Since the slightly odd political process that saw Cyril Ramaphosa becoming President, and delivering his first State of the Nation Address, there have been several claims that he cannot be trusted, or that nothing has changed, because of his silence while he was Deputy President. They are wrong.
The argument tends to go along the lines that Cyril Ramaphosa was in government during the dark days of Jacob Zuma’s presidency, and thus knew what was going on, and clearly did nothing. In terms of morality, it’s a strong argument. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t properly examine what would have happened if Ramaphosa had actually tried to act more publicly than he did during that time – a real world scenario. While it is usually wrong to play “what if” politics, it is clear that in fact he did chose the right path, though it is not good enough for those who believe the current action does not justify the past inaction. Some are unhappy enough to be suspicious of any future moves by Ramaphosa.
The chorus of people claiming that Ramaphosa cannot be trusted because of his role during the Zuma years has been growing of late. Perhaps the crescendo was reached this week, with a piece in this publication by my friend Richard Poplak a.k.a. Trainspotter. He appears to sum up the argument of many when he says that Ramaphosa, like many others, “is directly responsible for much of what unfolded during the Zuma years precisely because they did nothing”. The bigger point that gets made in arguments like this is that Ramaphosa should not escape any blame, and thus we should not hold out any hope for our future with him at the helm.
In a way, this falls into a morality trap. There are those who claim that “one must always do the right thing” or that “the time to do the right thing is always now”. It’s a sort of Bono-inspired slogan that doesn’t take into account reality, and human beings. How often does a parent lie to a child because it’s in the child’s best interests, or who has not fibbed to their partner because the truth about their looks or manners would not help the relationship blossom? In politics, where timing, strategy and planning are all-important, this is magnified.
It is important to remember the context, and what was happening at the time. It is obvious now, as Poplak mentions, that for Ramaphosa, and for many others, the sacking of Pravin Gordhan as Finance Minister was the final tipping point. It is actually much more likely that the real moment was the firing of Nhlanhla Nene in December 2015. It is also true that Ramaphosa did lend Gordhan “my political and personal support” when he was first accused of fraud by the Hawks (acting under the clear Zuma diktat at the time). But what can be forgotten is the balance of power those days. Zuma commanded, literally commanded, the ANC’s national executive committee and his entire Cabinet, and especially the security cluster. That balance of power only started to shift really after the ANC’s poor showing in the 2016 local government elections. It was in November 2016, during an NEC meeting at the end of that month, that this became apparent, when then (and now again) Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom proposed that Zuma be recalled as president.
This means that any move against Zuma by Ramaphosa would have ended with Ramaphosa losing his position. But more than that, it would have meant any resistance movement against Zuma would have been neutered right then and there. It would have been impossible to actually start any ball rolling against him.
It might be easy at this point to remember all of the talk about Ramaphosa starting his own party, of splitting the ANC if he had lost at Nasrec. But by the middle of 2017, Ramaphosa was openly campaigning against Zuma. More important, the battle had become drawn into a focal point, the whole country knew what was at stake and why it was so important. This meant that if there had been any split by then, that new party would have had strong support, both from people then in the ANC, and from many outside it. That was not the case at the start of 2016.
It should also not be forgotten just how strong Zuma’s control of the state had been for so long. If Ramaphosa had started speaking up against him, say, in early 2015, there would have been some “intelligence report” that would have been thrown up by Nkosinathi Nhleko and he could have been removed from office. There would have been a fuss, but not a party-splitting one. That would have meant there was no hope for Ramaphosa ever beating Zuma, or of ending the damage. There simply was no one else in the party who could have taken on the Zuma machine at Nasrec and beaten it. It is also important to mention here, once again, that the real story of Nasrec is that Ramaphosa took on a multibillion-dollar patronage machine, in a secret-ballot election, and won. This is not supposed to happen in the real world, but it did in this case.
Then there are other factors of which we may not be fully aware yet, but which appear to make sense from what little we know of the relationship between Zuma and Ramaphosa. Back in 2012, the choice of Ramaphosa as deputy leader of the ANC was clearly Zuma’s. Obviously other people were involved, but Zuma, as good an operator as he is, would surely have known that any person he picked to replace Kgalema Motlanthe would have his eye on the main prize come 2017.
Thus either he picked Ramaphosa because he had to at the time, or because he really trusted him, or because he thought he would be able to beat him in five years time, through Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. This means that for some time, Zuma and Ramaphosa may actually have had some political accord which has never been made public. It would make sense for this to be the case, considering that Zuma didn’t really fear Motlanthe at the ANC’s Mangaung conference, and thus had a relatively free hand in choosing his successor.
The point of all of this back-story is that it may well be that Ramaphosa believed that even if Zuma was causing damage, he would still be able to repair it. It was only when that accord was broken that he felt the need to campaign against Zuma. This is important, as surely campaigning against Zuma would not have been Ramaphosa’s first choice. He would surely have preferred some sort of negotiated solution rather than the election that this ended in.
Then there is the argument that people like Ramaphosa were interested only in saving the ANC, rather than saving the country. It is entirely human for people who have given much of their lives to the ANC to want to save it, if they can, as is politically savvy. For many, the ANC and the country have become intermingled over the years. Those of us outside it can shout and rail against that, and are correct in doing so, but we also have no choice but to accept the reality of it.
However, it should also be remembered that if you were looking to fix the country, the ANC is still probably the most powerful instrument available. Consider its strengths, its mass support, its history, its ability to cobble together diverse constituencies, the fact that it has an election machinery that is unrivalled, and political legitimacy, and you have a powerful machine. While it could be argued that it is possible to create another similar instrument, it is surely true that going against the ANC is very, very difficult to do. Ask Mmusi Maimane or Julius Malema. In other words, it would be foolish to let go of the ANC, and make much more sense to win control of it, and then use it for your own ends. In this case, Ramaphosa’s supporters would claim that those ends involve fixing the country.
In the end, as humans, we do have to accept that in all politics everywhere, you are never going to get the perfect candidate. Barack Obama left office with very high approval ratings, and yet his track record on the use of drones, forced expulsions of undocumented immigrants and the aggressive pursuit of the leakers to media left much to be desired. But then one just has to look at the man who followed him and accept that this is the real world – and in the real world, freedom of blemish is an impossible reality.
For anyone who gets into higher office, there is almost always going to be something to disagree with. We are unlikely to get another Nelson Mandela and these days we conveniently forget his mistakes. Even if we just don’t like politicians in general, we need to understand and accept that some are much better than others, while not necessarily being candidates for canonisation.
Of course, there is one other important point to make. Ramaphosa’s legacy would have been completely sunk if he had lost at Nasrec. Now, he possibly has a 10-year opportunity to do real work and leave a true legacy that will leave South Africa in a much better shape than he inherited it in. It is only then that we can make a full determination on whether he did the right thing or not, when the Zuma era is just a bad memory that you mention to your children only when you need to scare them into eating broccoli or the big bad Jacob will come back again to haunt your country.
But none of that would have any chance of happening had Ramaphosa decided to break with Zuma earlier than he actually did. Worth reminding ourselves over and over again. DM
While we have your attention...
An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.
Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.
Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.
"We spend the first year of a child's life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There's something wrong there." ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson