The Short Report

Ramaphosa must be wary of the Putins waiting in the wings

Tom Eaton Columnist
ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa.
ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa.

In 1985‚ as PW Botha was rowing his volk across the Rubicon‚ another leader of a failing totalitarian regime was trying to drag his people in the opposite direction.

Mikhail Gorbachev was‚ in some ways‚ the living embodiment of Soviet Communism. Born to farm labourers‚ he saw his family disintegrated by the state. Two aunts and an uncle were starved to death by Stalin’s genocidal famine of 1932 and one of his grandfathers was exiled to Siberia on trumped-up charges.

If a young combine harvester driver kept his head down and said the right things‚ however‚ there were options. Having won the Red Labour Banner in 1949 for breaking harvesting records with his father‚ Gorbachev was off to law school a year later‚ where he joined the Communist Party.

In 1955‚ when he graduated‚ his path would’ve seemed clear: Become something in The Party. Stay in tune with the growing disillusionment with Stalinism‚ but without sticking your head too high above the parapet. Make the right friends and cultivate impressive enemies‚ and then‚ if luck and cunning will it‚ become one of the senior caretakers presiding over the dim‚ airless mausoleum that is the Soviet Union‚ a vast and mysterious edifice full of treasures and skeletons.

That’s how it should have gone. But in 1985 Gorbachev threw open the windows and kicked down the doors.

Perhaps‚ as a former farm worker‚ he knew what a dying machine sounded like. For almost 20 years the Soviet economy had been rattling and wheezing‚ like a tractor built in the 1930s but kept going deep into the 1970s‚ and Gorbachev understood that the only way the whole thing would keep going was radical renewal.

The result was perestroika‚ a raft of economic reforms. But the proletariat shall not live by bread alone‚ and so‚ in 1988‚ Gorbachev introduced glasnost‚ a loosening of state control on the private lives of Soviet citizens. Many political prisoners were released. Pravda and Izvestia‚ respectively the mouthpieces of The Party and the government‚ saw themselves joined on newsstands by new titles. Gorby-mania swept west.

And then‚ three years later‚ the Soviet Union was gone.

In the age of social media‚ where our mosquito-like attention spans buzz this way and that‚ yearning for the next tiny slurp of anaemic click-bait‚ it sounds lame to speak of miracles or moments of awe. Everything‚ after all‚ is “awesome” these days‚ when every microscopic banality is sold as news.

But the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 felt miraculous‚ like something out of a fairy tale or fantasy story; as shocking and exhilarating and faintly anticlimactic as Mount Doom exploding and all the cave trolls simply turning around and walking home. To be conscious between 1986 and 1991 was to learn that nothing is permanent‚ and that vast‚ systemic change can appear out of nowhere and work dizzyingly fast.

Which brings us back to the present in South Africa‚ and to another apparent reformer reportedly trying to get his own perestroika and glasnost off the ground in a state brought to a grinding halt by the corruption‚ secrecy and economic ineptitude of a politburo of old men.

When Cyril Ramaphosa was born‚ Gorbachev had already entered his third year at law school‚ but in many ways they have walked similar paths.

Ramaphosa is also the child of working class parents‚ born into a country lethally hostile to anyone it deemed an enemy: in 1976 he spent six months in John Vorster Square for organising rallies that contravened the Terrorism Act. He also enrolled for a law degree‚ and entered politics while studying. In 1985‚ as Gorbachev was launching perestroika‚ Ramaphosa was giving the keynote address at the launch of the new mega-union‚ Cosatu. And‚ like Gorbachev‚ he has survived the political purges and backroom horse-trading to emerge into a position of real power.

These similarities‚ however‚ demand that we take them to their logical conclusion.

Gorbachev is remembered in the west as a reformer and a liberator‚ but‚ three years after glasnost‚ there were tanks in Moscow. The collapse of the monolith left behind it a ruined people‚ angry and ashamed at its sudden plunge from superpower to pauper. Into that hole stepped steely-eyed nationalists and wild-eyed populists‚ offering to restore order at the expense of a few liberties or minorities. Gorbachev’s hopes for democratic change and an end to the Cold War have produced almost 20 years of Vladimir Putin‚ and a standoff with the West that gets chillier by the year.

Right now‚ nobody seems sure if Ramaphosa has any real power. There are whispers that David Mabuza and Ace Magashule call all kinds of shots. If that is the case then what we are seeing now isn’t so much glasnost as gaslighting.

But if the impossible has happened – if real change has once again come out of nowhere – and if Ramaphosa does have the power to transform the ANC into a modern‚ progressive party that can run South Africa benignly for the next two decades‚ then he must lay his plans with extreme care and patience.

Because‚ in South Africa‚ there is more than one Putin waiting to step up onto the wreckage.

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