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This is not for laughs, Mr President

Two head of state inaugurations this week might be worlds apart but they are closer in many than first meets the eye. Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya writes.

Ukraine and South Africa are two countries that hardly ever get mentioned in the same breath. They are worlds apart, geographically even though — at a stretch — we could say they share a common experience of the past.

This week, the former Soviet Union state inaugurated its president Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian who played an unlikely president in a hit television series.

By the end of this week, South Africa would also have inaugurated its own head of state, President Cyril Ramaphosa. 

Unlike Zelensky, nobody is really surprised that Ramaphosa has been elected president. If there are surprises, it is that it took this long and this route.

Zelensky has sold himself as a far more down to earth man of the people. Being down to earth is unlikely to impress South Africans though. 

South Africans saw enough of that at the start of the President Jacob Zuma years but know very well, by now, that such is not the most necessary trait for a head of state. Integrity is.

President Ramaphosa has spent as much of the previous year as he could trying to showcase himself as different from Zuma, and to showing that he is committed to restoring a culture of integrity to state-owned institutions and public office.

He has instituted commissions of inquiries into a wide range of wrongdoing. He has shaken the tree — and some interesting and somewhat unsavoury characters are starting to fall. 

Ramaphosa will have to show himself as a man who, perhaps not as theatrical as Zuma or the Ukrainian, shows absolute seriousness when dealing with the plethora of problems facing South Africa.

Their two worlds notwithstanding, the two men face immediate challenges and will be expected to act swiftly, something the Ukrainian seems to have done.

Immediately after being sworn in as the country’s real president,  not for jokes this time, Zelensky promptly dissolved the nation’s parliament. 

This set the scene for snap parliamentary elections, whose outcomes he hopes will strengthen his hand in dealing with challenges, ranging from corruption by business and political elites, to ending a war with Russia.

When Ramaphosa, the South African trade unionist-turned-business tycoon officially starts his term as president, he will have the same pressure to act as swiftly as Zelensky has. The past 14 months simply do not count because  they formed a part of his predecessor Jacob Zuma’s term.

Unlike Zelensky, he cannot dissolve Parliament, an institution that was expected to vote him president of the Republic. He does not have a war to end, but does have enough enemies in his own party and possibly in the cabinet he will have to name.

Like Zelensky who must fight off the oligarchs that had grown fat from their proximity to the state after Ukraine declared its independence from the former Soviet Union, Ramaphosa faces elites who appear to have milked the state ever since the fall of apartheid.

In a gesture that might seem insignificant, the Ukrainian has set the tone for an anti-cult of personality traits found in many government officials. He has banned the use of pictures of his likeness in government offices.

“I really want you not to hang my image in your offices”, Zelensky said. “Hang photos of your children there, and before every decision, look them in the eye.”

In keeping with his man-of-the people persona, Zelensky strode confidently into the parliamentary precinct, with bodyguards a fair distance away and slapping high-fives, shaking hands with supporters, giving occasional kisses and, at one point, sharing a selfie with a woman.

It is fair not to expect a more serious and much older Ramaphosa to work the crowd in the same way.

One thing though that Ramaphosa can imitate from the Zelensky copybook is the toughness to remind those that he will choose as cabinet ministers that they have been entrusted with the prospects of future generations, not winning public office.

“You can take a paper, a pen and free up your space for those who will think about the next generation instead of the next elections. I think people will appreciate that,” Zelensky said. South Africans would agree.

* 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.


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