South Africa

ANALYSIS

The Long and Winding Road: Cyril Ramaphosa

Illustrative image. Photo:Pawel Czerwinski/Unsplash / South African President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks during the official inauguration ceremony at Loftus Versveld Stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, 25 May 2019.. EPA-EFE/STR

Hope is a scarce commodity in South Africa right now and if there’s to be the hope of a united country, a strong personality at the centre is critical. This person, currently President Cyril Ramaphosa, must be seen as the central figure of political authority. His bearing, behaviour and actions will be crucial to restoring the legitimacy not only of the ANC leadership of the country, but of the South African Presidency itself.

The announcement of president Cyril Ramaphosa’s Cabinet was met with a response best described as “mixed”. Many were disheartened by concerns that so many of the old guard that participated in the Jacob Zuma administration had remained, and about where the new ideas to create jobs and grow the economy will come from.

Others suggested that, in fact, Ramaphosa had been able to get rid of most ministers associated with the worst of the Zuma era, making him more powerful than he was before. It is now becoming clear that, to be successful, Ramaphosa will have to create an enabling environment for jobs and ensure he has proper control of the situation in the ANC.

But first, the hope must return to the daily lives of the millions. This is likely to be a difficult path.

It is a fact that South Africans’ spirits were damaged in the past 15 years of the ANC’s internecine squabbles and economic under-delivery. Hope is the one element which can convince people to put up with their terrible conditions today in the belief that the tomorrow will be better. And yet this hope has all but disappeared, only to be replaced by despair and/or cynicism.

In some ways, Ramaphosa’s first job is to work, and work hard, on restoring that hope. If he is unable to do this, there will be no breathing or manoeuvring space to change economic policy to create a positive environment for the private sector to create jobs.

Along with this is the problem of a much bigger political dynamic that has played out over the years.

It seems that the national centre of our politics has become weaker. The evidence for this may be in the way that some regional, traditional and religious leaders appear to have grown stronger. There are many reasons for this, some to do with the rise of provincial leaders as strongmen in the ANC; others have to do with Zuma’s natural instinct to turn to traditional leaders for quick and easily acquired political support.

For South Africa to have hope as a unified country, a strong personality at the centre is critical. Ramaphosa’s bearing, behaviour and actions will be crucial to restoring the legitimacy not only of the ANC leadership of the country, but of the South African Presidency itself.

All of this is important for his most pressingly urgent job, the creation of jobs.

Ramaphosa himself has made this the centre of his presidency — he said at his inauguration that he wanted to eradicate poverty within a generation. While this “project restore hope” sounds great, at some point he must make this happen.

This seems more difficult after the announcement of his Cabinet and the apparent ideological dissonance within the economic cluster. As has been stated before, it is hard to see how Tito Mboweni at Finance, Thulas Nxesi at Labour and Employment and Ebrahim Patel at Trade and Industry can agree on an economic policy. Or anything else.

It is most likely that Ramaphosa will have to direct economic policy himself. This has happened with other presidents in the past. Thabo Mbeki was his own point man on economic policy; even Jacob Zuma was able to make economic decisions that seemed to go against the ideological positions of his own ministers.

In Ramaphosa’s case, the real problem and the obstacle for all his plans is the ANC itself. The various factions, in order to weaken him politically, could well try to prevent him from changing economic policy. Still, they would not be able to deny that the need for jobs is pressing — they themselves put the issue right at the top of the ANC’s manifesto. They are also likely to face the argument that policies that have been tried previously have simply not worked, and thus something new must be implemented.

In the meantime, the main dynamic in the ANC which could be the biggest restraint on Ramaphosa still appears to be its secretary-general, Ace Magashule — what he stands for and what he represents.

Ramaphosa may not be able to do much about him for the moment (apart from creating situations, perhaps, in which the ANC’s National Executive Committee acts to rebuke its own secretary-general), but the chain of events that may soon change the playing field appears already to be set.

It is becoming clearer that the National Prosecuting Authority’s top leadership is determined to deal with the corruption cases stemming from the Zondo commission of inquiry into State Capture. The evidence contained in Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s book about Magashule must be attracting their interest as well. Legally speaking, it would seem only a matter of time before some decisions will have to be made.

However, Ramaphosa cannot pull those levers himself. He has to wait for the NPA to make its own decisions in its own time. This may be frustrating for him, but if the trust in organs of the state is to be rebuilt, there is preciously little Ramaphosa can do to speed it up.

But the processes that are in train, particularly around the Zondo Commission, will continue, and generally to the president’s benefit, as the evidence is likely to continue to mount against people close to Zuma.

All of this should mean that with every day, Ramaphosa’s power will consolidate more. And if Magashule is somehow removed from the power equation, the entire playing field could change, and quickly so.

In the meantime, Ramaphosa also has to hope and pray that none of his recent appointments — and certainly none of the people close to him — are involved in any corruption scandals. He is in a position now where any scandals against anyone that he is unable to act against could increase the cynicism and reduce the chances of hope gaining more ground.

To add to Ramaphosa’s problems are the situations facing state-owned entities in general, and Eskom in particular.

It is obvious to everyone that Eskom needs to be properly reformed, restructured — and workers need to be retrenched. This issue appears to have fallen below the radar in recent weeks. It may be that something is happening beneath the surface and that changes are underway. However, Eskom still needs a new CEO and a new Chief Restructuring Officer. These choices are crucial. If Eskom fails, Ramaphosa’s entire project fails. (South Africa, too — Ed)

To make matters worse, other SOEs are in similar positions; many of them need restructuring. This is always politically difficult. But there is no choice — they have simply run out of road.

In some ways, this will be the hardest task. If he succeeds here, if SOEs are reformed, they will act as stronger levers on the direction of economic growth. But it is also where some of the internal politics are at their most difficult, with constituencies pulling in very different directions. It is also unlikely that those opposed to the person at the centre of all of this, Pravin Gordhan, will stop attacking him.

At some point, Ramaphosa is likely to have to confront the vested interests in these SOEs and literally face them down. That could well be the climax of his entire presidency, a battle with no prisoners taken.

Ramaphosa has suggested through his own public comments that he is determined to change South Africa and to start fixing our myriad problems. He will know that there are people who are also determined to stop him, and that this will be a process.

His own preamble to his Cabinet announcement last week, that this was (still) a work in progress, suggests he knows how much more work there is to be done. In the end, whether he succeeds or fails may depend on how many people he is able to bring along with him and whether he does get significant backing in the ANC.

In the shorter term, the real issue is still, at this stage, the internal situation within the ANC, symbolised by his relationship with Magashule. That might well define the direction the country will take: A country on its way back to hope, or just another neo-colonial basket case. DM

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