The response to Cyril Ramaphosa’s SONA 2019 is telling. Those who love it love the feeling it evokes; critics say it is short on substance. The feeling the president aims to impress matters, and there is more to be said on it than ‘optimistic’ and ‘positive’. For a touch of the epic, Ramaphosa concluded with a long quote by Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt (US President 1901-1909) which might be the most telling revelation yet. Part of the quote reads:
‘It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs…but who does actually strive to do the deeds…’
Roosevelt made this ‘man in the arena’ speech in Paris in 1910 to a jittery crowd stuffed with soldiers and wonks that went wild. French journalists splashed it across newspapers and turned it into a book. It is one of the great 20th century orations, taught in advanced US political theory classes. Amid the complexity, one embarrassment looms hauntingly.
Blood ain’t no metaphor
Roosevelt made his name fighting in the ‘Splendid Little War’ against Spain, which lasted all of four months in 1898. He was a commander of the ‘Rough Riders’, a cavalry unit whose aesthetic defined a generation of manly toughs. The ‘man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood’ was not a metaphor to Roosevelt. He loved the war he’d been in. When hell cracked through peace in Europe, Roosevelt tried desperately to fight in the ‘Great’ war, too.
Assuming – and it’s a very natural assumption to make – that Ramaphosa ranks among the world’s historically literate leaders, he would know this. The ‘Splendid’ war helped unite a very divided country. In particular, it helped reunite across the North and South whites who thirty years earlier had seen ‘action’ in the US Civil War. The post-Lincoln peace was bitter, but, then, a stroke of luck – technological innovation brought new mass media. Journalists and editors competed manically for attention, producing cheap yellow journalism in which it was perfectly hip to misrepresent facts and vilify the ‘other’ just so long as you remembered to stay fashionable on ‘others’ you vilified. ‘Decadent Catholics’ suited the bill for a time, according to Cambridge Historian Dominic Lieven, Catholic Spain in particular. The press began banging on for a war with Spain the coast of Florida that they soon got. It was a stroke of imperial genius; the US spent almost nothing in blood or treasure, gained economic strategic interests, gained international status, and quelled domestic strife with a little race-nationalist solidarity. By a stroke of luck the war might even have been just, if you think justice can be got by accident.
This is a trick that many have tried and failed to pull off. Lieven sees the ‘Splendid Little War’ as the precursor to the ‘Great’ one, illustrating the possibility of a race-nationalist jingoist press distracting attention from other government failings by pinning the blame on some common enemy. Hitler and Stalin’s work as journalists and editors is well remembered, Lieven’s focus is on how the template was set a generation earlier through the hot metal typesetting of Romantic Nativism. After the ‘Splendid’ one, the ‘Great’ war did not end by first Christmas or the next Christmas, as hoped. The Romantic picture of real men riding foamy-mouthed horses into battle would not survive the barbed wire or the gas or the trenches or the deaths of 20 million.
Except that attempts to repeat the trick persist. One man who certainly knows the ‘Splendid’ little story is Russian president Putin. The war in Ukraine has been ‘Splendid’ in much the same way. The common enemy is an expansionist Nato and since very few Nato members can think of a good reason to have maintained their aggression in the first decades after the USSR’s collapse, this common enemy is extremely divided and weak. Crimea, ‘native land’, returned to Russia in 2014 as Putin’s approval shot through the roof, where it remains.
We live in a place far from war, so this is easy to shrug off. But by our own gentler standards, a kind of palace coup against Zuma turned into a kind of civil war within the ANC, which Ramaphosa won by force of the party vote. To unite a divided party, the ‘Splendid’ common enemy of white Afrikaner farmers was chosen (by someone): long vilified locally and internationally, geographically isolated, and – comprising 2% of GDP – low on economic clout. From the first moments that Ramaphosa rallied for Expropriation without Compensation (EWC), Moeletsi Mbeki discerned the strategy of kicking this domestic political runt to vent ANC strife at an ‘other’ incapable of biting back. Meanwhile, elites ran the line that unless Afrikaners were being stuffed into mass graves, there is no there there, and so from the corridors of power it all must have seemed a ‘Splendid’ solution to ANC strife in a very 21st century way indeed.
Back on the ground, the economy has shrunk per capita, and life for millions lurches from bad to worse. Tempers rise and the stokers rise with them. At the start of February, I went to a conference on land reform at the University of the Western Cape run by an academic group called PLAAS. It included Ruth Hall, who is an advisor to the president on land reform, and Ben Cousins, who is a leading academic on the topic. The working group I sat in spent two days discussing the necessity for ‘land invasions’ post haste. If Lieven had been there he wouldn’t know if it was 2019 South Africa or 1910 Eastern Europe, replete with wonks all too ready to talk up blood on the face, blood in the soil, the soil of ‘our people’.
But hold on. Talking up the ‘man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred…by blood’ can sound more like sport than violence in urbane SA. Mandela gave Francois Pienaar a copy of the ‘arena’ speech before the 1995 final for just that reason. Hopefully most South Africans thought Ramaphosa was less literal than either Mandela or Roosevelt, that he did not really mean to conclude SONA with an epic emotive call to see blood on men’s faces. One hopes so, but remembers that he also announced the election date in May at SONA. Last time Ramaphosa campaigned in a national election he morphed opposition into treason. If the ANC doesn’t win, he reportedly said, ‘the boers will come back to control us’. The point of saying that is precisely the feeling it evokes, and such feelings matter. As the Yanks would say, them be fightin words. The 2019 campaign is only beginning and could be a rougher contest yet, so ‘Splendid’ Ramaphosa must be watched with utmost scrutiny.
Or is this Ramaphosa’s Whisper of Warning to the ANC?
This is Ramaphosa, however, so Teddy Roosevelt might be on his mind for just the opposite reason. In 1912, Roosevelt did not like the direction his party took so he leveraged a third party, the ‘Progressives’, to run against it from the outside. He lost. The vote was split, unclasping a stranglehold the abolitionist Republican party had held around US politics since Lincoln, giving Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats eight years in power. A kind of disaster to Republicans, then.
And yet Republicans today revere Teddy Roosevelt and so do Democrats. He is one of the four figureheads on Mount Rushmore, consistently ranked by political scientists as one of the greatest US presidents in history. I heard him most cheered at Occupy Wall Street; conservatives respect him, too. (Richard Poplak called him ‘America’s most racist president’ which is so far from true that it must be some kind of an inside joke). Roosevelt is admired partly because of his centrist accomplishments in economics, his environmental progressivism and his principled defence of equality before the law. But he is loved passionately because Americans see that he had a courage that went beyond the bloody-faced battlefield to the bones of his character.
In a sense, Roosevelt described his own virtue best. ‘Credit’, he anticipated, goes to the person ‘who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly’.
Does Ramaphosa have such daring? He ran against Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma from a very losable position within his own party. What if he were ousted?
Last year, the ‘Cyrilists’ said the president had no choice but to toe the party line by appointing kleptocrats to cabinet and supporting the ‘Splendid’ EWC otherwise he would be withdrawn, though how remains unclear. More importantly what would come next is left totally blank, which is exactly where the Roosevelt reference is apposite. If Ramaphosa was kicked out, would he stay out?
Last year’s IRR poll shows that Ramaphosa’s approval rating is higher than the ANC’s. In an open campaign, things can change but Ramaphosa and his brother-in-law net around R40 billion while Luthuli House struggles to pay its electricity bill. The ANC reportedly spent R0.5 billion campaigning the last national election and R1 billion at the last municipal election. Ramaphosa-Motsepe could outspend the ANC by two to one if they spent only 1 twentieth of their net wealth, without raising a cent externally. Roosevelt had none of these advantages.
In addition, Ramaphosa would not face Roosevelt’s biggest obstacle, namely the question if you care so much why did you quit? Ramaphosa is not quitting. For him to run against the ANC he would have to be ousted by the ANC first. A forced removal would only boost his profile. There is some doubt at present about whether Ramaphosa poses a genuine threat to those marauders in government the overwhelming majority of this country resents. But if he were withdrawn by the ANC we would all know for sure that he poses a very real threat. We would also know that the ANC is beyond self-cleaning.
Put another way, if the ANC ousted Ramaphosa because he fired Bathabile Dlamini and company, he could expect a Nobel prize and the love of three quarters of the country on that very day – his face on our very own Mount Rushmore, with the difference that he would have every advantage to win back power.
How else could Ramaphosa find himself in Roosevelt’s position? ‘Cyrilists’ moot that a reversal of his support for EWC would be a firing offence. If he called it what it is, a ‘Splendid’ solution that turns out to be sordid, racist, and counterproductive, this might freak out ideologues and apparatchiks. But it would not rob Ramaphosa of his popularity. As has been severally reported, IRR and ENCA polls indicate that EWC does not enjoy support from most South Africans.
Warning, What Warning?
So is Ramaphosa signalling to sophisticates, especially US investors and diplomats who know their history, that like the great Teddy Roosevelt he has the courage of his convictions? Is he saying expect great things and trust me to reform the ANC from the inside if possible and from the outside if need be? Or is he a man without principles signalling to bullies and brutes that the next phase of his power climb can be written in ink or dust or blood if need be?
Perhaps none are true. Miley Cyrus has Ramaphosa’s favourite part of the ‘arena’ speech tattooed on some part of her body. Perhaps SONA was crafted with similar consideration, to make the average bloke say, Hey, cool quote, guy – wait, that bro’s name is Teddy lol.
That would be a shame as there are so many better choices. At a US university, I was taught Roosevelt’s speech, whose true title is Citizenship in a Republic. Our assignment was: ‘Consider this phrase which in the 20th century would echo through speeches of Churchill and JFK, FDR and Ghandi, Mandela and almost everyone hoping to win a Nobel Prize. In one week, can you find an earlier, better version of this simple expression from Citizenship in a Republic?’ The phrase was: ‘Probably the best test of true love of liberty in any country is the way in which minorities are treated.’
Gabriel Crouse is the George F D Palmer Financial Journalist Trust Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).