South Africa

Question Time with Cyril: Punchy, folksy, sharp, sarcastic – and unscripted

By Marianne Merten 1 March 2017

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa talks up government at the drop of a hat and sidesteps those uncomfortable questions – sometimes with a smile, sometimes with sarcastic wit. At his first 2017 question time in the House on Wednesday, he faced questions packed with potential political punch – from the looming social security grants payment chaos and state capture to the ANC Youth League’s “fake news” alleging business links to SAA. Ramaphosa bobbed and swayed, and delivered the odd sharp political jab. But what did the politician, who may or not be the next ANC president come the party’s December national conference, actually say? By MARIANNE MERTEN.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa said he is engaging the ANC Youth League on its “lie” that he has business dealings with SAA, one of the state-owned entities (SOEs) he oversees as chairman of the inter-ministerial SOEs committee. “I told them the matter they raised publicly is a lie, is a fabrication and, as you say, fake news,” he replied to IFP MP Mkhuleko Hlengwa, who had raised the matter, before taking the gap.

I did not leave business to come into government service to come and conduct fraudulent business in government. I did not do so… If you want to make money, make money in business. Do not come and make money dealing with government entities.”

And he swatted away with a smile DA MP Alf Lees’s follow-up question on SAA board chair Dudu Myeni spending company money to stay in the presidential suite of the five-star Durban hotel that hosted an ANC fundraiser with President Jacob Zuma.

There was a “big picture” and the “good development” that the SAA board has been reconstructed with new members. “They are trying against very, very difficult odds to reposition SAA. SAA is a national asset. All we should ever do is to wish the board the best of luck…” said Ramaphosa, adding: “And if you can say a prayer for SAA, say a prayer!”

The deputy president’s determined good news narrative came into play as IFP MP Liezl van der Merwe pointed out that Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini had gone “rogue” amid rising concern that the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) was unable to pay grants to 17-million vulnerable and poor citizen from April 1 because of departmental inaction to ensure a legally sound service provider was appointed.

The SASSA matter is being addressed and… the Armageddon will be avoided. We will make sure the 17-million people in our country that rely on these payouts, grants… do get their pay. We will make sure the wheels don’t come off. We will address this matter,” said Ramaphosa. “The minister will be willing to come back here to outline the steps taken. The matter will not be allowed to go to the wall.”

Ramaphosa’s responses to the unscripted follow-up questions, usually from opposition parties, showcased a determination to emphasise by any means that government is indeed governing – be that in the interests of pensioners and child grant recipients or foreign nationals who have come under threat again in recent days.

But he’s not above invoking other processes elsewhere in order not to answer a question, or answering it when it suits him.

And so, like the ANC Youth League, Progressive Professionals Forum’s (PPF) Mzwanele Manyi was at the sharp end of a verbal jab. That’s after EFF Chief Whip Floyd Shivambu asked for a response to Manyi’s comments that the “ANC would be broke” if the Financial Centre Intelligence Amendment Bill was adopted.

If what you say is right, I don’t know what he (Manyi) is talking about and clearly he is not talking about the ANC that I lead, that I know,” said Ramaphosa. “The ANC does not rely on laundered money.”

The comments by Manyi, who is widely associated with the “white monopoly capital” narrative fanned in the ANC’s factional battles, were part of a push to scrap the whole Bill during the public hearings after Zuma returned it to Parliament over concerns over warrantless searches by the centre’s inspectors.

However, the finance committee only made minor changes to the draft legislation. The Bill, which tightens up anti-money laundering with a focus on politically exposed persons in line with South Africa’s international obligations, was adopted unanimously in the National Assembly on Tuesday.

Its adoption sent a signal that South Africa was serious about fighting corruption and was open for business, said Ramaphosa: “We do have a moral compass. We are people of integrity. We abhor corruption…. That in itself will make us a blue chip destination (for investment).”

But when Hlengwa asked whether he would champion the signing of the law into force, Ramaphosa responded: “Only the president can assent to Bills… And indeed you urging him to sign the Bill will be some of the considerations he keeps in mind… So let us leave it to the president as our executive leader.”

And leaving it to others, like the courts, was also the line used not to answer DA leader Mmusi Maimane’s question on the presence of armed soldiers at February’s State of the Nation Address (SONA).

The issues that you are raising now are the central subject of a case launched by DA… Please allow me not to enter this space, which you have now taken to an independent tribunal in this country… Once ruled, I will then be able to answer.”

And by focusing on the military’s ceremonial role at SONA all the way back to the first democratic Parliament, Ramaphosa also sidestepped African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) leader Kenneth Meshoe’s follow-up question in reference to Ramaphosa’s presence as MP in the first ever democratic Parliament:

What was his first reaction when he saw them because during apartheid they were not seen on these premises?”

Worst off on the day was DA MP David Maynier, whose parliamentary question exposed how state-owned entities Eskom and Transnet under Brian Molefe – the recently sworn in ANC MP was in the House at the time – contributed R840,000 to PPF functions. Ramaphosa pleaded ignorance. “On this one you’ll have to forgive me, I have no knowledge. Sorry.”

But having dropped the patronising tone used during previous question times, Ramaphosa hauled out folksy accounts involving people he meets to showcase government achievements, even if these are made often against the odds.

And so praises were heaped on the “young black woman” pilot, who took off in rainy and stormy weather in Kimberley and delivered passengers, including the deputy president, safely in rain and storms in Johannesburg. The son of Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, whom Ramaphosa said he met on an SAA flight between Johannesburg and Durban, was also praised as an example of the young black pilots now working for the national airline. This was not enough, but it was a start, the deputy president said.

Ramaphosa is assisted in this approach by the traditional ANC sweetheart questions. Be it on the national minimum wage agreement or “Team South Africa” at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, these questions received lengthy, if historical, replies.

The Davos question opened the door for a homily to patriotism related to successfully selling South Africa as an investment destination, and yet another stab at the DA. It all revolved around wearing a scarf in the national colours, a space Ramaphosa said no other county had yet claimed.

Wearing that scarf makes the message cohesive… What we were selling was our South Africa, our country… We were not selling a narrow political view,” he told the questioner, DA MP Dean MacPherson, before switching to his mother tongue, Venda. “Now that I said it in Venda I’m sure you will understand better,” he added to chuckles across the House.

In the year the ANC goes to its national conference to elect its new set of leaders, Ramaphosa, during Wednesday’s question time, showcased himself as statesman-like, pro-government performance and anti-corruption in proceedings that unfolded without interruption.

Ramaphosa, who late last year received the endorsement as ANC president from trade union federation Cosatu, is boxing clever. He has been criticised for not yet having thrown his hat into the ring, but then the ANC frowns on lobbying.

But the House is an unmissable platform, like the houses of religion made available to former African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, whom the ANC Women’s League, headed by Bathabile Dlamini, publicly announced as their candidate for the ANC presidency.

Watch this space. DM

Photo: South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa reacts during President Jacob Zuma’s (not pictured) reply to the debate about his State Of The Nation Address (SONA) in Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, 16 February 2017. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

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