South Africa


Figuring out Ramaphosa’s action plan amid the political threat that he faces

Figuring out Ramaphosa’s action plan amid the political threat that he faces

The tardy, half-hearted response of the ANC leadership to attacks against Pravin Gordhan during his evidence to the Zondo commission, points to ambivalence over the clean-up of state institutions spearheaded by Gordhan. There may be ominous possibilities, including deals to cut back on the clean-up, if the Zumaites and EFF are conceivably required for the ANC to retain power.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

Until now many observers, including myself, have been at pains to credit President Cyril Ramaphosa and his allies with addressing the need to clean up state-owned entities (SOEs) and institutions that have been captured or fallen victim to corruption and other forms of irregularity. This has been one of the key elements in remedying the critical conditions that were left behind by Jacob Zuma.

From the moment of his election as ANC president, Ramaphosa gave the impression of determination to draw a line between what he would do and what had been done during the lawless Zuma presidency. Even before taking office there was an impression that with the expectation of taking over as State President, Ramaphosa was already initiating steps towards a clean-up.

One knew, however, that he did not have a firm base in the ANC and that for all the confidence that business may have bestowed on him, that did not in itself stabilise his power, as president of a fractious organisation, with some openly hostile to his leadership.

Over time it is not clear that Ramaphosa has used this period, since his election as ANC and then State President, as effectively as his opponents/enemies have. Ramaphosa won the ANC presidency by a slender majority, partly through the allegedly compromised DD Mabuza throwing his lot in with him and then becoming Deputy President of the ANC and the country.

But while the Zumaites may have lost that vote they were not decisively defeated in terms of positions gained in the ANC and to some extent government. But, more significantly, they may have used the time since Ramaphosa’s election more effectively, in garnering support, than have the supporters of Ramaphosa.

It is unclear whether those who are linked with Ramaphosa have actually organised themselves as a cohesive grouping against the conspiracies and demonstrations of the Zumaites. Are they perhaps so devoted to the mantra of ANC unity that they have considered it wrong to organise backing for Ramaphosa? Do they resist the idea insofar as such action means he does not automatically have such support, despite being ANC president? Is Ramaphosa himself in favour of such manifestations of support? Is it seen as unacceptable and tainted as “factional”? But if it is acceptable, what does it mean to be organised for one or other purpose, in the current context, where the ANC is not itself organised in a manner that is easily activated, beyond for fighting elections?

That, of course, leaves aside the more fundamental question of whether there is a common understanding of what such support would mean, what it is that a Ramaphosa presidency actually signifies since it has not been articulated beyond some broad strokes?

Has Ramaphosa and his closest allies, whoever these may be, developed or deployed any plan of action to defend his presidency? What type of advice is Ramaphosa receiving, how experienced are these people and are they able to advise him on how to combat the political threat that he faces?

If it is correct to read what has happened in the past year as entailing a “fight back” on the part of those who have not accepted the outcome of the Nasrec conference as final, and if it is right to see Zuma playing a central role, Ramaphosa matches up against a person who has no scruples, who will not play according to the equivalent of the Queensberry rules of boxing. What is needed to combat such forces? And is there a plan being developed by those who support Ramaphosa? Who will comprise such forces and how will they be organised? Will they go beyond the ANC or ANC leadership and allied organisations and include all who have an interest in clean government? That is not the language of the current ANC, certainly, but does Ramaphosa, if he wants to survive need such support? If he can resort to such cooperation, he may, in turn, have to bind himself to aspects of a democratic programme, that bind such forces to him.

Balance of forces

From the outset, it was clear that Ramaphosa had various people in leadership at various levels and within the organisation who were not happy about his election. This is not unprecedented. Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki had opponents within the ANC. But times have changed. The ANC is less united and does not hold together with the sense of political cohesion, previously associated with the “Congress movement”.

The stakes attached to leadership are much greater in terms of material consequences than they have ever been. At every level of the ANC we know that there is great contestation, often leading to murders in order to secure election and thereby attain power to allocate resources, through patronage networks. Or at a more basic level, election to a position may enable members to attain some level of economic security in a time of actual unemployment of around 45%.

Many of those who periodically pronounce that there is only one president of the ANC and the country may not be reconciled to that as a permanent feature, given that there are continual undertones of dissatisfaction over the way Zuma has allegedly been badly treated or that his supporters have been side-lined. There is a definite group, within specific sectors of the ANC leadership, who are unreconciled to a Ramaphosa presidency. But they may also be especially unhappy with what it may mean if Ramaphosa and his allies continue to repair the criminal justice system, SARS and various SOEs.

The various attempts to uncover State Capture and rectify the malfunctioning and irregularities surrounding SOEs and state departments, may pose a danger to some of these people. They may be implicated and could face prosecution or at least lose positions that they hold, that are prestigious and lucrative.

What may also be happening beneath the surface is that even some of those who are taken to be in the Ramaphosa camp are not necessarily happy with every direction that he appears to consider crucial. It may well be that there are some who are ambivalent about the clean ups and that may account for the failure of the ANC leadership to provide speedy and unambiguous support to Pravin Gordhan when he came under attack for his evidence to the State Capture and Nugent Commissions (and here).

Zuma threat more serious and sustained

What has become apparent is that the Zuma threat has not disappeared and may have grown more serious over time. He has played a more prominent role in ANC politics than any former president in recent times, apparently attending all ANC NEC meetings and other organisational activities, observing proceedings closely, and thereby, intimidating others by his presence. While there are obviously people who have a strong history of collusion with Zuma who remain in the public arena, it is unclear how many others may step forward should the security of Ramaphosa’s tenure come into question. There is also a category of people who are not actively opposing the incumbent president, but who are not really in support of him and may come to demonstrate this when his position is endangered.

It may well be that the EFF has, as some have suggested, developed a working relationship with some in the ANC leadership and on the parliamentary benches and that in the event of the ANC failing to secure 50% of the vote in 2019, it could become a coalition partner, or its support may be needed.

What the EFF and the pro-Zuma and possibly undeclared pro-Zuma sections of the ANC may have in common is that they do not want a clampdown on irregularity, whose gaze could turn on some of them. They do not have an interest in well-functioning state institutions. It may well be, also, that some in the current leadership who are not Zumaites have done some dodgy deals that may also account for the relative silence over the attacks on Gordhan.

If he has to negotiate and this is supposed to be Ramaphosa’s greatest strength in the light of his role in negotiating democratic rule, what deal will he settle for now? Does he have a bottom line, and can we be sure that he will not trade off the clean-up, including a stronger SARS, as part of that deal? Will the EFF support a coalition without a running down of the clean up? Will that not also be the position of the known and silent Zumaites in various committees of leadership and parliament?

Broader questions relating to vision and the bottom line of clean government

In other contributions examining the post Zuma period, I have questioned the lack of identification of the qualities of the Zuma period and the consequent danger that the focus of the Ramaphosa period may have been purely on State Capture, corruption and legality. I have argued, that crucial as regularisation of governance may be, there also needs to be a vision that is advanced for the broader features attaching to the type of freedom we seek.

While making that critique or advancing the notion of an emancipatory vision, I assumed that cleaning up government was non-negotiable or unstoppable. I now wonder whether that assumption has been made too readily. If the most important thing for the ANC is to win elections and remain the ruling party, on what is it prepared to compromise to ensure that this continues to be the case? If those on whom Ramaphosa depends and with whom leaders have to negotiate face potential prosecution for corruption is it unthinkable that a deal will be struck, not to say, “you have immunity from prosecution”, which would be illegal anyway. Nothing as crass as that need be contemplated. But the understanding could be that the steps to restore capacity to SARS, NPA, the Hawks and others will be slowed down. If that happens, there is no need to make deals on immunity. It will not get to that stage.

This again raises the question whether we, as members of the public, play an active role in the unfolding of events or are simply bystanders. Having demonstrated civic power in order to remove Zuma, it is important that an organised presence is developed in order to ensure that there is no stepping back from the need to restore legality, end corruption and State Capture and ensure that all perpetrators face criminal charges. It is important that such mass activities that may develop become sustainable. We need to learn that an organised presence of all who are committed to our freedom is necessary in order to ensure that gains are safeguarded and indeed enhanced. DM

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a visiting professor and strategic adviser 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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