South Africa


To be, or not to be, that is Ramaphosa question

President Cyril Ramaphosa.(Photo: EPA-EFE / Lintao Zhang / Pool)

If Cyril Ramaphosa was to fix SOEs, solve the Eskom crisis and create millions of jobs, he would go down in history as a great president. It would make his re-election as ANC leader easier in 2022. So why is he not doing it yet?

While our politics goes through its by now characteristic tumult, there are several questions about the power swirl within the ANC and in government, and in particular about President Cyril Ramaphosa.

One of the key questions is whether Ramaphosa is “doing enough” or being “too cautious” in his attempts to reform the state. Related to this is another question, about whether or not it is possible to “save” both the ANC and the country at the same time. This leads to a corollary, which is that it might not be possible for a person deployed to the Presidency by the ANC to “save” the country without the ANC.

The claim that “Cyril isn’t doing enough” is heard loudly and often these days. He came to office on a reformist ticket, he himself said he was going to change the state, and to make a break with what had happened in the past. It was for this reason that so many people caught a brief dose of “Ramaphoria” in early 2018.

From the start of his campaign, his main ticket also included a programme to reform the ANC. He himself has stated this many times.

Then, on Monday 12 August, while speaking about his new book, After Dawn, the former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas suggested on SAfm that Ramaphosa may have to choose between “saving” the ANC and “saving” the country.

The reason that so many people think this way is because Ramaphosa appears to be hamstrung. Voters are right to ask why, once he’s in office, a politician is not fulfilling election promises he made.

It is in Ramaphosa’s interests to fulfil those promises. If he were to fix SOEs, solve the Eskom crisis and create millions of jobs, he would go down in history as a great president. Certainly, meaningful progress towards those goals would make his re-election as ANC leader easier in 2022, and the party’s own success in 2024 almost assured.

So why is he not doing it? There can only be two possible reasons (unless something dramatic has happened to him).

The first is that he wants to fulfil his promises, but cannot.

The second would be that he wants to fulfil his promises, but believes it will be easier and involve a less political cost to him to do it later.

Both reasons revolve around the ANC’s internal power games, and the party’s possible reaction to major reforms, should they ever be implemented.

The current problems with the public protector surely have nothing to do with any of this. What happens regarding Ramaphosa’s ANC leadership campaign and whichever court cases he is involved in has nothing to do with the state decisions he makes. His lawyers being in court on any given day doesn’t prevent him from implementing a change to industrial policy.

Those with longish memories will point to former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma.

Both, at different times and for (remarkably) different reasons simply ignored their parties and did what they wanted to do. However, both had a relationship with their secretary-general that gave them this leeway (Mbeki with Kgalema Motlanthe and Zuma with Gwede Mantashe). The ANC was in a different place then, and it functioned as a much more united party.

Now, the ANC can sometimes resemble a series of disparate warring groups, whether it be through the statements issued by Secretary-General Ace Magashule, or by others on Twitter and through friendly and pliable media.

This makes it much more difficult for Ramaphosa to implement the reforms he promised. If he goes too far, there is bound to be a reaction. The question is, what form would that reaction take?

This would depend on the nature of reforms.

The two most important steps would be to fix the criminal justice system (symbolised by the convictions of those responsible for State Capture) and to restructure the economy. It is an indication of the magnitude of Ramaphosa’s problems that neither can be done quickly or, arguably, not at all.

In the mind of much of the public, the only test of whether Ramaphosa will ensure proper accountability for what happened during the Zuma era is for the National Prosecuting Authority to make arrests. The arrests may well include senior leaders in the ANC, including Magashule. Ramaphosa has no legal control over this, it is up to the Hawks and the NPA. Any action by them could cause a massively hostile reaction inside the ANC. Magashule and others would claim Ramaphosa was using the criminal justice system against them.

Testimony at the Zondo Commission from General Johan Booysen and comments by General Shadrack Sibiya to the SABC recently show that there are still people from the State Capture project in the police service. Some appear to be in high positions and to have operated with political protection for political ends.

Certain members of the ANC could use these police officers to make serious claims against Ramaphosa. Those claims would then have to be investigated.

This could lead to different arms of the criminal justice system fighting against each other (as happened when the leadership of the SA Police Service and the Independent Police Investigative Directorate spent much time clashing during 2017). The fallout from this could be devastating.

It’s difficult to see the ANC surviving that fallout.

The other major problem, fixing the economy, would perhaps be less damaging to the state, but no less damaging to the ANC. Much of the current economic stagnation stems from the party not recovering after Mbeki’s implementation of the 1996 Gear programme (those who supported Mbeki are still referred to as the “1996 Class Project” by the SACP).

It might have been Mbeki’s push toward that economic policy that makes it so hard to agree to an economic policy now. This is not necessarily the fault of individuals, but rather the fault of the ANC’s “broad church” structure.

So then, what are the limits to Ramaphosa’s possible actions, and how long will this situation last?

It still seems difficult – almost impossible – for any faction in the party to remove him from power, if only because there is no obvious successor. That undoubtedly gives him some measure of power. But exactly how much power depends on whether he is prepared to risk causing damage to the ANC itself. If he is prepared to take the risk, he could go far in implementing reforms. But it’s a risk he may not want to take.

Ramaphosa is confronted with governing a nation made up of different groups, speaking different languages, with different lived experiences in the world’s most economically unequal – and racialised – country. To govern South Africa in the longer term, it would be much easier to use a movement that includes elements of this diversity, rather than to allow that political body to break up into groups representing narrower constituencies. Bluntly, it might be easier for him to govern through the ANC in the long term than any other way, if the ANC can be properly rebuilt.

That’s a big “if”.

Ramaphosa’s other big concern is that he may believe he is unable to institute his reforms without the ANC. His consensus-seeking nature, his history in the movement and his understanding of South African society (through his time at the NUM, in business, and in government) may give him the view that the ANC, imperfect as it is, is vital to his plans.

There are many in other parties and who did not vote in May who would disagree.

He may soon find that time is running out. The indications are that people are running out of patience. Those who supported Ramaphosa may soon feel too frustrated to back him any more. Already there are signs that organised business may be about to publicly criticise him. Cosatu could be next. This would weaken Ramaphosa, and losing the political capital would damage his ability to lead effectively. That would not be good news for South Africa’s chances of recovering from the slump. DM


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