Since his return to active politics at the ANC’s 53rd national conference last December, you get the feeling Cyril Ramaphosa is holding his breath. The position of ANC deputy president is extremely powerful and influential, but Ramaphosa seems to be treading carefully, minding his words, cautious not to make any bold statements that can be played up in the media.
He knows that the one thing you do not do in South Africa is make the Number One feel like someone is breathing down his neck. The trouble between former president Thabo Mbeki and his then deputy Jacob Zuma started when the latter began settling into his role. As soon as Zuma began to look good in his job, mediating the conflict in the Great Lakes and making bold statements on HIV/Aids, Mbeki began to get uncomfortable. This led to the bizarre allegations of a plot to oust Mbeki – Ramaphosa was supposedly one of the conspirators – all of which proved to be nonsense.
But Mbeki’s paranoia led to a peculiar media statement from Zuma in 2001 when he denied he had designs on the presidency. Still Mbeki perceived Zuma as a threat, which led to the extraordinary course of events over the next eight years until Mbeki’s recall from office.
Similarly, Kgalema Motlanthe was one of Zuma’s closest allies until they had to serve together as president and deputy president. Despite himself previously being falsely accused of plotting against the president, Zuma began to see Motlanthe as a threat and iced him out. This led to them being the figureheads of two factions in the run up to the Mangaung conference, and Motlanthe’s defeat when he ran against Zuma for the position of ANC president. Since then, Zuma and Motlanthe’s relationship is even more strained, and while Motlanthe remains deputy president in government, his role is diminished.
So the last thing Ramaphosa would want to do is look ambitious or like he is scouting out his future position in government. Since he went to business in the mid 1990s – in a huff, as Mbeki instead of him had been chosen to succeed Nelson Mandela – Ramaphosa has been careful not to play into factional battles in the ANC or get drawn into the leadership wars. He had made it quite clear when he had been previously approached to return to active politics that he would only consider a bid for the presidency if nobody challenged him.
And this is why the carrot the Zuma camp dangled before him was so attractive. All Ramaphosa had to do was be number two on the Zuma slate in Mangaung, and his path to the presidency in 2019 would be cleared. In the meantime he would scale down his business interests and become deputy president of the state in 2014, thus making for a smooth transition for him to take power in five years. In terms of this deal, the Zuma camp would back him for ANC president in 2017 and make sure it was a walkover.
Ramaphosa’s entry onto the Zuma slate proved to be the clincher. He even secured more votes than Zuma did, getting 3,018 votes for the position of deputy president while 2,978 delegates voted for Zuma to be president. This means that even people who might have been unsure about Zuma decided to back Ramaphosa.
The problem is that Ramaphosa accepted the deal without any guarantees – and realistically, how could there be any? The deal was based on trust that Zuma and his campaigners would honour the agreement. Predictably, this now looks shaky.
The Sunday Independent reported that there is now a factional battle between Zuma and Ramaphosa’s supporters over who should be deputy state president next year. This was meant to be a done deal, but the paper reports that there are now suggestions from some in the Zuma camp that the deputy president should be a woman. ANC chairwoman Baleka Mbete and Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s names are punted as possible candidates, the paper reported.
The position of deputy state president, like other Cabinet positions, are the prerogative of the president so Ramaphosa is not automatically entitled to it. However both Zuma and Motlanthe served in the position when they were the party deputy presidents.
The Sunday Independent story has thrust the issue out in the open, as there have been mutterings in ANC circles for several months that there were concerns in the Zuma camp about what Ramaphosa would do once he became president. They have apparently been worried that they would not have protection and access to resources, as Ramaphosa was too strait-laced to condone exploitation of the state under his watch. And while Ramaphosa is malleable now with Zuma in charge, they believe he will assert his authority once he controls the levers of power.
As usual with ANC leadership battles, ethnicity and regional politics are also in the mix, with other provinces accusing KwaZulu-Natal of wanting to continue to dominate senior leadership posts. There have also been suggestions that the Zuma camp would argue for a woman candidate as deputy president this time around to keep Ramaphosa at bay, and then introduce their real candidate for president ahead of the next ANC conference in 2017. The reasoning is that it would not be possible to have Zuma and another leader from KwaZulu-Natal serving as president and deputy president now. However, once Zuma served out his two terms, another KwaZulu-Natal leader should be primed and ready to take over.
Whether this is true or another conspiracy theory floated in the anti-Zuma camp remains to be seen. It is still early days and the position of deputy state president will only be decided after the 2014 election. The ANC will want to keep its entire leadership onside during the election campaign and Ramaphosa will be central to wooing business and the middle class on the campaign trail. Zuma will also want to keep hope alive for others who think they might stand a chance at the Number 2 post.
But Zuma will have to think carefully who he appoints as his deputy as it would have to be someone who he will be able to share his space with for the next five years. His deputy could also turn out to be the person who succeeds him and will have the power to decide whether everything he has been able to keep secret as president will remain so when he becomes former president.
Ramaphosa in the meantime will have to try to keep himself useful to the ANC and Zuma in particular. Once he ceases to be so, his currency and leverage will be greatly reduced.
Ramaphosa also still has to climb the hurdle of the Marikana massacre. He has promised to explain his role as a shareholder in the Lonmin mine when he called for “concomitant action” to deal with the violence in the days before police shot dead 34 mineworkers. The massacre cast a shadow on Ramaphosa’s reputation and caused him to be further alienated from his former constituency of mineworkers.
With the Farlam Commission of Inquiry dragging on, it is not known when Ramaphosa will testify. With the legal teams representing the workers pulling out, Ramaphosa might not have to face cross-examination from Dali Mpofu, Dumisa Ntsebeza and George Bizos. All three were eager to find out what Ramaphosa meant when he wrote the following: “The terrible events that have unfolded cannot be described as a labour dispute. They are plainly dastardly criminal and must be characterised as such. In line with this characterisation, there needs to be concomitant action to address this situation.”
In this context, “commensurate” is probably the word Ramaphosa should have used, although he still needs to explain whether brute force by the police is what he had in mind. Concomitance could, however, be used to explain Ramaphosa’s deal with the Zuma camp – the very deal that might eventually blow up in his face. DM
Photo: South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma (R) jokes with his party’s newly appointed Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa at the National Conference of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in Bloemfontein December 18, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
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