The Ramaphosa Heuristic

Tracking the momentum of Cyril Ramaphosa – his vulnerability to attack within the ANC, his ability and intention to implement structural reforms and accountability for corruption – has become a widely used heuristic for assessing the state of South Africa more generally.

A heuristic is a mental shortcut. In this case, it’s a way of substituting a complex set of questions and answers with presumably simpler proxies. It can describe any number of problem solving or decision making strategies that are ‘adequate’, but not perfect.

Such shortcuts can be useful. Without them we live overwhelmed and paralysed as increasing volumes of information, misinformation and deliberate lies pour into and through our heads.

However, this kind of heuristic should not be the analytical equivalent of examining the entrails of a chicken. There must be a viable reason to argue why a shortcut or proxy question might stand in for a larger one. And, importantly, we must understand the limitations of the exercise.

Assumptions about Ramaphosa

To use this heuristic consciously one would need to believe or ‘assess’ that Cyril Ramaphosa has an optimal plan for South Africa and that he has the optimal means of implementing the plan.

Only last week CR launched the South African Economic and Recovery Plan – download it here – with which, let’s assume purely for argument’s sake, we agree and, further, that we think it is a plan based on a good reading of the problems or trajectories it is trying to correct. Also let’s assume that the plan might be a compromise, because of CR having to: balance the potentially conflicting interests of labour, business, employed/unemployed, different government departments, different sectors of the South African population (e.g., rural/urban); while staying within boundaries that would otherwise make him vulnerable to attack from his enemies in the ANC itself, staying within the boundaries of international treaties and obligations … I could possibly go on and on and on … but we assume, for the purposes of this exercise, that these are ‘optimal’ compromises. That is, where he has had to do less – or more – than he wished because of the need to keep an interest  group ‘on board’, we assume he has pushed it as close to his desired outcome as the politics allow.

Thus this heuristic is based on the view that:

  1. The ‘necessary’ conditions to correct the economic and political trajectory of South Africa (made ‘sufficient’ by urgency and decisiveness) are the implementation of structural reforms and an effective campaign to win back control of all spheres of government from state capture and corruption.

  2. Cyril Ramaphosa is the only available (or most viable) agent to bring these conditions into existence.

These two assumptions and the heuristic that results from them, need to be applied cautiously. My view is an over enthusiastic application has already distorted some risk assessments, particularly immediately after Nasrec in January 2018 when what later became the pejorative, ‘Ramaphoria’ ruled the investment mood. Possibly the ‘error’ was deepened by the forgivable relief of not having Jacob Zuma in the job. But it should be obvious in retrospect that “not being Jacob Zuma” is an imperfect credential for being a good president.

Ramaphoria was a wild overestimation of the will, agency, plans and political support of Cyril Ramaphosa and a wild underestimation of the depth of damage done over the so-called lost years.

Another assumption post-Nasrec was that Ramaphosa held the same beliefs and goals that market actors tend to: fiscal discipline, SOE rationalisation and a range of policies on their wishlists. But this was more a projection of one set of actors onto Ramaphosa, rather than an accurate assessment of both what was possible and what Ramaphosa’s policy programme actually was. Initial market disappointment over failures to slash public sector expenditure and bring a new ruthlessness to SOCs was predictable, and largely a product of unrealistic expectations, rather than failed promises (although these aren’t in short supply).

I do happen to think, and have argued and will argue again, that the ANC that held its national conference at Nasrec in December 2017 elected the best president it had available for election to that post. Further, I use the Ramaphosa Heuristic when all I have is a few seconds to glance up at the scoreline of history.

However, I am extremely cautious about expecting too much from one man and his party. Perhaps the world is always a furious storm of unpredictable chaos. But right here and right now, I am particularly watchful of my own and others’ instincts to impose unrealistic simplifications on complex problems.

To read more about heuristics you can do a lot worse than starting with the great Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (2011).



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