President Cyril Ramaphosa jetted back into Pretoria at the weekend from the G20, the world’s power gathering, returning to a country where his own authority is at a low ebb. The G20 trip, on a personal jet with a large delegation including a personal social media maven and a separate delegation of Cabinet ministers, suggests an apogee of power.
Ramaphosa is well-liked on the global stage where he is most at home, and he is regarded as a reformer who is making good after the disastrous term of former President Jacob Zuma. Back home, it’s a different story. Ramaphoria, the term coined to describe the euphoria which greeted his appointment as ANC president in December 2017 and then country president in February 2019, is dead in the water.
Peter Bruce, the columnist most supportive of Ramaphosa’s tenure, panned his State of the Nation speech in June, as did News24, another supportive title whose columnists said the speech was uninspiring and that the President looked exhausted. While’s Ramaphosa’s ringing call of Send Me or Thuma Mina (based on a song by Hugh Masekela) was widely inspirational after his first State of the Nation speech in February 2018, his national address which pained a dreamscape of bullet trains and a smart city failed dismally and has been widely lampooned by the country’s cartoonists. The reception of the speech reflected a general mood.
Ramaphosa’s presidency has rapidly lost ground and momentum. While his first address saw national and business confidence grow, the country’s mood is back to blue while City Press on Sunday 30 June reported that the state is out of cash – it’s in the red. What has happened?
Poetry and promise; over progress and implementation; out-Aced on four occasions
Despite promises of being a presidency of implementation and progress, it has got stuck in poetry and promise, of which the dreamscape was an example. Meanwhile, there has been little progress even after 18 months on key measures like the reform of Eskom, prosecutions for State Capture and on a sluggish economy.
An economic stimulus plan launched with fanfare in October 2018 has come to nought as unemployment remains stubbornly high, and when the second quarter GDP figures are calculated to the end of June, South Africa’s economy could well show itself to be in recession. Consumer stress is clear: Business Times reported on Sunday 30 June that those with credit cards are riding them hard, funding basic expenses on credit. Instead of a bullet train, the image of the President stuck on a metro train for over two hours on the ANC campaign trail is a more apt symbol of the state of public services.
Ramaphosa is losing an ANC factional war to the party’s Secretary-General, Ace Magashule. On four occasions, Magashule has grasped the upper hand, seeding a narrative that he is running the country. The four occasions on which Ramaphosa has been aced include: he has lost out on his determination for a muscular ANC Integrity Commission; he did not manage to put in place the smaller and technocratic Cabinet he wanted and is left with a mediocre and factional executive; Parliament is at risk of becoming a war zone for him as Magashule has installed a set of politicians aligned with the State Capture narrative into crucial positions as chairpersons of significant parliamentary committees; the secretary-general’s sortie on the SA Reserve Bank has cost Ramaphosa dearly in investor and business confidence.
Now, the Public Protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, is on the offensive against Ramaphosa too. On Thursday, he submitted a detailed set of responses to her draft report on how he communicated to Parliament on a R500,000 donation from Bosasa boss Gavin Watson to his campaign; by Monday, she was back on a different warpath. Business Day reported on Monday 1 July that Mkhwebane has written to Ramaphosa insisting that he undertake appropriate remedial action against Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan for her finding that his decision to pay a pension to former deputy SARS commissioner Ivan Pillay was wrong.
Her finding is under review by Gordhan in the High Court, but Mkhwebane is using it as a stick to beat Ramaphosa again and to keep up her pressure on him. For her part, Mkhwebane believes that Pillay’s pension was illegal as he started work as a consultant in almost exactly the same role immediately and this crowded out opportunities for other incumbents.
Capable state versus the patronage state
Ramaphosa was always going to have a tough time. He won the race for the ANC Presidency by a sliver of only 179 votes. Now that slender win and his penchant for the long game (taking his time; building consensus and avoiding conflict) means the scales are tilting towards the State Capture faction, which is playing tough tackle. South Africa is again tenuously balanced between the imperative to become a capable state versus the needs of the patronage state to keep systems malleable and institutions weak; between the cult of the amateur versus the culture of technocratic excellence and independence in political and bureaucratic appointments; and, finally, between a growth-focused economy versus an economy characterised by radical and populist posturing which is a veneer for continued looting.
Ramaphosa has been shown to be unable to tip the country in the direction of reform as his long game has lost out to the much more aggressive strategies of what is now the Magashule faction (and no longer the Zuma faction). The cartography and contours of the fightback he is facing are becoming clearer: it is across factions within the ANC; across institutions (the Public Protector; the Reserve Bank) and across parties (the EFF and the State Capture wing of the ANC often speak in the same meter).
The NPA, under national director of public prosecutions Shamila Batohi, cannot be of any immediate help. Speaking at Daily Maverick’s Business Against Corruption initiative last week, Batohi said she has inherited a house on fire. She said that while she heard the clamour for State Capture-related prosecutions, her team would not be hurried into ill-fated and badly executed prosecutions. Without visible justice for all the malfeasance that has exploded publicly through the four judicial commissions of inquiry Ramaphosa set in motion, the national mood has turned damp and the President’s call to dream fell completely flat. Ramaphoria is dead. But what will live?
One term or two terms
If Ramaphosa’s presidency continues to lose ground as quickly as it is doing, the spectre of a single-term presidency will be raised. For his reformist path to succeed, it has to bear fruit quickly and hold momentum and imagination. Ramaphosa has aligned himself with economic modernisers and political reformers on the continent: Ghana’s Nana Akofu-Addo was one of the first leaders to pay a state visit to South Africa under Ramaphosa’s caretaker term as President; he and Finance Minister Tito Mboweni are open admirers of Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s aggressive African glasnost.
While Zuma was aligned with the new strong men of the globe like Russian President Vladimir Putin or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ramaphosa’s political mission can be loosely compared with that of France’s Emmanuel Macron or even Chinese premier Xi Jinping with whom he has a close rapport.
If the South African leader’s imperative to reform and modernise after a decade of kleptocracy is to succeed, then Ramaphoria is no longer a sufficient cover for his efforts, as he found out with the ill-fated idea of a dream of bullet trains and a smart city. DM