South Africa


Democratic project is in trouble. How does it get remedied?

Democratic project is in trouble. How does it get remedied?

While the Cyril Ramaphosa-led government has acted decisively in some respects and committed to a “new dawn” it is constrained by leaders pulling in different directions. The public should not be held to ransom by internal ANC divisions. Individuals and social movements need to enter the political terrain and strengthen the hands of those who seek a flourishing democratic future.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

It is well known that Cyril Ramaphosa’s election as ANC president in December was by a small number of votes and that he was elected alongside others in the top leadership who were former president Jacob Zuma’s supporters.

That he found himself in a leadership collective that comprised contradictory qualities set limits on what he could do. But many felt assured, nevertheless, that Ramaphosa would deploy his negotiating skills in order to reach the goals that were so badly needed to clean up the state and restore democratic values and practices. One heard phrases for the impatient, like “Cyril is playing the long game,” by which I understood that we needed to be patient because Ramaphosa would lead the country to the required destination even if it took longer than some considered desirable.

In an immediate sense there were goals that needed to be addressed, mainly in relation to corruption and functioning of the state and state-owned enterprises. Ramaphosa tackled many of these very swiftly, after election as ANC president, even before becoming state president. Some actions that were unthinkable a few months earlier were taken against the Guptas and their associates.

Despite the relatively unstable support base, at the top leadership level, Ramaphosa became state president and moved quickly to assert his authority and some measure of determination to stamp out corruption and remove those most heavily implicated in it. It was not a total break with the past and its key figures, insofar as some of those who were allegedly most incriminated were elected to high office. Had they been marginalised or undermined in the office to which they were elected, or had they not been appointed to leading Cabinet positions the fragile support that had seen Ramaphosa elected could have frayed at the edges. Considered purely at the level of the highest leadership, had Ramaphosa not acted with great care he may then have become paralysed and unable to lead.

At the same time, what was fragile about Ramaphosa’s base, amongst the leadership, was undergoing flux insofar as many of those who currently comprise this ANC leadership have served under quite incompatible leaders. Having been scrupulously loyal to Thabo Mbeki, once it became clear he would be or had been removed, they became thoroughly loyal to Zuma, who pursued quite different policies with regard to management of the state. These individuals are quite willing to serve whoever will secure their well-being. Thus, we are seeing a process whereby some of those who had been firmly ensconced in the Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma camp have started to demonstrate their “unequivocal” loyalty to Ramaphosa. They understand him to represent the future of the country, and most importantly for them, their own future prospects, for jobs and wealth.

But while Ramaphosa has demonstrated admirable decisiveness in some respects, in others he has appeared immobilised or else slow to move, even though a province has been on fire, as with North West. Ramaphosa returned from the UK, cutting short a visit, seeking investment, because of the crisis in the province. On visiting the area, he expressed his concern but explained that proper processes had to be followed in order to deal with the problems. Burnings and looting may have subsided, to a greater or lesser extent, though the calls for Supra Mahumapelo to be removed as premier have continued to be loud and clear. At the time of writing there are contradictory reports on what the leadership has demanded of Mahumaphelo and to what he has agreed. He remains in place and a National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting may have been called for this week, possibly to remove him, possibly to oversee the management of the province. It is unclear.

One has the impression that Ramaphosa is constrained. This is not simply practising negotiating skills where one does not rush something and risk undoing what one aims to achieve by trying to force the pace. This is not simply Ramaphosa playing the long game, but that the “long game” has been forced on the Ramaphosa-leadership because he has to rely on people who cannot be depended on to be part of the “new dawn”, even if its scope is limited to a clean-up.

One thing is clear is that previous divisions between the Zuma/Gupta supporting ANC and those supporting Ramaphosa have re-emerged. Obviously, they never disappeared but the unstable leadership core has created an opening for bold support for former president Zuma and opposition to Ramaphosa.

The people who are sent to KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) to supervise the monitoring of elections and whether or not these can be held, are individuals like Ace Magashule, who hold key positions, but are not above manipulating processes in order to serve purposes that are not those of probity and electoral fairness. Everything they do is overlaid by threats that they face should the limited goals of the Ramaphosa-led leadership succeed, for they could well find themselves in court and jailed. Consequently, disabling the Ramaphosa leadership is important to them, for the longer it takes to settle the divisions and the potential impact this has on ANC electoral prospects the more it weakens Ramaphosa and his supporters.

The result has been that the earlier decision that the KZN province was not ready to hold provincial executive elections because of the prevailing climate of irregularities, has now been reversed. Magashule reported that they were in fact ready, following the decision of an interim structure packed mainly with supporters of the former Provincial Executive Committee (PEC) that was declared illegally constituted by the High Court. Over 40 branches have objected to the unfairness of the processes, gate keeping and other malpractices that are well known in the ANC of today.

Ramaphosa cannot intervene directly as an individual, even if he is president and the head of organising, Senzo Mchunu, who will know very well what is happening, is not in a position to do so either. This is because he was central to the KZN factional battles, as the dismissed premier and defeated provincial ANC chair. So even if he knows what is best to do, Mchunu is not well placed to counter the push back against Ramaphosa and systematic re-Zumafication that is under way.

The problem, however, is that Zuma left and also stayed. Unlike previous presidents not only have his very substantial negative legacies continued to pervade the political atmosphere and a range of spheres of government, but Zuma himself has not simply retired into the background. From very early on he has attended ANC activities, including a national electoral workshop and even a NEC meeting. All former presidents have the ex officio right to attend NEC meetings but none of the others have done so apart from a single case, that I recall in the case of Nelson Mandela when he attended a meeting in order to make a plea in regard to HIV/Aids.

Zuma supporters have openly lambasted the ANC leadership for “persecuting” him, also Zuma’s own words, and they form a fairly coherent group in KZN and to a lesser but significant extent in some other provinces.

The divisions run through the organisation at national, provincial and local levels and unlike Zuma’s election at Polokwane, the losers have not left the organisation to form another nor have they simply nursed their wounds. They have continued to fight and to advance positions supporting Zuma and to amplify the divisions that were inherited, notably but not exclusively in KZN.

The North West is divided, over the removal of Supra Mahumaphelo as premier and ANC Chair and if he remains in office, ANC figures in the province cite figures showing that this will possibly lower the ANC electoral support below 50%. The EFF recently won an election in Coligny against the ANC in the province. In the Free State, Magashule supporters appear to remain dominant and the question is whether or not that power will be wielded in opposition to the Ramaphosa-led national leadership. That remains a potential threat hanging over unity of the ANC top leaders.

In the Eastern Cape there is division with the government pulling in a different direction from that of the pro-Ramaphosa PEC. There are also divisions in Mpumalanga, though it is unclear whether these are spilling over into national leadership questions.

The Ramaphosa leadership faces multiple crises, and these relate to the ambiguity in his support base. Even the limited but crucial goals of the “new dawn”, thus far, to clean up, are arousing enmity amongst those who may find themselves targeted for prosecution.

How ought Ramaphosa to act in the face of multiple crises manifesting themselves insofar as the leadership that is behind him is not pulling as one, whether amongst the “top six”, the National Working Committee (NWC) or NEC. How does he go forward despite being pulled back? This is a classic moment of decision and unsurprisingly he has hesitated. It is not clear what to do, for one has to take risks one way or another.

There is a need for caution in the sense that he has to simultaneously reassure those who have lost confidence in government and the economy by decisive action but simultaneously to go slowly on some decisive action that could destabilise his support. From what we know one or more of his closest “lieutenants” in the leadership could face trial.

My sense is that it is impossible to win this battle by “baby steps” aimed at holding that support and simultaneously reassuring business and the public at large that we are to see substantial democratic and transformative change. The support base that Ramaphosa needs to build must be based on values that go beyond the ANC top leadership and business. He needs support based on ethics and passion for a better life for all. There was a time when that would be associated with the ANC itself and especially some of its leadership.

In other words, in order to win this battle, Cyril Ramaphosa and those who support him need to take the risk of trying to rebuild the ANC of ideas, the ANC of convictions and passion and try to harness that in their efforts. That means leading from the top but also through invoking, mobilising and organising the base. There is very little of that resort to power of the people in the way the blockages are now being confronted.

This is a situation where citizens need to ask whether the country can afford to be held to ransom by internal divisions and problems of the ANC. ANC processes saw the election of a number of people who few would trust with their future. Ramaphosa has to work with these people.

But the removal of Zuma was not purely an ANC process. It resulted also from thousands of people coming out into the streets over and over again. The drive for change to improve living conditions continues with actions by organisations like Equal Education and many other social movements, demanding the transformation, that is so clearly absent in many of the sectors where they work and, in their lives, more generally.

It is important that power, popular power, non-sectarian power of people from a range of organisations and many who are not yet organised, some from the landless, the working class, the homeless, the professions, sections of business need to wield their power and demand that clean government and democratic rule is fully restored and also encouraged to flourish, in ways that may not yet have been imagined. It cannot be done by the ANC alone and insofar as the power of the citizenry is involved this needs to become an organised force. These people will be in a range of places and sectors, wherever those who are committed to an emancipatory project-defined admittedly in diverse ways- are to be found.

That power is needed to secure democracy now and it must also be part of our democratic future. It is important that we return to the understanding that the notion that the “people shall govern”, enunciated in the Freedom Charter, need not relate purely to elections and political parties. All of us, wherever we are need to claim and drive the processes that make our democratic future. DM

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a visiting professor and strategic advisor to the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg and emeritus professor at Unisa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s prison was reissued with a new introduction in 2017. He blogs at and his Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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