South Africa


When politics meets pandemic

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa reacts as the Economic Freedom Fighters disrupt parliament during the State of the Nation Address in Parliament in Cape Town on Thursday 13 February 2020. The annual presidential address comes in the midst of a harsh economic environment, service delivery failures, incapacitated SOEs, rampant crime and high unemployment. (Photo: Daily Maverick/Leila Dougan)

The enemies of Cyril Ramaphosa – both inside and outside the ANC – may see the Covid-19 outbreak and its consequences as a chance to attack the president, but at the moment he’s in a commanding position.

As the coronavirus enfeebles the nation’s waning pulse, the economic quandary facing South Africa is becoming an existential issue. Some would suggest this might be just the right crisis to enable President Cyril Ramaphosa to implement a long-sought reform. However, he still faces stiff resistance.

Some of this resistance is for ideological reasons, but some of it stems from simple opposition to Ramaphosa himself, by people who either want power for themselves or who would prefer to continue enjoying their own personal freedom in the future.

There can be no doubting that those who oppose Ramaphosa have not gone away, despite what appears to be a strong national effort during the coronavirus crisis. Nothing has happened that changes the agenda or the interests of ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule and his allies. 

The likes of Tony Yengeni (who is still the chair of the ANC’s Crime and Justice Sub-committee) and Andile Lungisa in Nelson Mandela Bay have taken to the depths of retweeting claims that Microsoft founder Bill Gates wanted to test a vaccine on people in Africa. Claims that are untrue, have been debunked and were based on a News24 story that has since been retracted. There is a precedent here: there are still many political players who argue that action should be taken against Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan based on Sunday Times stories which have also been retracted.

Pathetic as it is, the aim of this agenda is to weaken official sources of information while also dividing on the basis of race. It’s about trying to convince people that Gates and his ilk do not believe people in Africa are equal to white people. And, like the motivation behind the anti-vaccination movement, it is also aimed at weakening central authority and thus strengthening the interests of their own factions. 

Magashule, meanwhile, has given the appearance of retreating into lockdown. As he is not an MP or a Cabinet minister, or a provincial official in a provincial government, he too is not allowed to move around unless he is buying food (but he cannot have anyone around for lunch). Which means he is publicly limited to videos posted on social media. He is in a similar position to the EFF leader, Julius Malema. Both are unable to strongly assert themselves during this time, or make any contribution that is not supporting the main national effort, which is personified by Ramaphosa and Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize.

But Ramaphosa’s enemies are nevertheless active. Last week a short video emerged of him saying that while he had announced that the lockdown would end on 16 April he hadn’t specified which year, in what was clearly intended to be a moment of levity. Ramaphosa was speaking at a Cabinet video conference, and the video was recorded on someone’s cellphone. 

Who could be part of a video conference involving Ramaphosa, recording it on a cellphone and then feeling the need to release a recording that could damage him? And while it is possible that the motive in sharing it was simply to share the joke, or boast about proximity to the president, it must also have been obvious that this could be damaging to him.

There is already one clue as to part of the strategy that may be used against the president.

Earlier this month, on 5 April, the Alliance Secretariat released a statement in which it said the suggestion that South Africa should approach the International Monetary Fund (IMF) “is rejected”. The suggestion came from the Finance Minister, Tito Mboweni, who said in public that he would approach the IMF for help with health funding only. Considering that he is a finance minister in the middle of a pandemic, he may well believe he is acting entirely rationally to protect his country’s people and the economy.

The secretariat statement was signed by Magashule; the general secretary of Cosatu, Bheki Ntshalintshali; and the SACP’s first deputy general secretary, Solly Mapaila. A decision about going to the IMF has long been a hot potato in our politics, and both the SACP and Cosatu have been consistent in their opposition to it. But for Magashule, the secretary-general of the governing party, to sign a document rejecting a suggestion by the finance minister from the same party, shows how deep the divisions run here.

Importantly, this statement did not make any suggestions as to where money should come from, in the likely event of South Africa needing a cash injection (the government has already confirmed it’s borrowing a billion dollars from the New Development Bank set up by the BRICS nations.)

One of the big dangers for Ramaphosa and his allies is that it is easy to misstep during a crisis. Any mistake committed by the president or a minister, or even a soldier or police officer on the ground can have huge consequences. A series of images showing soldiers being violent towards citizens could result in the entire lockdown being undermined. That, in turn, could see the number of Covid-19 cases rising exponentially, and South Africa dealing with both a growing pandemic and the economic cost of the lockdown.

It is for this reason that we are likely to see the continued sniping on Twitter by people like Lungisa and Yengeni. They are essentially signalling that they are still around, still alive and still would like to see Ramaphosa gone.

Some in the ANC may well try to use the pandemic against the president in a much bigger way. If it turns out that it is impossible to contain Covid-19, then he and his Cabinet could be blamed for the spread. Things will be twisted, fiction and fact mixed together in a volatile mixture at a time when people’s personal circumstances are being hit hard. 

For those who fear the NPA and strong central authority, this could be a very useful combination of factors: rising poverty, increasing hunger, frustration and anger, and a target in the form of Ramaphosa, who could be accused of being guilty of incompetence or having his priorities wrong. This is a situation that he has to avoid at all costs. 

However, his enemies would first have to make the case against him. This would be difficult, because of the transparency shown by Ramaphosa and his government. The decision by Mkhize to have an open session of experts on Monday night may turn out to have been a masterstroke against any opponents. This kind of event makes it much harder for anyone to claim that Ramaphosa and his team have done the wrong thing.

Ramaphosa and his allies also have several weapons that can be useful in this situation.

The first is to ask their opponents the simplest of questions: WHAT would YOU do? To this, there is surely no cogent answer – there are almost certainly no other available options. Unless Magashule and his supporters have other ideas, it would be difficult to answer that question. 

This response from Ramaphosa would also work in terms of the economic question. While Magashule and others have repeatedly found ways to question Ramaphosa’s economic policies, they have not made public solutions that are workable and have wide support. Instead, they have given every appearance of going back into ideology at a time when many would agree that ideology should take a back seat, and stay there. 

As Mboweni put it, “I cannot eat ideology”. 

Right now, Ramaphosa gives the impression that he is in a commanding position. Anyone trying to attack him will have to do so from the lower political ground. But that doesn’t mean that they won’t try. DM