South Africa


Covid-19 brought us to the edge of the abyss; Ramaphosa’s ANC goes a step further

In setting the terms for the lockdown, Ramaphosa and his people forgot that the majority of South Africans have been in a tenuous life-and-death economic purdah for decades. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger /J aco Marais)

If the approach to the Covid-19 crisis seems like an increasingly unfun mess, that’s because the competing forces at the top of the ANC are shredding the last sensical scraps of best practice that remained following Zuma’s fall. Now the centrists, terrified by their own shadows, have finally realised that they have no power. The entire party is submitting to the forces on its fringe — and a feeding frenzy that would have been impolite even under Zuma.


Let’s cast our minds back a few interminable months, and recall that this whole coronavirus thing started off with high praise for the government’s aggressive, “science-based” mitigation approach. Back in ye olden dayes of March 2020, South Africans bought into one of the harshest lockdowns anywhere in the world, while watchdogs cracked alcohol-free champagne in celebration of the fact that we were dodging a version of the Aids denialism that pertained under President Thabo Mbeki.

As we shuttered ourselves in our homes and learned to hate our families in new and startling ways, similar discord was unfolding within the ANC family, where the usual power-plays devolved almost instantly into dysfunction.

That said, Ramaphosa’s semi-regular teleprompter readings tamed middle-class white folks, winning praise from Peter Bruce and even the regular civilians. Indeed, the president appeared resolute during what was without question a terrible crisis for any leader to endure. Whatever he did, shit was bound to go haywire to some greater or lesser extent. But from the get-go his weaknesses were on display (failings, by the way, that were obvious to those of us who weren’t drinking the Ramaphoria ayahuasca, back in 2018). In this case: the concession of power to those with authoritarian tendencies; the flip-flopping on policy; the lack of transparency; his usual blanket refusal to engage with the South African press.

Just as dangerously, the political elite, encouraged by a fawning media, were fatally stricken with the certainty that South Africa was an outlier performance-wise — that the emergency measures had somehow tamed a few-month-old coronavirus literally termed novel. It was as if our genius politician-physicians bore some special insight into the behaviour of this spanking new scourge, allowing them to ignore the advice of the Ministerial Advisory Council, and justifying their animus towards, say, ordering socks online, or lighting a last fag as this winter of death made its inevitable approach.

Without scaling up free testing and tracing, and without measures to protect the country’s poorest citizens from the inevitable hardships, the lockdown was always destined to lead us down a tenebrous path from which no return was possible. Indeed, across the world, Covid-19 has swaggered into late-stage capitalist societies built for efficiency rather than resilience, and KO’d countries before even wielding a blow. In South Africa, our public health system was not adequately resourced to face a pandemic that rapaciously devours oxygen, ventilators and ICU beds — mostly because we’ve scraped bottom for so long, and prepared for nothing except an argument over whether an ANC-led government can pull off a National Health Insurance programme. (Spoiler alert: It can’t.)

And while scientific certainty is always a moving target, this was the first time in history in which virologists were discovering, measuring and publishing data real-time — an information force-feed, made infinitely worse by the fact that misinformation and disinformation, some of it weaponised, flooded our WhatsApp groups, Facebook and Twitter feeds. This was not easy ground to navigate, and it demanded attention, humility and grace. But by late March, the members of Ramaphosa’s National Command Council knew everything that they wanted to know, and they would never take on board anything else again.

Science submitted to politics, and that was that.

And so the dealmaking began. You could almost hear the wrangling in the back rooms of Luthuli House, as Ramaphosa and his ministers were bent over their desks and spanked by the teachers’ union and the taxi industry — an embarrassing display of political beta-cucking that brings us to a central, catastrophic truth:

Cyril Ramaphosa does not lead South Africa. No one does.

That vacuum has been filled by a feeding frenzy.


How did Cyril Ramaphosa, still by far the most popular politician in this country — along with his posse of technocratic centrists bearing international bona fides — lose so much sway in a politically moderate country with no apparent appetite for revolutionary waffling?

Ramaphorians may have borderline purchased the ANC presidency during the December 2017 ANC Electoral Conference, but the deal didn’t include acquiring power within the ANC — the only place in which political might can be exercised in South Africa. In order to do so, they needed to purge their enemies early, quickly and brutally. Instead, Ramaphosa believed that he could “unite” the ANC by using some amorphous, yet-to-be-disclosed formula, thus proving himself to be a paper tiger without the tiger part.

Trainspotter: The Purge

He has never recovered from that perception, and it doesn’t look like he ever will.

The fiction of the Ramaphosa presidency may have lasted a little while longer had the Covid-19 crisis not hit. Like all plagues, coronavirus exposed fissures and canyons already extant and then used them as a pit-latrine. In setting the terms for the lockdown, Ramaphosa and his people forgot that the majority of South Africans have been in a tenuous life-and-death economic purdah for decades. The unemployment rate was already over 30% when this latest trouble began, a death-spiral toward full unemployment in the formal economy that has never been offset by an embrace of the informal. The recent NIDS-CRAM study reminded us that, since February, three million people have lost their jobs, 47% of households ran out of money to buy food in April compared to 21% the previous year, and the situation has become so bad that, according to the study, “defining employment is difficult in the current time and labour market”.

Take that in for a second: South African researchers don’t even know what a job is anymore.

Given these conditions, it was obvious that Ramaphosa would lose even the popular support he could previously bank on. Warring ideologies and blanket incompetence did the rest. But Ramaphosa doesn’t need enemies — his ostensible allies have proved enough of a burden. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni has railed against almost every policy promulgated since he was sworn into service, and has been in semi-open war with Cogta over the preposterous emergency restrictions imposed by Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma’s personal prejudices. Meanwhile, Minister of Public Enterprise Pravin Gordhan has shown us what happens when you dump jet fuel on a vast pile of money to warm your hands on the world’s biggest bonfire.

In a time of perma-parsimony, the approach was similar to determining that the cure for starvation is a diet. The R500-billion relief package that Ramaphosa promised in April was a spectacular repurposing of available resources — a PR exercise posing as a “stimulus” package. The Unemployment Insurance Fund disbursement has been a nightmare. (Sassa itself admitted that “85% of UIF cases that were previously deemed unqualifying, actually qualify.”) Small Business Development has been even worse. The R200-billion Covid guarantee loan scheme has spent only R12-billion, a bureaucratic failure so disgraceful that in Edo-era Japan it would have resulted in wholesale ritual suicide. As for the newly-gazetted R340-billion infrastructure fund? The ANC has a not-so-great track record with such things.

And now, the IMF has waded into the muck with a $4.3-billion “low cost” loan. This institution is about to be provided with an education in looting, which, while ostensibly hilarious, will be bankrolled by your children. In all of this, the reign of Ramaphosa was supposed to result in a photo negative of the Zuma years — a New Dawn of squeaky-clean governance and anti-corruption dragnetting. And yet Zuma keeps Zooming with Zuma, Ace Magashule keeps Acing with impunity, and Deputy President DD Mabuza provides a toxic non-presence as the unknowable ghost on a top six that Ramaphosa does not command.

As a result, the president’s enjoyment of his office and its obligations has of late been reduced to exhaustion — he appeared to be suffering from six separate strains of coronavirus during his recent addresses. The plus-minus R50-billion Covid-19 emergency procurement fund has been chowed away at — best guesstimates put the corruption at around R5-billion. In the provinces and municipalities, where the real rot occurs, Ramaphosa has not many friends to call on — and yet the resulting scandals have penetrated deep into his presidency, which from day one was a chaotic yet cheerful celebration of the arts of self-congratulation. (Bubbles don’t get bubblier than this.) Now, the president’s malevolently useless spokesperson, Khusela Diko, is “on leave” following revelations that her husband, amaBhaca king Thandisizwe Diko, sought Covid-19 contracts worth over R47-million.

How Covid-19 emergency procurement turned into a cadres’ feast

And so Ramaphosa is now the face of his own corruption nightmare, and it will possibly become the story of his presidency.

In other words, in circumstances that are beyond trying, the president and his unwieldy alliance have not been up to the task of governing smartly — or governing at all — because they have no constituency within Luthuli House to do so.

Surfing all of this chaos, much of it self-inflicted, is the presence of the ANC’s “radical” faction, a dissenting group led in spirit by Julius Malema, but in body by a number of competing, overlapping factions that have one overriding impetus: There has never been a better time to eat.

The radical faction’s intent is both ideological and practical: they want South Africa to transform immediately, drastically, and permanently. In this, the lockdown’s destruction of the formal economy is not incidental.

It’s entirely intentional.


Covid-19 is the nuclear deal on a faulty ventilator, and without any procurement regulations or oversight from Treasury. This pile-on has already seen billions in wealth disappear like so much lube at an orgy.

Is all of this carnage resulting in the deaths of average South Africans?

Most assuredly.

Has it negated the point of the lockdown?

You look at the case numbers and tell me.

As the old factional divisions in the ANC dissipate into even smaller micro-cabals, Ramaphosa slips further and further away from the power he never had. The National Prosecuting Authority remains on permanent vacation; SARS is camped out in cigarette factories enforcing Dlamini Zuma’s cigarette ban; the borders are a smugglers’ paradise; the Special Investigative Unit is buried under paper and incapacity.

Absent relief from the miraculous return of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s massive political divisions cannot be solved in the short or medium term; there is no alternative to the ANC short of a populist revolution that could — and likely would — usher in something much, much more unstable.

So while we deal with tenderpreneurs dropping millions at Mercedes dealerships — watch the luxury car sales data for Q2 and Q3, my friends — South Africans who are struggling to feed their families, to survive, to live productive lives, look to the ancestors. And the ancestors are, like… Good luck with that.

Apart from common sense virus mitigation procedures, all we can do to save human lives in the immediate term is to push hard for two obvious and urgent solutions. First, we need to start getting money directly to actual people. Weirdly, one of the ANC sleaze-bags-in-chief, Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu, promulgated the idea of a blanket universal basic income. It needs to happen before starvation becomes more endemic than the virus ever could be. The ANC must be pushed on this — it’s worth dying for on the streets.

Second, just as obviously, we need to decouple political connections from Covid-19 procurement funds. Ramaphosa is obfuscating when he insists the corruption will be prosecuted. The corruption must be prevented, or the money will be permanently lost to the Ferrari and Rolls Royce dealers. Treasury can do this if they have the necessary support.

All the rest is up to the kindness of individual South Africans, the charity of corporates, the scrutiny of the media, and the activism of civil society. In other words: let’s keep doing democracy, while the ANC keeps doing us.

But any further talk about the Ramaphosa presidency and its promise needs to be binned with yesterday’s PPE. The man (allegedly) bought an office he could never maintain. It’s a lesson for plutocrats everywhere: political power has its own rules, and it’s a bloodsport that requires much more than bonhomie, backslapping and measured addresses into the warm glow of the teleprompter.

It requires fearless, resolute and intelligent action that accepts no deals with evil and no consensus with stupidity. You must endure and look straight back into fear’s retina. And then respond with a concomitant action.

Or the history will wipe you off its list with the equally concomitant eraser. DM


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