19/02/2018 16:04 SAST | Updated 19/02/2018 16:05 SAST

You Must Believe In President Cyril Ramaphosa

A great age of mediocrity has been ushered in, so low did Jacob Zuma set the bar.

Waldo Swiegers/ Bloomberg/ Getty Images

You must believe in Cyril Ramaphosa

"Pangloss gave instruction in metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there cannot possibly be an effect without a cause and that in this best of all possible worlds the baron's castle was the most beautiful of all castles and his wife the best of all possible baronesses. — It is clear, said he, that things cannot be otherwise than they are, for since everything is made to serve an end, everything necessarily serves the best end. Observe: noses were made to support spectacles, hence we have spectacles. Legs, as anyone can plainly see, were made to be breeched, and so we have breeches... Consequently, those who say everything is well are uttering mere stupidities; they should say everything is for the best." From "Candide, or Optimism", by Voltaire, 1759

Voltaire's Dr Pangloss, the practitioner of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology, would have done a roaring trade in South Africa today. His particular brand of optimism, that this world is "the best of all possible worlds", captures something distinctly South African. And the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as president of both the ANC and the country has made the impulse manifest.

Dormant for years – almost a decade – cast your eye across social media and South African metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology is everywhere. It's a kind of blind faith, and it is riding roughshod over scepticism and critical thought, as the need to believe induces a collective and blissful stupor. Its primary power is twofold: a necessary amnesia and the lowering of standards. To embrace it, one must forget; simultaneously, one must expect only that which is possible.

REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa is sworn in as president in Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Thus, Cyril Ramaphosa's role in the chaos that preceded his election must be morally whitewashed, explained away as no more than clever tactics or the biding of time on his part.

At the extreme, even brave – that he should hold his tongue for so long, that he might rule today. Truly, this is a great man, pure and virtuous. It must be so, for "there cannot possibly be an effect without a cause and that in this best of all possible worlds".

In turn, it must be forgotten that the ANC is a collective institution. It too is baptised. Those who committed sins against us can be purged or "rehabilitated". If the former, they will be shunned and excommunicated, the last remnants of a disease.

If the latter, they will be embraced as having seen the light. But the light is Ramaphosa, and he can forgive all comers in the name of what is good and right. So the ANC also begins anew. Reborn. Its 24-year track record eradicated from the public mind. The clock is reset. It is "a new dawn", as a hundred newspaper headlines declared.

In turn, a great age of mediocrity has been ushered in. So low did Jacob Zuma set the bar, no more than the basics are now cause for celebration: a National Prosecuting Authority that prosecutes, a board that is not corrupt, a speech that is coherent.

We revel in these fundamentals as if discovering them for the first time. There is a vision, of course, a necessary pretence in order to feign an appreciation of excellence. But it is in reality just a vagary, so amorphous as to be meaningless. Certainly devoid of any hard choices. It will suffice. This is the best of all possible worlds. And that is enough.

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Cyril Ramaphosa (R) and President of South Africa Jacob Zuma (L) attend African National Congress (ANC) at the Nasrec Expo Center in Johannesburg, South Africa on December 18, 2017.

And so the scene is set, for all those who enabled and sanctioned – even encouraged – the decay and destruction that decimated [sic] the country for so long, to deliver us from evil. How we thank and admire them. "I only now realise how traumatised we have been by the brutality of Jacob Zuma's rule. I have tears in my eyes", wrote one CEO on Ramaphosa's election. "A giant has been sent to renew our country", said another CEO.

Thank you. That you stood in the torture room for so long and quietly watched on – it matters not. A thousand times thank you.

The line between belief and blind faith is a thin one. For true believers, now is not the time for scepticism. Our critical faculties should be relaxed. The phrase they use to denigrate doubt is "negativity". This is now the greatest of all sins. It too must be purged.

We all must believe. Positivity must reign. Because Ramaphosa is now pure and virtuous, only the best intentions can be ascribed to his actions. To interpret them otherwise, to second guess or demand evidence, is to doubt. To doubt is to be unpatriotic. And so a new nationalistic fervour has likewise swept through the land, as the faithful line up to shield Ramaphosa from criticism.

It is a cruel irony. For almost 10 years, President Thabo Mbeki – who, in 2004 when the ANC's hegemonic grip on South Africa last peaked, enjoyed a similar nationalistic zeal – crushed the life out of civil society. A by-product of Jacob Zuma's ruinous tenure was that life outside the ANC came alive. Civil society, the fourth estate, the judiciary, the public, all found their tongues.

For all the pain, the full depth and breadth of our democracy were on display. It was at times wonderful to watch. Scepticism saved us. But those days are over now. Put away your questioning mind, your interrogation of words and meaning, your scrutinising gaze. Now is the time to believe.

Now is the time to practise metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. It is what the country needs. But only the ANC can practise it.

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
Leader of South Africa's Democratic Alliance (DA) Mmusi Maimane speaks during a news conference in Johannesburg, South Africa April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

You have to feel for the DA. It was for so long the custodian of hope and patriotism. "Put South Africa first," it said. "Believe," it pleaded. It all counted for nought. Because we are an authoritarian people – it is the power we love. And it is before the powerful we worship. We don't care about national pride for its own sake.

The opposition could never wield such a thing. And so, it is only when Cyril Ramphosa articulates these ideas, literally the exact same appeal, that the tears well in our eyes. Only then does our heart race. Now Ramaphosa owns belief, and that is all we ever really wanted. It is safe, in the hands of real authority.

And what of the ANC's 24-year track record? Of a basic education system that produces children that cannot read, of an economy that generates unemployment, of a police force that threatens its citizens, of a healthcare system that kills the weak and vulnerable? Don't worry, we have a place to file all those.

Just as we have embraced the new "big man" as the alpha and omega of progress and renewal, so we can attribute all of that to one man too. To Jacob Zuma. A curse on him. And all that preceded him? HIV/Aids, Eskom, the arms deal? Do you even remember those things? Forget. They never happened. The ANC never existed. There is only Cyril Ramaphosa now. Believe.

Truly, this is the best of all possible worlds. The ANC is the best of all possible governing parties. Cyril Ramaphosa is the best of all possible presidents. "Things cannot be otherwise than they are, for since everything is made to serve an end, everything necessarily serves the best end." Not so much Stockholm Syndrome as South African Syndrome.

The disease is the cure. Despair is hope. Decay is a rebirth. It's how we survive: by falling in love with the ANC. Over and over. Again and Again. Long may it last. Hopefully, forever. "Everything is for the best."

Gareth van Onselen is the head of politics and governance at the South African Institute of Race Relations.