09/05/2018 04:57 SAST | Updated 09/05/2018 04:57 SAST

Ramaphosa Needs To Be More Like Trump — Here's Why

Our (relatively) new head of state seems engaging and affable. But he needs to submit himself to an examination by the media.

President Cyril Ramaphosa poses for a photograph following a Bloomberg Television interview in London on Wednesday, April 18 2018.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
President Cyril Ramaphosa poses for a photograph following a Bloomberg Television interview in London on Wednesday, April 18 2018.

Donald Trump is in trouble. His alleged dalliance with porn star Stormy Daniels keeps hitting the front pages, the Russia investigation doesn't seem to want to go away, and the Republicans are battling themselves in Congress.

Yet it's still surprisingly easy to gauge what the U.S. president is thinking. Of course, his loose trigger finger on Twitter remains a source of information to many and consternation to some, but Trump and his associates and advisers are vocal and visible, selling the president's message to reporters and television media.

Shirish Date, HuffPost's chief White House correspondent in Washington D.C., says Trump doesn't shy away from the media — before becoming president he was the wiliest self-marketing man in the U.S. — and that he regularly engages with journalists, "but not in the traditional sense".

That doesn't mean he enjoys the Washington press corps, or that they have unbridled access, though.

"Trump has had only one formal news conference since taking office. He has done a fair number of press conferences with foreign leaders, but those are limited in scope. He has taken questions as he walks to the helicopter or at photo opportunities more often than his predecessors, but tends to end those when he starts getting difficult questions. He does few interviews, and pretty much only with friendly outlets," Date told me last week.

Trump's predecessors — Barack Obama and George W Bush — had "fairly regular" solo press conferences and granted interviews with individual news outlets, Date says. Ad hoc question-and-answer sessions, when they are walking to a helicopter or entering a building, "were relatively rare".

In South Africa we have yet to see a full, deep, sit-down media interview with President Cyril Ramaphosa. Like Trump (but for entirely different reasons), he is also in trouble. He is battling to rid government and state institutions of the rot of corruption that flourished under his predecessor, while his enemies are organising at grass-roots level. The economy remains in the doldrums, and our social fabric is arguably being unravelled quicker than at any time since 1994.

Yet South Africans haven't seen Rampahosa's ideas tested by the media. He hasn't fronted up in a press conference — or had to answer questions in a proper interview — about the National Prosecuting Authority, Sars, his Cabinet or how he will balance the competing interests in his fractured party.

Ramaphosa has seemingly been very engaging and affable. His early morning walks in Cape Town and upcountry set the tone for a more friendly and accessible government, not the type of imperial presidency that Jacob Zuma espoused. He has also been forthright in his appearances in the National Assembly, as he again demonstrated on Tuesday during a question-and-answer session. He doesn't skirt around issues or dismiss them — again, as Zuma did — and he seems less inclined to rely on the protection offered from the speaker's chair.

When Zuma became president, he initially held occasional off-the-record briefings at the presidential guest house with reporters, where they could pick his brain about issues of the day. He also granted interviews to newspapers, Sundays and dailies alike. But these disappeared from the presidential diary as his presidency became enmeshed in scandal and corruption.

Ramaphosa has granted some interviews, but these were largely limited to television appointments after the ANC's January 8 statement at the beginning of the year, as well as sit-downs with foreign media, like those with Bloomberg and Financial Times on his recent visit to London. He's also spoken to South African journalists on the sidelines of events such as A.U. summits.

But this country's new president needs to make himself available for in-depth, considered and proper examinations by this country's media. It is important for accountability and fostering trust that journalists can sit across the table from the head of state and probe him about those questions that have occupied the public square over the past 12 to 18 months. And it's important to understand how he thinks, and what he wants to do.

Zuma didn't believe in transparency. His Union Buildings were a closed fortress where anonymous bureaucrats walked the carpeted halls and protected their president from all and sundry. Ramaphosa can change that, and he can start by being a little more like Trump.

Mister President, host a press conference (or two)!