South Africa


Quo Vadis, Consensus? President Ramaphosa and the need for resolute action in near-apocalyptic times

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

Covid-19 has brought ever-increasing evidence that the leadership South Africa needs to extricate us from the current massive crisis is not present – and not available. The deadly combination of corruption and incompetence is anything but diminished in the post-Zuma years, and no political force, whether inside or outside the ANC, looks capable of stopping it. This increases the pressure on President Cyril Ramaphosa to change course, and drop his reliance on consensus. 

The post-Mandela years have given South Africa a very expensive lesson in the true meaning and importance of leadership. No one should waste time debating the fact that the identity and actions of the president and his ruling political party have a critical influence on our collective fortunes.

When Covid-19 arrived in South Africa there was hope that the pandemic and its economic effects would prompt a wake-up call for our politics. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni said publicly that the green light he had received for reform was a “hallelujah” moment, while others felt the crisis would concentrate SA’s top political minds on what is important for the people of this country, and that the ANC leadership would finally realise just how much poorer everyone has become over the past 10 years, and act.

There is little or no evidence that such profound course alteration is happening.

Instead, there is mounting evidence that there is no sense of emergency in the ruling structures.

Three weeks ago, the ANC’s national executive committee decided to reinstate two Limpopo leaders heavily implicated in the VBS scandal. Florence Radzilani and Danny Msiza are accused of orchestrating the decisions that saw municipalities giving their funds over to the VBS bank, from where the money was looted. 

Last week, the Eastern Cape Co-operative Governance MEC, Xolile Nqatha told a funeral service (which was live-streamed for the world to see) that it was “un-ANC” to continue with disciplinary processes against people who may be at risk from Covid-19 because of the strain it would put on their immune systems. In an interview on SAfm, he was unable to give evidence of how the ANC was trying to renew itself.

There are growing scandals around money disappearing into the giant holes that are municipalities. The auditor-general’s report showed that only a few councils can manage their money (and almost all them are DA councils in the Western Cape), along with claims that some (ANC) government officials have tried to control or claim credit for the provision of food parcels.

Meanwhile, Eastern Cape hospitals don’t have managers, patients are neglected, and in some cases, there is faeces and blood on the floor. In other provinces, hospitals are filling up, and there are well-founded concerns about whether the health system will be able to provide treatment at all.

And around the country, there is mounting evidence of increasing fear, both of the virus and the march of hunger that it is creating.

To deal with this situation requires strong leadership, and a sense that there are people in charge who care, who understand what needs to be done and are prepared to prioritise doing that.

How then, in the middle of this, does the ANC justify reinstating Msiza and Radzilani?

For some, this might well be the final nail in the coffin of any hopes that Ramaphosa was going to lead renewal in the ANC, even in the lightest of forms. How can there be renewal when the party goes against a recommendation of its own integrity commission in a case which caused widespread outrage in South Africa’s every nook and cranny? When a serving MEC worries more about the “warmth” which with comrades must be treated than actually holding them accountable?

This leads to the obvious question: if renewal is impossible for the ANC, is there a political force that can replace it?

For the moment, this seems unlikely. The strength of the ANC has always been its ability to manage the contradictions between the needs of different constituencies. It was able to get votes from the poor and the rich, from rural and urban areas and across linguistic divides. In a sense, it was doing what its founders wanted it to do: uniting people across different sectors of society. 

The DA, the EFF and all the other parties are not able to field candidates in all wards during local elections and have nothing like the national networks that the ANC has.

Unless there is a drastic change, and very soon, Ramaphosa is going to be blamed for the ruined economy, broken infrastructure and failed health system.

While it is not possible to know whether the EFF has gained or lost support during the pandemic, there is plenty of evidence that the DA has lost ground in the past two years.

This political desert adds to the pressure on Ramaphosa.

While it may be unfair, as it is the ANC that is failing to meet the challenges, Ramaphosa will ultimately be blamed. Just as Thabo Mbeki was blamed for those we lost due to HIV/AIDS (he drove the policies of the government at the time even if he had the support of the NEC), and Jacob Zuma is blamed for the “nine wasted years”, so will Ramaphosa be faulted for the Covid-19 destruction of the economy and the millions of livelihoods lost.

There have been few signs of strong leadership from the ANC president.

He was obviously overruled on the issue of tobacco products, and has allowed the ban on alcohol sales to be reinstated. His continued insistence on consensus has worsened the situation.

It is immoral to insist on the deciding power of the consensus when you know that a decision, or a course of action, is wrong.

It is possible that a leader may feel that a consensus gives a necessary political cover should the decision be proven to be wrong, but the president will always be blamed for the incompetent, insensitive or sometimes downright dangerous decisions taken, regardless of who was championing them in the Cabinet.

The true nature of leadership is that awesome power should come with awesome responsibility. It is not right to allow people to die, suffer, or sink into penury because of decisions that you know are bad and could have stopped.

The head of the collective must act as the head of the collective.

If you believe a decision is wrong, then you should not announce that decision. And you also should not duck the important and difficult questions that this poses, such as the economic cost of the lockdown and the reopening of schools.

Unless there is a drastic change, and very soon, Ramaphosa is going to be blamed for the ruined economy, broken infrastructure and failed health system. He will be seen as responsible for the patients dying in Eastern Cape in a system where an MEC fails to take accountability and a premier refuses to fire her. He will be blamed for millions going hungry. And, it will be his name that people curse when they remember what their country was, and what they had hoped it could be.

Ramaphosa can choose to continue on the current path, or switch to what people of South Africa are hungry for: strong, decisive, personally responsible leadership. It is his choice – and the one that can define the direction South Africa takes in the coming years. DM


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