The rise of Cyril Ramaphosa was supposed to give South Africans a chance to have a nice cup of tea following the nine-year Zuma donnybrook. Instead, the ANC reboot has sent ripples into the farthest corners of the country’s body politic. The single most explosive issue – land – has now been detonated, and it’s worth asking whether Ramaphosa has the nous, the power and the personnel to deal effectively with the challenges that lie ahead. Or will he be force-fed the political equivalent of a meat tube made of the assholes and snouts of pigs? By RICHARD POPLAK.
The climax where the police are
arrested by the police has yet to arrive
– Lynn Moe Swe
The gospels tell of a man, a hero of the liberation struggle, sent into the wilderness to make billions. No longer burdened by the palace intrigues of the party he was once destined to lead, he donned khaki and raised artisanal beasts, several of which have been handsomely photographed. He sat on boards and ran companies and formed relationships with the loftiest members of society, and when the party faced a crisis of legitimacy, he listened to their entreaties, nodded sagely, and returned to legitimise the illegitimacy. The great men and women who adored him hoped that one day he would find a way to lead the party, and to restore the country to its former greatness. Last year, on the blessed ground of Nasrec, their prayers were answered. Shortly before midnight on December 18, having vanquished his enemies and the forces of evil massed against him, Cyril Ramaphosa fulfilled his destiny, and was anointed as the New Messiah of the Holy Republic of South Africa.
There are a few hitches with this story, several of which explain why Ramaphosa’s honeymoon as ANC president, and as president of the country, has been so painfully attenuated. For one thing, there is no such thing as destiny, which is why in the bowels of Nasrec at the eleventh hour Team Ramaphosa allegedly made a deal in order for him to beat out fellow front-runner Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma for the top job. That deal came with conditions, a number of which have quickly become manifest in public life. Which is all to say that Cyril Ramaphosa did not win the ANC presidency – the great negotiator and his team cut a deal.
Before we get into what this means for the country, it’s probably worth saying that it’s too soon for South Africans to know if Ramaphosa is actually any good at his job, or whether he’s simply a functional human person in contrast to the planet-sized dumb-ass who preceded him. He finishes a thought; he concludes an argument; his ideas appear idea-ful.
On the flip side, his understanding of PR recalls fellow centrist techno-brats Tony Blair and Justin Trudeau, and while he doesn’t possess the former’s used-car-salesman unctuousness or the latter’s abs, he appears to share their obsession with surface imagery that hardens over time into its own form of corruption-secreting bullshit.
Image, in other words, can only paper over gaps in governance for so long.
In this case, the image is already hiccupping and fizzing like an important football match on DStv. The beginning of the end of the beginning was ushered in by the first Budget of the Ramaphosa era, a nightmare of faux financial prudence and wishy-washy one-for-you-and-one-for-us-ism. By increasing the VAT by one percentage point, it sacrificed a chunk of the working class’s disposable income at the altar of “fiscal consolidation”, which is another way of saying that average consumers are paying for the profligacy of the Zuma years, just as average South Africans – read: the black majority – paid back the debt of the apartheid era.
In a recent discussion at a Daily Maverick post-Budget event in Cape Town, Director General of the Treasury, Dondo Mogajane, promised the audience that the 2018 edition didn’t represent an austerity budget. But the R85-billion three-year cut in expenditure was designed to appeal to the ratings agencies and the foreign direct investors that we’ve been whoring ourselves out to since Mandela’s tenure, to no discernible effect.
Who wins in all of this? Here’s a clue – the new president’s old business pals have probably replaced their porn gifs with former Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba’s spiritless Budget recitation. Only in South Africa: after decade of committed thieving, a crooked finance minister gives a final middle finger to normal folk by getting them to pick up the tab for his larceny, while a president implicated in the deaths of 34 miners punts mining – a sector that barely employs anyone and will employ even fewer when the robots finally get their shit together – as a “sunshine” industry.
I mean, Jesus.
Of course, this wasn’t a Ramaphosa Budget – the dude had barely been on the job for five days when it was promulgated. More accurately, this was a classic ANC budget, a conspiratorial caper between the wily radical populists and the fast-talking corporatist mainstream. It pounds money into state-owned enterprises and, by extension, the private sector corporates that keep their diseased zombie corpses lurching from crisis to crisis – a looped horror movie in which off-the-books tenders are picked up by supposedly clean companies, and billions are dumped on nothing. Totally random example: Treasury was forced to balk at an attempt by SAA to source R13-billion in loans to spend on consultants who would provide “cultural change services”, “organisational design” and the recruitment of “foreign airline turnaround specialists”.
That’s 13 billion, with a “b”.
No fear, we’re now back to performing an interpretive dance of fiscal sobriety so that Harvard graduates can sleep at night knowing that we’re good for their money. Which is certain to get the country “back on track”, right?
And yet, but, the dark secret is, when it comes to this kind of thing, the country has never been off track.
* * *
The second big moment of Ramaphosa’s fledgling presidency occurred with uncharacteristic tardiness last Monday night. His Cabinet appointments were supposed to be a moment of secular revelation: the Messiah would articulate his vision for a New Jerusalem by reading a list of names on TV, and those names would go forth and build for him a paradise.
The president’s apologists – and they are legion – have made much of the fact that he likes to do things properly, which means meticulously, which means slowly, at least by postmodern standards. (If I earned a rand every time I heard the words “long game” in the past three weeks, I’d bail out Eskom.) That said, when the president finally showed up on the telly, he looked ashen and lock-jawed, as if his family was being threatened by masked men wielding bazookas. There was a reason for this: the last minute horse-trading was reportedly vicious. Or maybe he just had a head cold.
Regardless, running a country is difficult, and you don’t always get what you want – many corrupt idiots still proudly call themselves ministers. But in the final reckoning, Ramaphosa’s kitchen cabinet made it into the actual Cabinet, and in positions that are vital to his very distinct Weltanschauung. The Treasury has always belonged to the constitutionalists and their benefactors – Nhlanlha Nene’s return to the finance ministry is both a functional and symbolic reboot of the centrist old days. Gwede Mantashe’s appointment as mining minister has already been embraced by the industry, and will mean that the vastly disputed new Mining Charter will become significantly less disputed – even if negotiations have already excised community engagement in favour of a government/industry stitch-up. Pravin Gordhan was handed the Public Enterprises portfolio, where he can vanquish old enemies and help send people who were mean to him to jail.
(This key troika is backed up by formerly corrupt police minister Bheki Cele, who’ll get to work so that the police can start arresting the police – the true sign of an audience-friendly purge.)
The point I’m making here is that we’re now properly enjoying season One of the Cyril Show, for however short a time it lasts. And to identify a trend that is already emerging from the storyline: Ramaphosa is ANC down to the last strand of his DNA. When he recently addressed the National House of Traditional Leaders, he urged accountability, and shortly after insisted that the Traditional and Khoi-San Leadership Bill (TKLB) must be fast-tracked – meaning he’d endorsed a piece of legislation that cuts off communities from their constitutional rights in order for extractive companies to enjoy expedited negotiation processes with unelected kings and chiefs.
This is no reboot.
It’s business as usual.
* * *
And yet, it’s alarmingly appropriate that the day after Ramaphosa announced his Cabinet, a land expropriation motion was finally passed, and the country immediately moved into a new political phase.
This, then, is where shit gets real.
Ramaphosa’s legacy – and he is a man who cares deeply about such things – will not be confined to removing copies of The New Age from SAA flights, or by engaging in the vanilla, missionary-position governance of semi-efficient Davos-styled technocracy. It will be defined by the land question, and nothing else. Call it a case of bad timing or bad luck, but this is the Tiger Brands polony sandwich he’s been served, and the Luthuli House loo has run out of toilet paper.
Leaving aside the morals and ethics of land restitution in the post-colony – which is to say, leaving justice out of the equation – Ramaphosa’s slow-and-steady shtick is already butting up against the populist poetry flowing from the Economic Freedom Fighter’s Julius Malema, and the political impatience that it engenders. Malema has no choice but to push this as far as it will go, and having the land bill passed is the most significant achievement of his four-year-old party’s brief history. He is dragging the ANC around the political arena by the nose, and while it’s relatively amusing listening to party apparatchiks spew bullshit about how land reform has been on the to-do-list since 1994, this is the issue that will jazz the Radical Economic Transformation crew, and re-establish the old fault-lines, except on a much more emotive basis.
If everyone just calmed down by 50%, justice-based land reform process can be the most exciting thing ever to happen in post-apartheid South Africa. It’s a matter of reconciling a historic act of violence with modern-day market pressures – which is hard as fuck, no question, but should be a cinch for a species responsible for the Sistine Chapel and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Do it right, and South Africa could serve as a laboratory for land restitution the world over. Ramaphosa has spoken both forcefully and movingly on this issue, but that doesn’t mean that the looming “dialogue with key stakeholders” will amount to anything more than what the 2005 Land Summit achieved. He also wants a jobs summit, a summit on summits, and importing Kilimanjaro’s summit to Luthuli House for regular summiting.
Ramaphosa’s game so far has been clear – party unity over progress. In a vast patronage network such as the ANC, this will be a very hard habit to break, and it is best to break it early. On the land question, the president will require a measure of aggression against the old forces of capital, who are already waving around hundreds of billions-worth of farmer bonds like a loaded gun, to say nothing of industrial-strength crooks like the Zulu King Zwelithini, who is dog-whistling all manner of threats should “his” land be transferred over to the people who live on it.
Yes, this can break the economy, and turn the country into Venezuela with biltong. But it can also make the country.
It’s largely up to the president, who will not be able to get away with ignoring “stakeholders” outside of his usual braai circle. If the EFF starts polling significant numbers, which I believe they will, the ANC will in turn become desperate, and Ramaphosa will get pushed into a very small, very tight crawl space.
Land occupation happens across this country every day – it always has, and until the land question is resolved, it always will. Sometimes, the situation is resolved with violence administered by the likes of the Red Ants or private security companies. Sometimes, the sheriff rides in at the behest of the courts. Occasionally, matters are concluded through back channel negotiation. But in this new atmosphere of heightened rhetoric, we are now approaching the possibility of theatrical displays of land reform in agricultural areas – old-school Zimbabwe-style farm occupations that write their own headlines and move the obedient markets southwards. The foreign press eats this shit up, and weeping white people on CNN would once again make South African chaos a global concern. In this, Ramaphosa would be battling forces within his own party, and the divide that defines the ANC would become the divide that undoes the country. Managing disunity with the veneer of unity would no longer be sufficient.
And so, five ANC presidents in 25 years – that’s a lot of chance for renewal. Instead its been reboot, re-use, and recycle. This time, the new Messiah’s miracles will have to result in something much more than that. South Africa, just like its president, has always excelled at continuity. Those days are just about done. DM
Photo: President Cyril Ramaphosa, attends and responds to the debate in the National House of Traditional Leaders (NHTL), Parliament, Cape Town. The debate follows the annual opening address delivered by President Ramaphosa to NHTL on Tuesday, 1 March 2o18. (Photo: GCIS)