#Beyond100 Days: Analysis

Cyril Ramaphosa: A determined president hampered by the quagmire of State Capture

By Ferial Haffajee 7 October 2019
Caption
President-elect Cyril Ramaphosa raises his hand to the oath during his inauguration ceremony at Loftus Versveld Stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, 25 May 2019. South African lawmakers elected Cyril Ramaphosa as president following the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party's win earlier this month in the country's general elections. EPA-EFE/YESHIEL PANCHIA / POOL

Taking the measure of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s first 100 days in office and beyond reveals a sea-change for which he gets no credit through the combined effects of a political fightback and an economy so bad it casts an overall pall.

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South Africa’s kleptocracy disorder has been replaced by a regime of reform. This is not to say that corruption has ended, but there is a discernible challenge to how the state was repurposed to condone and expedite capture.

Yet, in the popular narrative, it is as if no progress has been made. “Slow. Too slow.” That is the general perception of the administration, a perception that began with a bang of hope and has already fizzled into the standard cynicism with which the political class is regarded. Is this fair?

A look at what Ramaphosa promised in February in his State of the Nation Address, the interpretation of which got mangled in his one sentence on bullet trains and smart cities, shows good progress. (see graphic). There is a robust start on all the promises he made. Measured between his 2018 and 2019 State of the Nation Addresses, Daily Maverick reported that he made good on at least seven out of 10 pledges. By any standard, that’s decent.

Yet, Ramaphosa has failed to win the soft asset of confidence, either in the general community or the business community. Business confidence is down to its lowest measure in two decades, and the SA Reserve Bank Quarterly Bulletin reported the 70thmonth of a downward cycle. In their annual results releases, the leaders of SA’s biggest corporations have issued a similar chorus: the hope of reform after the disastrous era of former president Jacob Zuma has gone splat.

Justifiable expectation of faster reform’ – the Presidency

The Presidency accepts that the South African people, rightly so, have expectations of faster reform,” says Ramaphosa’s spokesperson Khusela Diko.

She adds: “The South African people are also right to demand accountability and consequences for those who have been involved in the malfeasance and corruption that has been widely reported over the last couple of years and months.”

The trouble is that there has been zero accountability. While there has been a festival of truth as Ramaphosa appointed four judicial commissions of inquiry into corruption and abuse of power, no linchpins have gone to jail. And while he has made a good start on reform initiatives, the needle has not moved on growth and employment. Instead, both measures to which Ramaphosa has nailed his flag are stubbornly resistant to his efforts. It must be frustrating.

Diko says Ramaphosa remains “determined” and that, “We have made significant progress in fulfilling key commitments including accelerating progress around the introduction of the universal health system, the release of the spectrum, review of our visa regime and creating policy certainty on, amongst others, the Mining Charter.” The graphic shows this is true: wherever Ramaphosa can make progress, he has. But the nature of reform means that it does not give rise to snappy headlines and while there are some quick wins, this second phase of reform is about a long grind.

The government was decimated in the decade of State Capture. The National Prosecuting Authority boss, Shamila Batohi, inherited a burning house and she has said on numerous occasions in public speeches that she did not anticipate how scorched the prosecuting authority had been in the Zuma era. Almost every government department where rent extraction is possible has been ruined at every level – including Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation; Mineral Resources and Energy; Public Enterprises; and the two departments of land (they have now been folded into one).

From the bottom up, these departments have been infiltrated by patronage networks. Ramaphosa is battling to get through the capture treacle. Land use and land allocation laws are difficult to change so it is likely there will only be clarity and progress on land policy by at best 2020. While Diko says there is policy certainty on the Mining Charter, it is in fact back in court, put there by a frustrating Minerals Council.

Visa-free access has been extended to at least four more countries, but the streamlined e-Visa regime is only in the pilot phase, which means it will be at least two years more for a general rollout. The government and state under the ANC have always been slow; and the decade of State Capture has compounded the snail’s pace at which it moves.

Mistaking process for action

The place where Ramaphosa gets lost in translation with civil society and business communities is in the difference between process and action. One example is spectrum allocation and the impact on data prices, which should come down. The policy to underpin the auction of the spectrum is years late. Ramaphosa promised swift action and in July the regulator, Icasa, published a policy paper. For the president and his team, that is something to be ticked as “done”. Yet, the release of the spectrum is still years off because the bureaucracy moves that slowly.

Two weeks ago, the Minister of Co-operative Government and Traditional Affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, launched a district-led development model called Khawuleza. This is trumpeted as a way to fix the many problems with local government, but it will take years to implement. Ditto the new emergency plan on gender-based violence.

Diko says, “Another significant [highlight] is the government’s response to matters relating to gender-based violence. Bold and decisive action has been laid out as part of the emergency plan tabled by the president at the joint sitting in Parliament.”

For government, a plan is action, but in practice it’s not, because the bureaucracy is slow and in many cases ruined by patronage and rent-seeking, so action takes a long time, to the frustration of civil society.

A dark September

Whereas September is meant to herald green shoots and hope, the start of Ramaphosa’s spring 2019 was horrible. In the same week that he was supposed to show off his reform initiatives to the rest of Africa at the World Economic Forum, SA erupted into the worst violence directed at foreigners since 2008.

In the aftermath of September’s violence, 10 people died (eight South Africans and two foreigners) and more than 600 people were arrested for public violence. Then, the #AmINext movement started in the same week as the murder of UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana ignited countrywide protests against gender violence including sexual harassment, rape and murder.

In his responses, Ramaphosa at first lacked the symbols or instincts to lead. He lacked the ability to empathise, either with targeted migrant communities (the government and the governing ANC first insisted that the violence was random and not aimed at foreigners) and with women-led protesters (police tear-gassed protesters in Cape Town, which turned the march from peaceful to militant).

Because Ramaphosa is regarded as a symbol of South Africa, all the focused anger turned on him, which raises the question of whether too much agency has been yielded to his presidency after the serial disappointments and betrayals of the Zuma years.

The corollary, of course, is that Ramaphosa is the only South African president who has convened a summit on gender-based violence and he has now twice appeared before marches of furious women who have turned their anger on him.

While it was the civil society that put the kibosh on the agents of State Capture and reversed the process, the nightmare of early September 2019 raises this question: Has too much agency been returned to the president as being responsible for where South Africa heads and how quickly it gets there? DM

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