South Africa


Cyril Ramaphosa’s choices, constraints and the question of trust

Cyril Ramaphosa’s choices, constraints and the question of trust
Professor Raymond Suttner. (Photo: Madelene Cronjé / New Frame)

We repeatedly see the ANC speaking with voices contradicting one another, most notably in utterances of President Cyril Ramaphosa, compared with those of ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule. Diversity can be healthy, where it does not mean divisiveness. Likewise, the President needs to be unambiguous on important issues and not leave other leaders vulnerable, as is happening with Minister Lindiwe Sisulu over the severing of diplomatic relations with Israel.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

For some time, it has been clear that the ANC operates with at least two contesting centres of power. On the one hand, there is that centred around ANC and State President, Cyril Ramaphosa, and on the other concentrated around ANC Secretary General (SG) Ace Magashule.

Ramaphosa relies on a base among a narrow majority of the ANC leadership but also on his position as head of state. It may be that his period in these presidencies has increased his support, but it is also possible that it has decreased. There is considerable instability in the ANC, as loyalties shift with changes in fortune of one or other player in relation to factors, that often have little bearing on political questions of concern to the electorate.

Ramaphosa also relies on forces outside of the ANC. Some, like business and certain professional organisations, see him producing stability after a period of turmoil under former President Jacob Zuma. They have definite expectations of Ramaphosa in terms of policy development and the cleaning up of the state. These expectations, or the confidence they have in him, derives partly from his having been in business. But his business supporters and what is referred to as “market sentiment” are not always attuned to the organisational challenges that Ramaphosa faces and may not be fully aware of the odds facing his presidencies.

Insofar as Ramaphosa relies on some powerful allies to clean up the state, he has been able to remove some of his enemies who have engaged in state capture and other forms of irregularity. This has happened in some of the state-owned enterprises, SARS and the NPA, with the installation of people who carry out their duties with integrity.

The problem is that some of those who have already fallen under suspicion are also allies of Ramaphosa. Close allies like ANC Chair and Minister Gwede Mantashe and some individuals who were playing a prominent role in ANC parliamentary politics, and allied to Ramaphosa, like Vincent Smith, have allegedly received bribes and we do not know who else may fall under scrutiny if the clean-up takes its course.

Ramaphosa’s base within the ANC has never been more than a slim majority, and that majority is unstable. Some may well have sensed that they will fall under scrutiny and are readying themselves to change or have switched sides.

In this situation, one needs consistent and dependable leadership. One of the perils that his strongest allies encounter is that they face fierce attacks. Minister of Public Enterprises, Pravin Gordhan experienced racist and defamatory confrontations over the “clean up” from the EFF outside the State Capture Commission. The ANC and Ramaphosa himself did not rush to his defence, taking almost a week before he and Jackson Mthembu defended him.

All told, the Ramaphosa camp is comprised of people who served under Jacob Zuma. Though some did their best to perform their work with integrity, others only gradually fell out with Zuma as the tide was turning. So, there is a mixture of conviction and convenience in those that back Ramaphosa. Some hope that Ramaphosa will steer the state with integrity. Others wish to see stability and believe that Ramaphosa is likely to achieve that. Still, others, see Ramaphosa as the winning side, at this point in time. Should he continue to be winning they will remain behind him. But if he looks likely to fall, or if his clean up should turn in their direction, they may well turn against him. That is why there has been speculation over sections of the ANC, especially those who supported Zuma, linking up with the EFF whose top leadership have also been implicated in alleged corruption.

Ace Magashule and the need to fight for control

Although Jacob Zuma is no longer president, he is very much present in ANC politics, attending numerous meetings of the National Executive Committee and other bodies. But he also lives on through the physical presence of allies in key positions.

There is an alternative power bloc to that of Ramaphosa that has consolidated itself ever since the election of ANC office-bearers, under the leadership of SG Ace Magashule. Magashule appears likely at one or other point to face a range of serious charges. (See Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s, Gangster State.) He built up a fiefdom in the Free State over decades and has acted with a degree of impunity which he may, mistakenly, believe can be replicated at a national level.

However, the law may take long to take its course and, in the meantime, Magashule has hardly disguised his opposition to the Ramaphosa Presidency. In this, he has been aided by having almost unfettered control of the ANC HQ. It does not appear that Ramaphosa has made serious efforts to impose his authority, as ANC president, over ANC HQ and the decisions emanating from the office of the ANC SG.

Even when under president Thabo Mbeki there was not this level of contestation the president paid close attention to what happened in the ANC HQ. As I recall it, Mbeki, and other office-bearers would set aside every Monday to be in Luthuli House. There is good reason to follow a similar practice in the context of a hostile SG. But Ramaphosa has apparently decided to avoid a serious battle, while those on the other side are engaged in undermining him, from within HQ or, using the office of the SG, outside in the provinces.

It is reported in the Sunday Times that Deputy President David Mabuza is uncomfortable with being in the Union Buildings and he may be deployed to head the ANC HQ. This may be true or a false rumour. There are a range of allegations surrounding Mabuza, and he has been fingered by the ANC integrity commission, as one of those who ought not to be in the National Assembly.

But for purpose of the present discussion, irrespective of Mabuza’s integrity or lack of integrity, would Ramaphosa not be compounding his problems to have Mabuza in ANCHQ? Would he not be creating the space for Mabuza to repair whatever discord there may be between him and Magashule, and possibly rekindle the Premier League, (minus former North West leader, Supra Mahumapelo)? There were never reports of a falling out between Mabuza and others in the Premier League. What set them on different paths was Mabuza unilaterally taking steps to advance his own career in the ANC, by supporting the presidency of Ramaphosa. This paid off with Mabuza becoming ANC and state deputy president. Indeed, he received more votes than any other national office bearer in the ANC elections. If whatever disagreement there may be between Magashule and Mabuza is repaired, what does this mean for Ramaphosa’s support in the ANC?

Even if Mabuza being located is considered of crucial importance, there are other issues that arise, notably the vacancies in ANC HQ (with the election of Senzo Mchunu and Zizi Kodwa to Parliament). By whom will these be filled and who decides? Will it be with people who can counter the current trend, propelled by Magashule? If that is the case, how can Ramaphosa enforce that, over the head of Magashule?

But over what is there contestation? The question of vision

One of the problems with these power battles is that they are not ideological, and are not over visions for the ANC and the future of the country. One grouping wishes to have positions to use for patronage and corrupt purposes. The other, led by Ramaphosa, though it has its own networks, has staked its reputation on achieving integrity in government and the ANC.

Clean government is very important, indeed crucial for the country, but it is not a vision. The problem with a lack of vision is that the ANC has been entrusted with a mandate to govern for five years, meaning that the public has put their trust in the organisation, as the leading force in government. Against what idea of freedom and the future is this to be measured?

Ambiguity erodes trust: The question of Israel

Ambiguity over vision feeds into a sense of distrust. When it remains unclear what Ramaphosa and the ANC more generally believe in and when there is ambiguity over vision this feeds into a sense of distrust.

This last week has seen another policy ambiguity unfolding at the level of the President. Minister of International Relations Lindiwe Sisulu, following ANC conference resolutions, has taken steps towards ending diplomatic relations with Israel. The first has been the withdrawal of the South African ambassador from Israel.

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), through its Vice President Zev Krengel, claiming to speak on behalf of all South African Jews (not just Zionists), called Sisulu “the single biggest enemy of South African Jewry”. The South African Jewish Report posted a photograph of leading SAJBD members together with Ramaphosa and stressed the measured way he spoke of the process of dealing with SA/Israeli relations, in contrast to Sisulu’s “obsession”. The objective was clearly to drive a wedge between Sisulu and Ramaphosa.

The report then enthuses about their interactions with Ramaphosa and other government figures:

His [Krengel’s} remark comes in the wake of the rainbow-nation-like post-election celebrations held last Saturday night at the IEC.

Krengel and SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn rubbed shoulders with the likes of President Cyril Ramaphosa and other political elites in a spirit of unity and camaraderie.

There was a palpable optimism in the hall,” said Krengel. “One could sense the new-found commitment from those present to rebuild the country under the leadership of the President.”

This, they say, contrasted sharply with the sentiments expressed by (Jewish) communal leaders just weeks before the election, when Sisulu “dropped a bombshell on the local community by declaring that all relations with Israel were being severed”.

Krengel criticised Sisulu for trying to garner votes prior to the election.

There was a sense of relief this week, however”, the report continues, “as jovial photographs emerged of communal leaders fraternising with Ramaphosa and other African National Congress [ANC] stalwarts including ANC Secretary General [sic] Gwede Mantashe and Nkosazana-Dlamini Zuma following the country’s tightly contested sixth national and provincial elections last week”.

Krengel remarks, “On Saturday night, and throughout the election process, we felt warm encouragement for the inclusion of our community.”

This is the standard Zionist discourse which equates actions against Israeli aggression, with actions against all Jews, in this case South African Jews.

A day later the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel In South Africa (BDS South Africa) campaign issued its regular email newsletter, speaking of Cyril Ramaphosa as having “long been a friend to us at BDS SA and a firm supporter of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli Apartheid”.

They, like SAJBD, also had a photograph of Ramaphosa “engaging with BDS activists and “purchasing BDS material (including one of our BDS “boycott Israel” tote bags)”. They quote Ramaphosa as having said: “As long as that struggle persists we will be on the side of the Palestinians…we will always be on the right side because we know what is happening there, it’s gross apartheid taking place there and we cannot countenance a situation which is a duplicate or replica of what we went through, that we are not going to apologise for.” (See also video posted on BDS newsletter.)

Ramaphosa cannot bear responsibility for everything that others attribute to him, but in the light of both the SAJBD and BDS South Africa claiming his support for Israel and Palestinian causes respectively, it is important that he makes his position clear. The ambiguity that surrounds Ramaphosa’s fraternising with both sides with such warmth, has also left Minister of International Relations Lindiwe Sisulu vulnerable to attack. In fact, some commentary has suggested that this controversy could cost her the job of Minister of International Relations.

Ramaphosa needs to choose sides clearly on this and other issues and abide by policy decisions. He need not do so in an aggressive manner, but he cannot act as if he repudiates his own statements siding with the Palestinians. That is the position his organisation and government has taken and that is the view of the majority of the international community. Failure to stand consistently with this position will erode whatever remains of the trust he has earned in being elected. 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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