphosa’s sympathetic critics – those who would like him to succeed but who worry about how he goes about leading the ANC and the country – often single out his appearance of weakness and indecision as being a major failing.
That image, of being a vacillating person or one who prefers capitulation to confrontation, was heightened over the weekend by his ignominious exit from a May Day rally in North West, where he was booed and heckled by aggressive union members.
Of course, this incident in no way means Ramaphosa is about to be ousted from the tripartite alliance nor, indeed, that he has been put off his stride in his campaign for the ANC presidency, which culminates at the end of the year. Nor does what happened to indicate that the unions may be wanting to pull away from the alliance. However, there are a number of observations which can be made after that worrying spectacle.
Firstly, the politics of the noisy protest has, yet again, been vindicated: A comparatively small number of people has been able to chase away the state president, with his tail between his legs.
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Secondly, it shows that the initial euphoria over Ramaphosa as the saviour of the country in the wake of state capture is fading… if it was ever that strong outside the elite classes. It also shows that the anger of ordinary people about their failure to taste the “better life for all”, promised by the ANC, is boiling not far below the surface.
Finally, the president’s weak showing would have encouraged his opponents in the ANC faction loyal to former president Jacob Zuma. Ramaphosa looked more vulnerable and on the back foot than he has at any time since he took over in February 2018. He needs to show some backbone now before the sharks get a whiff of blood.