Beyond Saints and Sinners: Ramaphosa’s South Africa (Part 1)
South Africa requires a radical, pragmatic political leader with an eye focused on the future and the ability to navigate our serpentine politics without being swallowed by it. Can Cyril Ramaphosa be such a leader?
Perry Anderson’s piece on Bolsonaro’s Brazil in the February edition of the London Review of Books should be requisite reading for all those interested in building a better world. It not only lays bare the Italianate character of Brazilian politics, but it also demonstrates the dangers of developing political strategies from the perspective of a world one wishes existed, rather than the one that really exists. It chronicles the rise and fall of the Workers’ Party in Brazil through a review of the political administrations and strategies of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff.
While it details the structural factors that underlay the success of Lula, it also argues that the latter’s brand of politics – a radical pragmatism – had as much to do with his navigation of the balance of power in the Brazilian political and social system, which created the space for both political stability and a socio-economic programme that halved poverty and uniquely addressed inequality.
The article leaves one unsettled – one has to admire the majesty in the defeat of Rousseff who refused to yield to unsavoury political forces, yet one pines for the political guile of Lula whose masterful engagement in the “greyness” of the political arena and the management of its stakeholders and powerbrokers, while not always entirely ethical, nevertheless produced the progressive outcomes that improved the lives of the poor.
I cannot help but think of this article whenever I think through the political challenges of contemporary South Africa. These countries have always been similar – the extreme inequalities, the globally connected economic elite, the complexity of race politics, and the magnificence of the grand social struggles.
But the similarity is increasingly in the serpentine character of our politics – the corruption, the loss of trust of communities, the factionalisation of the political system, and the political trade-offs that these necessitate. This context requires a South African Lula with an agenda of radical pragmatism. It requires a political leader with the guile to negotiate the factions in both the ruling party and within our political system, while still retaining the ability to mobilise societal stakeholders in a grand vision of social justice.
It requires a leader with an eye focused on the future, who recognises that our society cannot be sustainable with these levels of inequality but who also has the ability to navigate our serpentine politics without being swallowed by it.
Can Cyril Ramaphosa be such a leader?
He has demonstrated the guile to navigate South Africa’s venomous politics. He built ruling party alliances – some of them dubious – which won him the African National Congress’s (ANC) presidential elections, even if it was by a slender margin.
He did exit Jacob Zuma from the presidency with the blessing of the National Executive Committee (NEC), even when the latter still retained significant support within the party’s highest decision-making body outside of the conference.
Ramaphosa also began the long arduous task of cleaning up South Africa’s state-owned enterprises: heads have begun to roll, new boards and appointments are being made, and new business models are being introduced.
The same has happened in the National Prosecuting Agency (NPA), other security agencies, and the South African Revenue Services (SARS). None of this is, of course, happening at a pace that satisfies South Africa’s long-abused citizens but it is underway in a patient, methodically executed programme of action.
There have been some blunders along the way. Perhaps the most serious was the intervention on land. Ramaphosa’s ANC declared that the Constitution allows for expropriation, yet agreed to revise it to make more explicit the right to expropriate land without compensation.
It did add a whole range of riders including that expropriation must not compromise food security. But there is no doubt that the expropriation concession was forced onto the ANC by an unholy implicit alliance of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the Zuma faction which compromised Ramaphosa’s credibility, reintroduced policy uncertainty, and threatened his much-heralded programme to attract investment.
Land distribution, of course, has to be addressed. But this must be undertaken in a thoughtful way with an understanding of the trade-offs, both methodical and decisive. This was not how it was approached. Instead, Ramaphosa panicked at the EFF’s bluster on the land question and the Zuma faction’s cynical manipulation of the issue and essentially capitulated on the question. To be fair, as a result, he did remove it as an election issue but he also played the tune that they had choreographed, thereby compromising his own political agenda.
There were some other mistakes. Violence continues to dominate everyday South African life. Community and union struggles regularly turn violent. The EFF has repeatedly broken laws by trashing businesses on one or other pretext. Yet the police have not taken a firm stance in any of these cases.
The net effect is that some citizens daily feel violated by the incompetence of the police force and have to make their own arrangements to protect themselves. The symbolism of a Vodacom CEO meekly going to the EFF offices to make peace in an effort to get them to stop trashing his stores is devastating. It says to other businesses that we cannot trust Ramaphosa’s state to play the role it is meant to play. How then are you going to attract the much-needed investment if you cannot assure security in as mundane a matter as stores being thrashed?
Ramaphosa also came off as not being averse to using violence to advance his own electoral fortunes. In the build-up to the elections, there were service delivery protests in Alexandra targeted at the Mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba. There was no doubt that the ANC councillors were behind the protests. Ramaphosa went to Alexandra and mocked Mashaba’s refusal to come without even acknowledging the dubious role played by his own councillors. This cynical use of the mobilisation and violence for electoral gain is short-sighted. It allows violence to become entrenched as a political tool which ultimately will come back to haunt his own political and socio-economic ambitions.
Despite these lapses, Ramaphosa does seem committed to a South African renaissance. He is on record as wanting to reignite growth but he has also recognised that this growth will be unsustainable so long as it is not inclusive.
It is worth noting that there is still a strong nationalist tradition within the ANC. This tradition had always envisaged the South African transition as culminating in a successful modern and economically inclusive African democracy. Zuma’s South Africa was the direct opposite of this. In a sense, it represented the exact caricature of what the European right depicts as the African political condition: the corrupt incompetent president, bought by wily foreign businessmen to enable wide-scale rent-seeking and enrichment, whilst all the while the greater populace is confined to conditions of dire poverty and squalour.
Ramaphosa wants to reverse this situation if only because it affronts his political and nationalistic sensibilities. In this sense, he is South Africa’s best bet for the future, and may in the process even give the ANC one final shot at political redemption. But this is only possible if he can navigate the poisonous politics, keep important political stakeholders on side, facilitate economic growth while enabling socio-economic inclusion.
Ramaphosa needs to be guided by a radical pragmatism. This is of course on the assumption that he is put back into Mahlamba Ndlopfu and the chances are that he will be. After all, South Africans do not have great options in this election. The Democratic Alliance (DA) has really not risen to the challenge and will be a distant second which gives it little ability to influence policy and politics at a national level. The EFF is even further away from office, despite all its bluster and bravado. Even if it does slightly better than in previous elections, it will not be in any position to control the levers of power. Its only hope is that it has kingmaker status, but even this role is dependent on how the other two players – the ANC and DA – relate to it. If they hold to principle and do not consider it as a coalition partner given its predisposition to spectacle and instability, the EFF will have limited ability to influence state politics and policy.
Ramaphosa is a hard candidate to beat in this election, except that he is running against himself. If he does not realise the vision he has set himself, then he will not only betray the memory of his mentor, Nelson Mandela, but he will also forever damage the ANC’s prospects for retaining office.
To succeed, Ramaphosa needs to act quickly and decisively. It is said that Christine Lagarde, Director of the International Monetary Fund, warned Ramaphosa that he has about three months from the elections to demonstrate to the world that South Africa is on a new path, and only then will investment flow. But, as has been indicated earlier, Ramaphosa also knows that for this turnaround to be sustainable, this investment has to be directed to enable inclusive growth. DM
In Part 2, I present six key issues that Ramaphosa must tackle decisively once he is elected.
Adam Habib is a Professor of Political Sciences, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Witwatersrand and the author of Rebels & Rage.