When Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa takes to the podium he looks at ease, cracking a joke or two amid some self-depreciating comments. It’s easy to mistake this as the confidence of a smooth political operator familiar with trade unions, business and the ANC, both before and after it became the governing party. It’s not. It’s about turning hard slog into the illusion of effortlessness. Whether this will take Ramaphosa into the ANC top post in about three weeks’ time remains to be seen. By MARIANNE MERTEN.
In many ways the governing ANC is in a battle for its heart and soul that will come to a head at its December national elective conference in the sprawling Nasrec conference centre on the outskirts of Soweto, Johannesburg. It’s not a simplistic contest between the Good seeking a return to values of self-sacrifice and service against the Bad looking to line their pockets through political connectivity and State Capture. It’s a multilayered, complex mix of interests that may switch, depending on the prevailing factional winds, ideological direction and political values in an economy that is teetering on the brink of, well, nothing good.
Keeping your head above all this is a gigantic effort, regardless of which ANC presidential candidate, in the Byzantine machinations of the governing party where unity rules even in the face of public displays of factionalism. And so when President Jacob Zuma hosted his Cabinet deputy Cyril Ramaphosa and the six other presidential contenders, including fellow frontrunner Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the African Union Commission chairperson turned ANC MP, for a dinner, all pledged to accept the outcome of the party conference and, of course, to uphold ANC unity.
“That last supper the president called, it was a warm occasion and I can promise you no one had a dagger in their pocket. Not that I looked for it. Nor did I have one,” remarked Ramaphosa at Thursday’s interaction with the Parliamentary Press Gallery Association (PGA). “If I’m not successful, gladly, unreservedly I will accept the outcome. If a different person is elected as president (of the ANC), I will immediately pledge my support, my loyalty and will continue to serve the ANC in whatever form.”
Traditionally, the ANC has closed ranks after periods of contestation even if the issues of dispute remain festering under the Band-Aid of quickly proclaimed unity and has moved on to the next task, the next campaign or, say, an election in 2019.
The ANC would be “boring” without differences that would ultimately be put to rest by branches in line with the party constitution, its “shock absorbers”, according to Ramaphosa.
“Let’s not look at it from the dark side. Let’s look at it from the bright side.”
But that upbeat messaging veils strategic calculations at a crucial time before the deciding December gathering. And so Ramaphosa talks macro, smoothly sidestepping the micro that could be seen as rocking the boat.
So, it’s about an “economic recovery plan” with 10 achievables, but not about the lack of action to bring about the State-owned Entities (SoEs) governance reforms first talked about when Alec Erwin headed the public enterprises Cabinet portfolio.
It is about taking “a really dim view” of those ANC MPs breaking parliamentary caucus discipline by publicly attacking their Chief Whip over a parliamentary State Capture discussion, but not about how to fix a deeply factionalised governing party in Parliament, in provinces and at national level, where some feel empowered to break ranks and party discipline, even to offer inducements to try to scupper a parliamentary inquiry.
What matters is timing. In the machinations of the ANC, a crucial moment is the upcoming national elective conference. Until the leadership election results are in, everything else is on hold. In the meantime, the ANC proxy battles are fought around State Capture, white monopoly capital and radical economic transformation.
Those in the ANC worried about the governing party’s association in the public mind with corruption and State Capture have invested in Ramaphosa to bring about the change they are unable, or afraid, to argue for. Speaking out can extract a deadly price, as political killings not only in KwaZulu-Natal have shown, or incur economic isolation that means bread disappearing from the one’s table. And, as Parliament’s public enterprises committee inquiry into State Capture at Eskom has shown, also attracted threats and intimidation.
“We can’t accept representatives of our people should be threatened and abused simply because they are doing the job they were elected for. Such inquiries may make some people uncomfortable, and may portray some sections of government in a poor light, but they are vital to restoring the confidence of the people in the state,” said Ramaphosa on Thursday.
That inquiry, which is “uncovering a network of patronage and graft deeply embedded” in Eskom, like the parliamentary SABC inquiry that was “critical to stop the rot”, alongside the national legislature’s engagement in the social grants payment provider debacle, means Parliament is “increasingly what the ANC wants it to be… an activist Parliament” that holds the executive to account. “Some people may have this discomfort… A measure of discomfort should never mean dysfunction. It means our institutions are working.”
Deflection, including arguing that State Capture should not be a focus because of pre-1994 plundering, was not acceptable; State Capture had contributed to the current economic woes of South Africa. “We can’t find an excuse not to go into what is happening now,” Ramaphosa said, adding later that not doing so would fail South Africans. “Let’s deal with the current one, where the information is still fresh, the perpetrators are still around and known, and set up another protest to deal with what happened (in the past).”
In the campaign for governing party presidency, in keeping with long-standing ANC tradition of the non-campaigning campaign style because branches take the ultimate decision, Ramaphosa is focusing on values prevalent immediately after South Africa’s transition to democracy. It’s stuff like the Constitution, which as chairperson of the Constituent Assembly he played a key role in helping to draft, respect for Parliament and its oversight role and elected public representatives’ duty to be held accountable.
As the hours counted down to the deadline for Zuma to make representations on why he should not face 783 criminal counts – the dropping of which just before the 2009 elections saw him into the Union Buildings has been the subject of a years’ long legal battle brought by the DA – Ramaphosa highlighted that President Nelson Mandela testified in court. In 1998 Mandela became the first head of state to take the witness stand when then rugby boss Louis Luyt tried to stop a commission of inquiry into graft in the sport.
“I was not absolved from going there to be held accountable. You should be willing to demonstrate that you are indeed willing to subject yourself to the norms and rules of society and go there,” said Ramaphosa of his testimony to the Marikana commission of inquiry into the police killing of 34 striking Lonmin miners in August 2012 at a time when Ramaphosa held a black economic empowerment stake in the platinum mining company.
Ramaphosa is determinedly upbeat and stays on message, be it in the House, the party-political campaign trail, and the innumerable public events like Thursday’s interaction with the PGA where little came of the officially set boundary of sticking to his role as leader of government business, or the liaison between the executive and Parliament.
But is it enough? And if it is enough, together with the relentless backroom organising, mobilising and lobbying, at the December ANC national elective conference, will it be enough for afterwards? It’s simply naïve to think a certain leadership style would resolve the myriad issues and proxy battles in the governing party.
There are some post-conference plans for Ramaphosa:
“I intend to go on a bit of a holiday from this grueling year. Whatever the outcome, I am intending to do just that.”
But there are other options for Ramaphosa, depending on the outcome, including swapping the conservative dark suits for farmers’ khakis. It’s an option, like entering the higher education environment, that is not available to everyone, particularly those who rely on the access to the levers of state power and resources, be it at national, provincial or local level.
The 54th national conference of the ANC will be a crucial defining moment in South Africa’s body politic in more ways than one. DM
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