If there was a movie made about President Cyril Ramaphosa’s first few months in office, it should probably be called “A Ghost from an ex-President’s Past”. This weekend marks 100 days since the once unionist-turned-politician-turned businessman and now president repeated an oath to high office and was sworn in. He made it known quite early that his election would be a New Dawn – and in some ways it has been. But his New Dawn was ushered in with the remnants of the torrid storm from the night before still visible on the horizon.
Former president Jacob Zuma’s disastrous tenure still haunts the Ramaphosa administration. Ramaphosa can’t build the metaphorical house he envisioned in his State of the Nation Address in February because the foundation he found there after taking office was built on dolomite.
On Thursday, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo updated the media on the commission of inquiry into State Capture, where he shocked many by saying he envisioned that the inquiry would take about two years to complete its work.
In a side conversation, Daily Maverick asked Zondo what the cost implications of this inquiry might be. It turns out Treasury approved an exorbitant R230-million for only six months of the commission’s work. That is before hearings are expected to start in August. The maths is easy: if the commission sticks to its hopes of concluding its work by the end of 2019, taxpayers would have to cough up possibly R1-billion. And that is besides the costs of the expected criminal prosecution and the estimated R100-billion already looted from the state through State Capture. Zondo explained it aptly:
“One would prefer that the money being spent in investigations could be spent in delivering services to the people. But the question is, there is the damage that will be done to the country if the investigations are not done and the people who might be guilty of certain criminal conduct won’t be pursued… it will be too much for the country.”
This means that as Ramaphosa presumably gets a fresh mandate from the electorate and tries to start the sixth administration in earnest after the 2019 elections, the skeletons of the Zuma-era State Capture will be laid bare.
Zondo is right though; this country has been through too much. The damage between Nkandlagate through to the end of State Capture in the Zuma years will be difficult to quantify but its consequences will live on. Which is why now, when we try to assess Ramaphosa’s formative days in office, the New Dawn is contaminated by the darkness that came before it.
After assuming office, Ramaphosa’s first task was to sort out the mess that was the executive. Inexperience and incompetence among ministers seemed almost benign when considering the fact that there were members in the executive who were being investigated in connection with crimes. In his inaugural Cabinet reshuffle Ramaphosa fired 10 ministers and a few deputy ministers but many South Africans were still tremendously dissatisfied. How could the likes of Nomvula Mokonyane, Bathabile Dlamini and Malusi Gigaba survive the chop?
It’s a valid question with a complicated response. In Zuma’s ascension to the top, his sycophants climbed with him in the party and then onwards in the state. Mokonyane and Dlamini still have a constituency in the ANC and Ramaphosa’s supporters believed it would have been ill-advised to “poke a sleeping bear”.
When assessing his first 100 days in office, Ramaphosa’s efforts to turn around the situation at State-owned Enterprises (SoEs) have been lauded. He promised when he took office to give his full attention to the untenable situation in SoEs and so far he has delivered on his word. Eskom, Prasa, Transnet and even Denel have new – seemingly competent – boards and executives have been appointed based on merit. It is the polar opposite of where we have come from and in the age of despair we have become accustomed to it is tempting to celebrate these moves. But Ramaphosa would have to face the reality that these seemingly competent people he put in charge of these troubled SoEs would face the same problem he’s facing: they would have to first clean the deep rot before they begin building.
On entering office, Ramaphosa inherited some ill-conceived policies and was smacked by the ramifications of it. Take the fee-free education phenomenon for example. Ramaphosa was left with a populist policy left behind by Zuma who invoked it for political survival. Now Ramaphosa is struggling to implement this policy that was neither funded nor planned for. So can Ramaphosa be blamed for NSFAS struggling to roll out grants to under-privileged students en masse? It’s hard to say. It is no different to his muted response to the upheaval at social welfare distributor Sassa. Or the total regression of municipalities across the country. Is it inaction of his first 100 days or the legacy of Zuma’s nine years in office?
It is hard to distinguish between the bar being set too low or the damage being too severe to fix in 100 days. One can argue that Ramaphosa has so far achieved public confidence, he has attracted investors and has had close contact with ordinary South Africans. He has also responded to crises in real time, chose not to be as litigious as his predecessor and has committed to good governance. His anti-corruption stance is believed to be real, and he has been willing to listen to advice. Ramaphosa reads too – that’s an added bonus.
This may seem commonplace to many but to paraphrase Justice Zondo: this country has been through a lot.
The consequences of the Zuma years will be felt for generations to come. It’s what historians tell you about Zuma’s historical peer, controversial US President Richard Nixon. The latter’s catastrophic era had to be undone by several administrations that succeeded him. Nixon’s biographer, Stephen Ambrose, put it clearly:
“Nixon wanted to be judged by what he accomplished. What he will be remembered for is the nightmare he put the country through in his second term and for his resignation”.
It will be how Zuma will be remembered too.
The Nixonian effect of the Zuma years will for a long time be a thorn in Ramaphosa’s side. However, it is the fresh new president’s willingness and determination to clean up the mess and begin rebuilding which will give us an indication of how long the devastation effects will persist. There is a canvass for a new dawn. Ramaphosa’s choice right now is how much of last night’s storm he will be able to stop from lingering. DM
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