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Run, Ramaphosa, run well

A few days ago early morning runners and cyclists bumped into South Africa's new president as he took his morning run in Cape Town. In January exercise enthusiasts in Port Elizabeth also bumped into the president when he was in their city for the ANC's birthday celebrations. Claire Mathieson ponders the lessons a running enthusiast learns on the road. She thinks that many of them could offer Ramaphosa helpful insights as he takes over running the country.

On my evening run, before I settled down to watch our country’s new president in his first State of the Nation Address (SONA), I wondered if Cyril Ramaphosa had written parts of his speech while jogging along Sea Point promenade where, hours earlier, local runners had taken selfies with him. I wondered if he would tackle the running of the country in the same way as he might the running of a marathon. I smiled because, while there are vast differences between these two types of running, there are also some similarities and I’m delighted that our new president has hit the ground running.

Listening to SONA 2018 was the first time in a while I’d felt excitement, confidence and a sense of hope in our country’s leadership. It was clear from his upbeat and optimistic delivery that he can certainly talk the talk, but can he walk it, or, more importantly for the runner in me, I want to know if he can actually run the country. Putting past indiscretions and political in-fighting aside, today South Africans woke up with a sense of excitement that we might finally have a leader that can do the job he’s been given.

There are few things more optimistic than a runner setting their goals for the year. Looking at the calendar, plotting the milestones, and establishing targets is an exercise not entirely unlike that which our president must have done, albeit on a different scale.

Planning requires late night talks, reading and research, and pulling together an arsenal of all the things that will help you achieve your goal. A strategy will fall short if it doesn’t include the very best available talent and support. Of course, when planning, the future looks bright and the hills and obstacles look far smaller on paper than they do in real life. Our hearts start racing with excitement and our lungs are filled with an air thick with hope and possibility. That’s exactly how many felt watching the president walk us through his plan. It was exciting, and while critics have pointed out that details are lacking and there’s too much to be done, I believe it was exactly what we needed last night and the cheering has already begun. There were moments during SONA where I could see that finish line; I could see the South Africa we want to be.

I like to think Ramaphosa was inspired to write his speech from his early morning jogs. I like to think that when he gets up with the sun he sees early morning commuters who are not up at 4am to exercise, but up because public transport is unforgiving and so too are their suburban employers. I like to think that he’s run on untarred roads, past potholes and burst pipes and thought about our lacking infrastructure. I like to think that he’s run past school children walking great distances – too young to be alone, too poor to do anything about it, and felt determined to be a part of that change. I hope he’s seen the rich in their luxury vehicles and the rest of the country in overcrowded, unsafe taxis. I like to think that, unlike other politicians that move almost exclusively from their gated communities to the high fences of parliament, he’s sweated on the same streets that the average South African walks, even if his morning runs are superficial. I like to think that despite being massively wealthy, Ramaphosa’s morning exercise has given him time to witness the world around him and that it’s allowed him to avoid the disconnection that has ailed other leaders.

I like to think that Ramaphosa became as excited about the people he would get to work with as a runner does when assembling their team to achieve their goal. Of course, running is in actual fact a team sport – whether it’s a team of advisors, coaches, doctors and specialists that are getting Olympic athletes to their starting blocks, or whether it’s a husband rubbing your sore feet at the end of the day, or a mother waking up far too early to cheer you along the side of the road, every success story related to running includes a strong team. The new president’s will too.

His stately address suggested just that. New advisory structures, bodies and committees will be devoted to development and improving performance – especially in the economy, one that he says will finally benefit all South Africans. He has said his running team will be diverse, but dedicated, like any good athlete’s giving us the best chance of success.

Of course, a runner at the beginning of their season is terribly optimistic. We are often more ambitious than cautious. We’re aware of the hills and obstacles, but have a can-do attitude that is buoyed by our supporters. Ramaphosa will need to have supporters along the way, supporters that assist him and show the fitness necessary to run the race. He needs a dedicated team that will line the streets and not just be there to stand in the bright light of prize money.

Since this is the beginning of Ramaphosa’s planning, perhaps it’s okay if his goals are ambitious and the “how” isn’t quite clear, the important thing is that he adjusts quickly and when lofty ambition remains just that, it’s time to re-evaluate and pick another strategy or another team member. Let us hope, like runners do, that his fitness will improve and his past failings and inaction will be in direct contrast to his progress made as president. Allow me to be hopeful that improved fitness will come.

May he avoid charlatans offering quick fixes that often come at a cost and, in some cases, are illegal. Our country has had too many runners stripped of their titles.

We should also be wary of arrogance, it can be costly and the fall from grace is often hard. If you take a wrong turn, admit it and turn back. A race is never won by a runner going their own way; there are rules that must be followed. Mistakes will be made, so constant evaluation and openness to correction is critical.

I, for one, am excited that our new president is a runner. Sure, there’s a lot more to running a country than running a race, but I’m excited because as he tackles his biggest challenge yet, in arguably the worst possible conditions, I like to think that he’s got the experience and grit that makes someone a runner in the first place.

The wind won’t always be behind Ramaphosa’s back, but South Africans are looking for someone to champion their cause – someone we can cheer on and be proud of; someone that takes us along on their journey and makes us feel like winners too.

Nelson Mandela united a nation through his long walk. We pray that Ramaphosa will not just walk that same talk, but run with it.

Run, Ramaphosa, run well.

Image: presidencyza/Flickr

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.