South Africa


Ramaphosa’s wooing of Zuma could spell problems

Professor Raymond Suttner. (Photo: Madelene Cronjé / New Frame)

When Cyril Ramaphosa visited kwaZulu-Natal for the ANC anniversary activities, there was a real threat that his appearances would be disrupted by booing from Zuma supporters. That did not happen. Ramaphosa treated Zuma with great deference. The question that arises is whether electoral unity behind Ramaphosa requires more than flattery. Will the price of “unity” affect the “clean up” and potential prosecutions?

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

Since the 2017 ANC conference held at Nasrec in Johannesburg, it has been clear that the organisation has not been united behind Cyril Ramaphosa as president. In some respects, this ought not to have been surprising insofar as Ramaphosa only secured his election by 175 votes. There has been little sense of the supporters of the defeated candidate, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, uniting behind the victor. (Dlamini-Zuma, herself, however appears to be well integrated into Ramaphosa’s cabinet team)

The level of opposition has from early on been intense, and involved office bearers like ANC Secretary-General, Ace Magashule, former premier and chair of the ANC in North-West Province, Supra Mahumapelo and many regions and other structures of the ANC, mainly in KwaZulu-Natal.

Outside the various court appearances of Jacob Zuma many of his supporters have assembled and claimed he had been ill treated and deserved more respect. They have made it clear that they are unhappy with Ramaphosa’s continued incumbency. There have been reports, initially denied then confirmed, of secret meetings, which appear to have been composed of Zuma’s supporters, in a Durban hotel, apparently conspiring to remove Ramaphosa. Ace Magashule was present for at least one such meeting.

What is at stake? For those who supported Zuma — and later Dlamini-Zuma — the Ramaphosa presidency is seen as a threat to their wellbeing. Lines of patronage and corruption had been secured through Zuma, from the Guptas and other sources, including the state. These links are now severed — though many remain in their positions or are still benefiting at this stage from contacts within the state or shady businesses. But future deals have become uncertain.

Some measures envisaged in the “new dawn” are set to heighten opposition. If Ramaphosa implements necessary cost cutting measures, including reducing the size of the executive, it will evoke some anxiety and anger amongst those who rely on access to such positions. This is a measure that is in line with reducing wastage, but it is precisely such steps that could well fuel further opposition, some less vociferous, including segments within the ranks of supposed Ramaphosa supporters.

An interesting factor in this opposition is that it has gone beyond the ANC, including charismatic churches, courted for some time by Zuma, some of whom have formed opposition parties. The same goes for BLF leader Andile Mngxitama, former owner of ANN7 and other Gupta media, Mzwanele Manyi, and former SABC COO, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, who all plan to contest elections. While these parties are all formally outside of the ANC, their initiatives are firmly aligned, as the EFF is in many cases, with the section of the ANC supporting Jacob Zuma and resisting anti-corruption and state capture measures.

How has Ramaphosa responded to the incipient revolt?

Ace Magashule made a speech in Pietermaritzburg shortly after the Nasrec conference, saying: “Stay focused, it is just a matter of five years. It’s a matter of five years. Conference happens after five years. Mayibuya i-ANC esiyaziyo (when the ANC that we know returns). It’s a matter of five years comrades. So let’s work hard.” 

The way Ramaphosa has responded to rumbling dissatisfaction has not been aggressive but to reassure Zumaites that their positions in the cabinet are secure or that he has confidence in them in the ANC positions they occupy.

Ramaphosa seems to believe that the best way to respond to undermining conduct is by voicing his trust and effusive expressions of respect. Thus, he is captured on video telling the media that Magashule is his “boss” and without Magashule he would be nothing, that he depended on him and similar sentiments that he surely cannot believe, and expect those who follow politics, to consider credible. 

Likewise, Bathabile Dlamini remains in the cabinet, now holding the women’s portfolio in the state presidency. There seems to be a strong case for legal action to be taken against her for various reasons relating to her previous role in government and she has already been found to be “untruthful” and liable for a costs order, relating to that period, concerning her responsibility for providing social grants.

Her appointment to the women’s portfolio has been referred to by many gender activists as insulting or as indicating the low regard that the ANC has for gender. Ramaphosa, instead of heeding this criticism or responding in a restrained way, took firm steps to publicly assure Dlamini that she has his confidence and said she is doing a “fantastic” job. This statement was met with incredulity by many people.

What of Ramaphosa’s relationship with Zuma? As the ANC January 8 anniversary and manifesto launch and various other public meetings in KZN drew near some were worried that Ramaphosa would be booed and that Zuma supporters would use these occasions to make their support for him and opposition to Ramaphosa known, as they have done on other occasions.

Ramaphosa supporters went into overdrive to prevent this and the way of neutralising the threat has been to accord great respect to Zuma and Ramaphosa himself was fulsome in his praise for Zuma and the support that he claimed he had received from the former president.

Magashule, in his capacity as Secretary-General of the ANC, made an appeal to KZN ANC supporters not to boo the president. There may have been various other measures, outside of the public eye and media coverage, taken to prevent disruption.

Is there not something about this that undermines Ramaphosa’s dignity, that one of those who has been identified as an “enemy” of his presidency, Magashule, is charged with ensuring that he is not booed? Nevertheless, on every occasion, it was quite clear that the crowd in KZN generally voiced approval of Zuma, and much less so, of Ramaphosa.

Mention was made of the establishment of a “Council of Elders”, comprising former presidents who would provide advice to Ramaphosa. The idea appears to smother Zuma with actions akin to adulation. In these situations, Ramaphosa tends to do more than is needed, in his expressions of warmth, cutting the birthday cake together with Zuma and generally making it hard from the visuals to distinguish who between Zuma and Ramaphosa is the sitting president, so close were they tied together over the week in KZN.

Ramaphosa clearly believes that flattery is the best way to neutralise opposition. On what evidence is this approach based? These are not people asking for praise. Zuma is, I imagine, indifferent to what Ramaphosa thinks of him. Those who are backing Zuma are also not waiting to hear Ramaphosa’s admiration of Zuma. They are looking for loot and for immunity from prosecution for the looting in which they have previously engaged.

Ramaphosa does not offer that, as far as we know. Or is ANC “unity” so important that this price may be paid (in one or other form), as I have suggested earlier? Also, if there are sound grounds for reducing the size of cabinet, and there were to be vacillation or a retreat on measures like these, in order to limit internal opposition, what does it mean in terms of leading the “clean up” of government?

What is the value of a Council of Elders? Again, it may be intended as an exaggerated statement of the value placed on Zuma’s counsel. If Ramaphosa needs advice from a former president what is to stop him from contacting that person as an individual and asking for counsel?

One can see that there are issues of foreign policy where any president could benefit from the views of Thabo Mbeki. If that is the case, there is no need to include others in the discussion, unless it concerns an area where any one of the others bears expertise.

In his capacity as ANC president, it may be that Ramaphosa wants advice regarding the establishment of the ANC political school. For that, it could be that he would benefit from the guidance of Kgalema Motlanthe, who was at one point set to head the school and is well versed in ANC history.

It is hard to know on what topic Ramaphosa could benefit from Zuma’s guidance. That is not to say he does not know ANC history, but the distinguishing characteristics of his presidency were looting and a range of other features that are now the subject of commissions and prosecutions.

The problem with the appeasing and crediting of Zuma with great wisdom from which Ramaphosa may hope to benefit is that it is well known that Zuma did not spend much of his time thinking of ways of improving the performance of government. He devoted most of his period as president to undermining the foundations of the constitutional order of the state. What value can he bring to a project that is avowedly aimed at restoring legality and regularity, described as a “new dawn”. Zuma is viewed as a disgraced figure by most South Africans. The very actions of Zuma are at the centre of what has to be displaced.

Ramaphosa’s approach may be conceived as a way of trying to neutralise those who could frustrate an election victory. But it is not only cynical but short-sighted, for the price of this “unity” could well be to undermine the basis on which many people inside and beyond the ANC have expressed goodwill towards his presidency. They have done this precisely in order to back the removal of all traces of the crime and grime that Zuma and his supporters represent.

This is a time where leadership faces a hard choice, a decision over what is most important, leading with integrity and in order to restore state integrity or acting primarily to ensure electoral victory. It is a classic case of state and party roles coming into conflict or being treated as one or blurred. In this case, it is not the party in general, but those who support or do not support a section of the party backing Cyril Ramaphosa. Nevertheless, it means that the interests of the country are held to ransom by what is needed for support of a particular individual’s incumbency.

But the support for Ramaphosa is not unconditional. Those who back him need to understand that he earned goodwill when elected State President, because of what he was expected to do. It is important to find a way of avoiding squandering or taking that support for granted. The South African electorate has been abused for too long and may not take kindly to any further battering. DM

Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a senior research associate at the Centre for Change and emeritus professor at UNISA. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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