Foreign Perfidy: Ramaphosa, smiling enabler of African autocracy

President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency was supposed to reset South Africa’s relationship with the continent on which it is allegedly situated. This has not been the case.

Following the cosplay Nazi invasion of Washington, DC, in early January, Florida senator and former Trumpista quisling Marco Rubio tweeted, “There is nothing patriotic about what is occurring on Capitol Hill. This is 3rd world style anti-American anarchy.” Across that same website, African intellectual elites took offence. What was happening in America was a specifically American species of dysfunction, they insisted — a white supremacist jamboree that wasn’t of the 3rd world [sic], but had in fact created the 3rd world, or at least the version of it that exists in Rubio’s imagination.

This was followed by an assessment of where Africa stood in relation to the world’s richest, noisiest imploding democracy. After all, give or take a few holdouts, Mobutu Sese Seko-style Big Man politics seemed to have migrated to the West, and a busy calendar of elections has recast Africa as the most sizeable conglomeration of democracies anywhere in the world.

“When I first said that I was going to write a book about the history of democracy in Africa, quite a few people responded with a joke,” wrote Nic Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham. “But, it turned out that there was a lot to talk about: Africa’s past reveals more fragments of democracy than you would think. And, its present has a number of important things to teach the world about the conditions under which democracy can be built.”

All true.

But democracy, as the fascist imperialist dogs have proven, is nothing more than a buggy OS: once installed, it requires constant updating. Miss a scheduled update, and the hardware starts flaking out.

Across Africa, that’s exactly what is happening. The recent elections in Uganda were obscenely weighted against the opposition and ended in another landslide win for Yoweri Museveni, who came to power in 1986, in the middle of Ronald Reagan’s second term.

Next door in Tanzania, John Magufuli continues a crackdown that ticks all the democratic backsliding boxes — his late 2020 election “win” was a parody of democratic processes.

In Ethiopia, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Abiy Ahmed is engaged in deadly conflict with the Tigray region that has already claimed hundreds of lives, and threatens to plunge the entire region into war: troops are massing along the Sudanese border and bombs have fallen in Asmara, the capital of neighbouring Eritrea.

As Softie, a superb recent documentary has made clear, Kenya’s election campaigns are flecked with cash, violence, corruption and cheating. And that’s just East Africa, which, following South Sudanese independence from Sudan almost a decade ago, was considered to be Africa’s most promising region.

Surely South Africa, the continent’s most advanced economy, might have something to say about all of this?

As a reward, South Africa has been pressed into hosting between three and five million Zimbabwean economic migrants and political asylum seekers, a cohort the country is constitutionally obliged to treat with dignity, but instead treats with disdain and, in some cases, with overt brutality.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, who holds the chair of the African Union, is perhaps the most internationally respected African politician, for whatever that is worth. He is a Davos stalwart, a business bro, and a gentleman who has never roused himself to use incendiary language to start a violent uprising. (This excludes, of course, a case of epistolary encouragement for harsh enforcement during a mining labour crisis, which resulted in the deaths of 44 people during the Marikana massacre.) But while Ramaphosa enjoys a reputation as a moderate social democrat, he is making all the moves of an old school plutocrat, having allegedly purchased his position as leader of his country’s liberation movement on the crest of a wave of corporate money in late 2017.

Keeping this in mind, we start to understand why his support for democratic norms across the continent might be so spotty.

It begins, as everything in South Africa does, with Zimbabwe. Over the course of the past terrible year, Zimbabweans have faced increasing brutality from Emmerson Mnangagwa’s rebranded Zanu-PF regime. As ever, the South African government has done nothing to upset them. Famously, successive South African administrations enabled first Mugabe, and now Mnangagwa, to erase the Zimbabwean economy and batter the people — some of it along ideological lines, all of it repressive in practice.

As a reward, South Africa has been pressed into hosting between three and five million Zimbabwean economic migrants and political asylum seekers, a cohort the country is constitutionally obliged to treat with dignity, but instead treats with disdain and, in some cases, with overt brutality. In communities where there are no spare resources, our African neighbours are deemed to be threats, despite having no protection from the ravages of a brutal economic system, and even less protection from our capricious rule of law.

South African citizens have very literally paid for this two-decade, four-president foreign policy mess with our taxes. We’re paying for it now, still: over the holiday period, Zimbabweans massed at the Beitbridge border crossing as tens of thousands of people attempted to enter South Africa, despite a second wave of Covid infections that has dwarfed the first. (The National Command Council, nominally in charge of the country’s pandemic response, has ignored the fact that foreign nationals also require assistance.) The suffering and desperation was appalling. But instead of issuing a statement critical of the ongoing political violence — or, God forbid, in support of beleaguered dissident journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and his peers — Ramaphosa allowed the land borders to be closed.

He shut Africa out, and got back to business.

What is his business? In part, it’s rubber stamping the bullshit African election “victories” won by his peers. Whether it’s in his capacity as chair of the AU or president of South Africa, Ramaphosa has stayed silent regarding the recent Ugandan elections, and said nothing about the obvious brutality visited upon Bobi Wine, the singer and opposition politician who has live-posted Museveni’s attempts to have him silenced. It is long past time that the Ugandan president-for-life faces censure from his fellow African gerontocrats, but the silence reveals a self-serving commitment to non-intervention — a nakedly transactional don’t-fuck-with-me-I-won’t-fuck-with-you arrangement that erases any possible moral authority.

This is the Mutually Assured Destruction law of smallanyana skeletons, and Ramaphosa obeys it religiously. Following a massively delayed and epically flawed election process in the DRC in 2018, it was clear that long-shot candidate Felix Tshisekedi’s victory deserved at least a measure of circumspection. No matter. Ramaphosa was the first leader to endorse the results, which were at the time proved fraudulent by this publication and Financial Times — an indisputable fact that the president has not acknowledged.

(Tshisekedi would enter an odd-ball power-sharing agreement with his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, which fell apart at the end of 2020. The DRC remains a mess. Anyone surprised?)

A Heart of Lightness in the Congo, finally?

Slavishly respectful of the Organisation of African Unity’s (now the AU’s) decision to respect the sovereignty of African borders, themselves colonial constructs that made no sense for Africans at the time, and make even less sense now, Ramaphosa has even restrained himself from decrying the farce that was the election in Tanzania last November. John Magufuli is, at best, a lunatic — and yet, under Ramaphosa’s stewardship, the African Union wished “to congratulate H.E. Dr John Pombe Magufuli on his re-election as the President of the United Republic of Tanzania following the presidential, parliamentary and local council elections held on 28 October 2020”.

So what is the upside for South Africa in this insane, 26-year endorsement of African governance fluff-jobs? The answer is obvious: it guarantees the ANC the same treatment should they require some creative democratic bookkeeping down the line. There is the old justification regarding liberation movement kinship and the shared memory of colonial subjugation, but the truth is that most African regimes are entirely unburdened by historical memory or ideological coherence. None of that stuff matters any more.

It’s all about ass-coverage.

But what comes around goes around. As the democracy scholar Larry Diamond has noted:

“If the current modest recession of democracy spirals into a depression, it will be because those of us in the established democracies were our own worst enemies.”

In this, Cyril Ramaphosa may find himself staring down the barrel of his own Hallmark congratulatory card. When local autocrats decide to bury him alive and call it an election, who in Africa will speak for him? DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Rob Glenister says:

    Makes one wonder about the legacy that Ramaphosa will leave, in fact that of all the ANC presidents to date.
    Mandela: Courageous leader who stood up against oppressors from the left and the right.
    Mbeki: Intellectual introvert who got the economy going but who’s HIV policies led to the death of thousands.
    Zuma: Sycophant who ushered in a decade of fraud and corruption, clearing the way for followers to line up at the trough.
    Ramaphosa: Fence sitter under who’s watch the economy tanked and unemployment increased exponentially. The trough feeders remain in place. Will his COVID policies also be cited in terms of the number of deaths in the country?
    Next president: Whoever wins the ANC factional battle and imposes his (not her) will on the nation.

  • Sergio CPT says:

    A great piece which sums up the fickleness, ineptitude and moral bankruptcy of the anc. Their foreign policy from day 1 was anything but for human rights, Ubuntu, etc. and they supported/continue supporting the most vile regimes like Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Cuba etc. Internally, they have foisted out of control and massive corruption, cadre deployment, Stalinesque state control, mismanagement, misappropriation, paralysis and incompetency on the country. They allowed it to happen, shielded/protected that odious Zuma and his cronies from censure for ages. They have left a wasteland behind, abject poverty and wholesale misery. They are a complete and utter failure and not fit to govern, given that this country has everything – people, land, talent, beauty, sunshine etc. to be hugely successful in just about everything. Instead of taking SA to new levels and building on what was given to them in 1994, they are masters in stealing, breaking, and destroying! Unfortunately it won’t change for the foreseeable future and Cyril is the best available by a very longshot. He has to be supported as the alternative are those degenerate, thieving and wicked scoundrels of the EFF/RET/State Capture ilk, who will turn this country into a Zimbabwe.

  • Gerhard Pretorius says:

    Good piece, Richard. However, only the very naive will be surprised by human nature. CR is just following human nature, that dictates that you would take a course of action that benefit you the most. It is not about the AU, or SA, or the ANC. It is all about the individual. The Magafulis, Mnangagwas and the likes. Stay in power for a good life.

  • Jimbo Smith says:

    We now have a new political shape called “Idiocracy” which is taken to stratospheric levels in Africa. Ramaphosa is a serious disappointment and does not understand the basic tenets of leadership…boldness, decisiveness and action i.e. getting things done. He simply talks and talks and talks and makes endless promises which are never fulfilled. We forget he chaired the Eskom “War Room” set up by Zuma a good few years ago. Well, look where we are today with Eskom. He consults and consults and consults to the point where one wonders why the hell we need a President anyway. Is every decision place at the altar of “consultation?” He refuses to engage with the media after his Covid-19 utterances. The BS that followed from him and his cronies on the back of the emerging vaccine scandal sums up our situation. Just feed the masses any old story and we must never accept blame but quickly deny and point fingers in some other direction. In a normal democracy the ANC would have been booted out a long time but Africa has its own version of democracy which is simply…gain power and never, ever relinquish it. Hence we have the Ugandan dude in power since 1986 and our President cant find the courage or decency to decisively condemn this outcome.

  • M D Fraser says:

    Read : “The State of Africa” by Martin Meredith. If you really want to know about ‘democracy’ in Africa.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    As Zorba the Greek said: Africa “has the full catastrophe!”

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    Fortunately the state of American democracy was strong enough to bat down the totalitarian trumpism. But only just strong enough. We must all try to strengthen democracy, wherever we are.

    • JV SL says:

      SinoAmerikan DemockRat party is not strong enough, as the plan is in progress to “cancel”, “obliterate” and later “re-educate” its citizens or else. One does not become more “demockratic” by eliminating different opinions……

  • Karen G says:

    Excellent article.

  • Scott Gordon says:

    I was wondering when we might hear from CR at least for some time .
    With respect , this is a bit overdue too 🙂
    And has to be brief , countries usually hit the headlines for the wrong reasons .
    All calm in Nigeria and Moz ? Not !

  • Patrick Veermeer says:

    Richard, pieces like yours should be written, but when I’m done reading, I think: what’s the point? This is African politics – the politics of brotherhood, or the ‘collective’ if you will. It’s got f**k-all to do with democracy.

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