South Africa

Writing the 2019 Elections

Cyril Ramaphosa and the Hammering Man on the Wall

President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing crowds in Alexandra Township PHOTO: MDUDUZI NDZINGI

Now is probably not the right time or place to say anything positive about President Cyril Ramaphosa. Nevertheless, over the better part of 35 years Ramaphosa has always held a deep belief that he has to do what is right for the country’s future. Over the past two years or so, he has also become acutely aware that he has to ‘correct’ the party he leads, and salvage what he can.

Several months ago, while driving past an informal settlement on the edge of the Stellenbosch business district, I saw a man standing on a brick wall of a dilapidated building that was being stripped for its bricks, door and window frames, and anything else that could be salvaged.

The man on the wall was swinging a long-handled hammer at the wall beneath his feet. It seemed self-defeating, I thought, not very smart, and quite possibly life-threatening, to stand on a structure while you’re breaking it up.

This is the image that comes to mind, the futility of the quest of a hammering man on a wall, when one considers the way that Cyril Ramaphosa, leader of the ruling party, is trying to sell the ANC to South Africans and the world — again.

While the analogy does not quite hold, perched at the top of the ANC while the party is losing its structural and moral integrity almost daily does seem somewhat futile — if self-defeating. At least for Ramaphosa, it does.

Painted into a corner, as Ramaphosa seems to be, and upon reflection, at least two things seem clear. One is that Ramaphosa is a very smart person — most people will agree on that. The other is that the ANC is more powerful than he can ever try to be. Now is probably not the right time to say anything unduly positive about Ramaphosa.

There have been several nasty comments hurled at people for suggesting that Ramaphosa might well be the best leader for the times we’re in. And anyway, it is always best to avoid hagiography.

What is clear to most people who have followed Ramaphosa’s career over the past 35-40 years is that he has a deep understanding that he has to do what is right for the country’s future. He also is aware that he has to “correct” the party he leads, and salvage what he can. But, he is like the Hammering Man on the Wall.

Making the right moves for the country

Ramaphosa is a strategic thinker. Over more than 40 years in politics, he has shown that he rarely makes decisions without knowing very clearly what it is that can be achieved, and how he and his detractors can get to “yes”.

This was proven during his time with the National Union of Mineworkers, and while he was deputy chairperson of the National Planning Commission. At this point, of course, the eternally irascible may insert any and all evidence, truth or lies, of wrong-doing on the part of Ramaphosa.

This takes nothing away from his proven negotiation and bargaining skills, and his leadership. It can be pointed out, of course, that he has been part of the ANC and the executive since 2014, which effectively draws him into the web of crimes and misdemeanours that fill newspaper columns almost daily. Herein lies the rub.

The ANC is more powerful than Ramaphosa; much more than his slender hold on the movement’s presidency, after Nasrec where he won the “poisoned chalice”, that the presidency of the movement would suggest. And so, if Ramaphosa goes down, on or shortly after the election on 8 May, it will be because he was outsmarted, out-schemed, out-plotted, and sacrificed on the altar of “tradition” and “history” and pretensions of “integrity” and “structures” — with the usual rhetoric of “the people” and democracy.

In many ways, then, the drama that is playing out before South Africa is not a straightforward election over who will lead the country beyond 8 May.

It is a battle between the ANC and Ramaphosa. And all things considered, a victory for Ramaphosa will be a win for South Africa. It would give greater impetus and significance to the processes he set in motion soon after he took over the presidency when Jacob Zuma resigned in February 2018.

The first of two stand-out moves Ramaphosa made — those hammer blows to the wall he is standing on — is the creation of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector including Organs of State, headed by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. The Zondo Commission, as it has become known, has heard evidence that is damning of the Zuma-led government.

The Zondo Commission hearings have thrown brighter lights on to State Capture and institutional capture across the political economy of South Africa. It has shown the deeply rooted and widely spun web of cronyism, patrimony and corruption, how these have hollowed out the state and how very many private sector agents have benefited from political relations with the ANC.

The one cry that has resonated across the country is the absence of prosecutions… Enter Shamila Batohi. The second of Ramaphosa’s moves was the appointment of Batohi as head of the National Prosecuting Authority, and the consequent assignment of top prosecutors to investigate criminal charges stemming from the Zondo Commission.

These are essentially legal processes that will continue to run their course, whatever the outcome of the election. They are, arguably, the best moves for the sake of the country, unless by some miracle the Economic Freedom Fighters win the election, and Julius Malema becomes president of South Africa. At that point the future becomes even more uncertain.

Is changing the ANC possible?

Leopards cannot change their spots and tigers cannot change their stripes, but science provides firm explanations of the genetics that cause these spots and stripes. By several accounts the rot that is apparent in the present day set in while the ANC was in exile.

This is surely a larger topic for another discussion. What we have come to know about the ANC in exile is a sanitised version that does more to satisfy the mythology of messianic comrades fighting evil forces.

Ramaphosa was never part of the exile movement, and there are very many people who would readily remind everyone about that. These are single-malt whispers that rarely get repeated in public.

Ramaphosa’s challenge, then, lies in cleaning up the ANC; getting rid miscreants who were once in exile, and the “internals”. A vote for the ANC is, for now, three weeks before the election, a vote, also, for the following people — a list truncated because of space constraints:

Jessie Duarte, the autocrat who would ration justice and supply it only to those who fought for it. Tony Yengeni, a convicted criminal who last week brought back the horrors of necklace deaths, which had distinct echoes of Winnie Mandela’s 1986 exhortation: “With our boxes of matches, and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country”.

This list includes Bathabile Dlamini, Nomvula Mokonyane, Malusi Gigaba, David Mabuza, Supra Mahumapelo and any number of others who have yet to answer fully for alleged roles in corruption, maladministration and dereliction of duties. If he makes it past the election, and becomes president of South Africa, Ramaphosa will, also, have to remove all the Zuma appointees to the Cabinet.

Ramaphosa will have to choose a new Cabinet at the start of the Sixth Administration any way, but holding on to Zuma’s appointments would be an endorsement of everything that came to pass over the past decade.

While we have to assume that there are some decent people in the current Cabinet, they would all need to be flushed out of the system, and fresh faces are required in what will be a slimmed-down executive. For the sake of continuity it is probably wise to retain one or two ministers who will continue the work they started, but at least 20 will not be missed.

Until then, like the Hammering Man on the Wall, Ramaphosa is hoping to salvage something from the ruins while keeping his foothold.

He expects, no doubt he wants, the electorate to vote for the ANC (again), and give him a chance to place the country on a path to political economic expansion, the creation and distribution of jobs, promoting greater social cohesion and trust among the population — and reach the goals identified in the National Development Plan.

The problem, of course, is if he hits too hard at the wall (the state-party) with his moral and legal hammer, it may crumble, and he would fall and probably destroy his political life.

At the minimum he would be injured severely, and be weakened as the president of South Africa.

Ramaphosa may be the best person to lead the country over the next decade, but he needs a solid wall beneath his feet. There is little evidence that he has — and that someone has his back. DM


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