South Africa

2019 Elections

In the Free State, Ramaphosa steps over the Ace-sized elephant in the room and soft-pedals on corruption

In the Free State, Ramaphosa steps over the Ace-sized elephant in the room and soft-pedals on corruption
President Cyril Ramaphosa on the campaign trail in Mangaung, Free State, 7 April 2019. Photo: @MyANC/Twitter

The ANC will easily win the Free State, according to most polls. But Cyril Ramaphosa’s careful politics while on the stump there reveals the tensions his reform initiative faces: his campaign against corruption is popular outside the party but career-limiting inside it.

A black sniffer dog jumps down from a Presidential Protection Vehicle and romps about as President Cyril Ramaphosa toured the Free State at the weekend as part of the final push ahead of the national election on 8 May.

His cavalcade was waiting to pick up its cargo on Sunday morning and the dog was a new addition to the ring of steel in which Ramaphosa is transported. Four days earlier, when he addressed a Sandton crowd in Johannesburg, the President had let slip he was uncomfortable in the 11-car long cavalcade the cops insist he travels in.

They think someone wants to kill me,” said Ramaphosa.

On Sunday morning in Bloemfontein, it seemed as if every traffic cop in the city had also been put on presidential duty. At the parking lot where the dog played, there were at least eight traffic cops parked and more kept arriving to join them. Cops lined the entire route Ramaphosa would drive. The Free State, as Pieter-Louis Myburgh has depicted in his best-selling Gangster State, is a bit of a tin-pot banana republic, so the cops may be part of the power play, but it may also have been a real fear.

The province is a cesspool of political intrigue and in-fighting; hits are real and a bloody part of its recent history. So is corruption. At the entrance of the city, the Freedom Front Plus has its biggest billboard I’ve seen. “Slaan Terug” – “Fight Back” – it screams. The city has that air of carelessness that has come to define ANC metropolitan administrations.

Residents point to certain houses and a playground as well as electricity poles as evidence of good service delivery by the ANC. Photo: Ferial Haffajee

As you get into the townships, it’s worse. The main roads are tarred, but once you are a street in, it’s rutted hell. Gangster State sheds light on why this is. While provinces get about 40% of national budget transfers, in the Free State, huge chunks were diverted to tender networks aligned to former premier Ace Magashule, who is now ANC secretary-general, its fourth most senior position.

You can see the outcome in the province. By the standards of development, it should have been far ahead of where it is. The book has caused a frisson among the political class there and nationally. It landed with a clatter as it stacked up evidence of Magashule’s personal aggrandisement. In the Free State, people either claimed they had not read it or that they had scanned the index pages to see if they were in it.

But on his weekend in the Free State, Ramaphosa stepped over the Ace-sized elephant in the room. He did not once reference the serious allegations of corruption facing the province, even though the ANC president has campaigned for all of 2019 on an anti-corruption ticket.

A few days before, Ramaphosa had devoted a significant part of his speaking time in Sandton to the fight against corruption.

If there must be jail time, there must be jail time,” Ramaphosa said. “We are irrevocably committed to fighting corruption.”

In this Ground Zero of provincial corruption, Ramaphosa said only this:

They (the people he had spoken to in a series of engagements) are ordinary South Africans. They are not politicians. They want corruption in government structures to be brought to an end.”

His critique of what had happened in the Free State was veiled. People had told him: “(We) want better service delivery where we live. (We) want water where we live. Better roads. Electricity. We want houses.”

In Gangster State Myburgh outlines how budgets for all these basics of a decent life have been squandered and stolen. His research is based on public and state documents. But Ramaphosa did not reference the key cause of the basic needs trotted out to him on his journey through multiple stops in QwaQwa and Mangaung – corruption, tender-rigging and crony politics.

President Cyril Ramaphosa visits a family in Mangaung, Free State on a campaign trail, 7 April 2019. Photo: @MyANC/Twitter

Back in Johannesburg in the week before, Magashule had suffered a series of blows from the party’s top structure, its national executive committee, which met last Monday and Tuesday to debate the impact on the election of its corruption-addled electoral lists.

The party had decided that Magashule should fight his battle with the book on his own after his apparatchiks had used the party’s powerful media megaphone to attack it last weekend.

Then he was excluded from Ramaphosa’s Free State visit to electioneer in a different province, and the lists were referred to the Integrity Commission. Magashule had defended the lists and the candidates on them as being final.

In Bloemfontein on Saturday night, Ramaphosa got his comeuppance. Billed to address a gala dinner, he arrived on time, as he does, just before 7pm. The venue was almost empty, except for a few business people who had reportedly forked out hundreds of thousands of rand for a table.

While loyalists said that earlier election stops in Qwa-Qwa (which is 300 kilometres away) had delayed party leaders, a few others said Ramaphosa was being snubbed by “Ace’s people”. Ramaphosa is a popular president; you generally only find standing room at events he is billed to speak at, so this was unusual.

The poorly attended gala dinner. Photo: Ferial Haffajee

By 9.15pm, the venue had filled up as organisers rushed anyone they could find to a table. As Ramaphosa walked in, the applause was muted; the mood tense. The Free State deputy chairperson, William Bulwane, got up to welcome guests.

I don’t know why we’re here,” he said, to further deflate the gala. By the time Ramaphosa spoke at about 10pm, the message was clear and so he chose not to address the elephant in the room.

The ANC will easily win the Free State, according to most polls. But Ramaphosa’s careful politics reveals the tensions his reform initiative faces: his campaign against corruption is popular outside the party but career-limiting inside it. DM


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