Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address last week was met with sharp criticism and his ideal of the “new smart city” begs the question: is it reasonable to hope when so many are left hopeless after the ravaging of the economy by the previous dispensation?

For many the phrase, “the fish rots from the head down” is taken as a piece of transparent wisdom. The world is littered with examples where this phrase has foretold the demise of organisations and the spiral of lives.

For South Africans however, the phrase appears indicative of the political situation. Years of scandalous activity have attracted media attention. The fifth parliament, with the embattled president Jacob Zuma at the helm, caused havoc and South Africa is still reeling from the effects of maladministration, deeply embedded corruption and outright theft. Daily, new details surface about fraud and dirty deals that robbed ordinary taxpayers: money siphoned out of the North West government’s coffers and into SA Express, the price of locomotives being hiked by billions of rands. As Daily Maverick’s Marianne Merten put it recently:

“The cost of State Capture hovers at around R1.5-trillion over the second term of the Jacob Zuma administration. That’s just short of the R1.8-trillion Budget for 2019. Put differently: State Capture has wiped out a third of South Africa’s R4.9-trillion gross domestic product, or effectively annihilated four months of all labour and productivity of all South Africans, from hawkers selling sweets outside schools to boardroom jockeys.”

And once again South Africans found themselves having to choose the best of the worst options at the polls this year. As the rain poured down in Cape Town on 8 May 2019, thousands of people gathered in pocketed areas to take their vote. Generally armed with heavy clothing and a warm refreshment against the weather, each individual had strong intentions to make their mark on their equal ballot sheet.

On that sheet, which felt more like an ancient scroll, 48 parties made their claim to assume power. All with different agendas. Next to each party was an image of their leader, the person who looked all too happy when you made a cross adjacent to their face.

Admittedly this part of the ballot is key in South Africa. A number of people remain illiterate, and they use this as a means to identify their party. But this means far more. In a way it shows our thinking. We do not vote for a party; we vote for a president.

This time round, another face won the South African vote. The wave of Ramaphoria took hold of voters from all walks of life and President Cyril Ramaphosa was voted into the highest seat in the land on 22 May 2019 following the ANC’s narrow victory at the polls. In his recent State of the Nation Address, the second this year, but the first of the sixth parliament, he presented South Africans with a “dream”. A dream that those same voters could hardly imagine being at the coalface of the harsh realities of an unimaginably unequal society.

But once again, it’s the face presenting the ideas that garners the majority of attention rather than what his party stands for. Ramaphosa ignored the shouts and jeers from the floor and continued with his dream, the bullet trains, the high-tech economy, the new smart city. His SONA begs the question: Is it reasonable to hope when so many are left hopeless after the ravaging of the economy by the previous dispensation, personified by former president Jacob Zuma?

Conversations with the average voter only reaffirms the idea that faces are more powerful in South African politics than the ideas their party stands for. Political debate in university is not pursued by the discussion of the EFF’s and DA’s economic affiliation, or their stance on abortion, but it is rather built on the profile of their leaders.

Arguments rather persist on Julius Malema’s brandish insults in parliament or the corruption of the cabinet. News media around the country, uncritically, circle around the consistent cases of corruption in the top office. All this does is distract voters from the real issues at hand and turns their attention to the individuals in charge as if this was one elaborate episode of Days of Our Lives.

To completely disregard the influence of the party leader would be foolish. In fact their profile is incredibly significant as they are responsible for effectively disseminating their party’s ideals. Yet it would be a step in the right direction if we placed less emphasis on them, and more on the party.

As I have witnessed in university, if you walk down the streets and ask the average citizen to narrate the ANC’s position on gay marriage or, for some, to name the finance minister they will stutter before pulling out their smartphone. Yet the majority of these people can easily retell the story of how Zuma believed the spread of HIV/Aids could be halted with a shower, how Mbeki’s HIV/Aids denialism led thousands of South Africans to the grave, how Nelson Mandela led the country from apartheid to democracy (well, flawed democracy but democracy nonetheless). And presently, whether Ramaphosa’s goals could be nothing more than a fever dream.

Only time will tell whether this “New Dawn” will deliver, but what is certain is that we have all become so concerned with the individual lives of our future leaders that we have forgotten everything their parties stand for. For any plan meant to strengthen our society and democracy to work, the ANC’s values as a whole must be interrogated, our political and judicial systems must be strengthened and tested and most importantly, the criminals of the past dispensation must be held to account.