South Africa

ANALYSIS

Lights… Camera… Reform! Ramaphosa’s window of opportunity is nigh

Illustrative image | Sources: Suspended ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule. (Photos: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo) | Zweli Mkhize. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo) | President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Several trends are emerging as conditions for proper structural and economic reform edge closer. It appears that our president is now seen as being firmly in charge and that big business is backing the reform.

While our politics is thunderous, and often moving in seemingly contradictory directions, giving the appearance of total chaos, several trends are now emerging. It’s becoming clearer that the conditions for proper structural and economic reform could be closer than they’ve been in many decades of ANC power.

These conditions would include the however tentative insertion of accountability into our politics for perhaps the first time in nearly 15 years, the fact that President Cyril Ramaphosa is now seen by many as firmly in charge of the ANC, and that public-sector unions are weaker than they have been since the advent of our democracy.

Questions remain, of course, about how long this situation will last and about Ramaphosa’s ultimate intentions, with some questioning the sincerity of his push to reform the state and the economy.

Amid all the arguments around advocates, prosecutors and the ANC last week, one single event must stand out.

A former president, someone who had been able to assert his will politically for so long, had to plead guilty or not guilty to charges of corruption (instituted against him by a National Director of Public Prosecutions who he himself had appointed). Now, his trial cannot be stopped and the court must find him innocent or guilty (the only option left for delay is endless legalities and health issues).

As Wits Governance Associate Professor William Gumede pointed out on Newzroom Afrika on Friday, this is crucial because when you enforce accountability on people at the top, it sends a crucial signal to people lower down the system that they cannot get away with wrongdoing. (This neatly explains the entrenchment of corruption during the Zuma years.)

Meanwhile, in the ANC, the man implicated in corruption in the Free State for many years, who had been elected to one of the most powerful positions in the country as secretary-general of the governing party, has now been suspended from his position. He is fighting for his political life as even those who supported him are now writing affidavits attacking him.

Other people who stood in the way of Ramaphosa, such as Tony Yengeni and cohorts, are a force put on mute, clearly now a minority in the ANC’s national executive committee.

At the moment, it appears there is no one who could conceivably run against Ramaphosa for the position of ANC leader next year (emphasis on “at the moment”).

The “RET faction” does not have a champion and Deputy President David Mabuza has remained steadfastly quiet; this is a person who has not done a single proper interrogatory interview since becoming deputy president. In fact, it is hard to find evidence that he has done a single sit-down interview ever. Meanwhile, the basis of his political power, that he held the small balance of branches in Mpumalanga in 2017, has started to slip away (both because he may not have the control of the province he once did, and because Ramaphosa no longer needs those branches to remain in power).

And of course, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize appears unlikely to be challenging for any position.

Then there is the situation within government.

Sometimes, there are two main parts of society (outside politics) that can prevent reform: organised labour and capital, or big business.

At the moment there is evidence that unions are weaker than they have been at any time since 1994. The process that began with the expulsion of Numsa from Cosatu has continued to weaken the entire movement. Cosatu’s main strength is now concentrated in government workers. While there is still immense power here, public opinion may be moving away from public-sector unions.

This is because they continue to demand above-inflation increases while so many in the private sector have lost income during the pandemic. Government workers had their incomes protected (In many cases, they were not working. While unions will always talk about health workers, they also represent workers in drivers’ licence centres who simply did not work during the hard lockdown, and are seen by many as being openly corrupt).

It is true that organised business or capital can stand in the way of reform, even in democracies.

But in South Africa it appears that big business is backing the reform and Ramaphosa strongly, believing he is the only person who can actually deliver on that promise. They also believe it is in their own interests that this reform happens.

Of course, none of this on its own means reform will actually happen. And there are plenty of reasons why it may not. Ramaphosa himself may not be as interested in reform as some believe him to be; he may be mentally exhausted after the recent political battles; he also may not have the support he really needs or may just believe it to be impossible. 

There is also the issue of his constituency wanting it.

Perhaps the most important dynamic in our economy at the moment is around electricity, and yet Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe is being accused of slowing down the adoption of renewable energy and standing almost on his own in the fight around licence caps for embedded generation (companies producing power for themselves and other customers).

It is also true that the local elections may weaken, or even strengthen, Ramaphosa’s mandate to actually govern. It is becoming increasingly difficult to know if local elections will focus on the tussle between the parties (along with what are often called issues of identity) or in certain places on actual governance issues.

But the polls could result in Ramaphosa, and the ANC, being weaker than they are now.

There may also be skills shortages in that the “state” may not have the capability to actually change. There just might not be enough competent managers and technocrats left in South Africa.

Lethargy in the system appears to be an important deterrent too.

All of that said, it’s important to note that the conditions around the possibility for reform appear to be changing in favour of reform. There may be no more excuses for not acting: demands for it to happen could grow, meaning Ramaphosa could come under pressure to accelerate his pace.

This moment may not last long. In our politics literally anything can happen. So while his opponents go through an especially rough patch, all eyes will be on Ramaphosa and his willingness to act. South Africa’s future depends on it. DM

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All Comments 15

  • Sadly it would appear that Cyril is wedded to the NDR and that has and will spell economic disaster – Free to be poor

  • Nope! Cyril is wedded to the ANC policy of cadre deployment and EWC, not just on the land issue but look what’s next on the ANC radar. Nationalise pensions, Medical aids, Geomatic information and data management. Cyril wants to stop the blatant theft, and carry on with the dysfunctional bumbling of building a soviet/sino control paradise. The ANC’s excuse of “correcting the inequalities of the past ” conveniently forgets that that inequalities were apparent the moment Europeans met African societies. The trick is to modernise in what is really a short period in history. Instead we have the “traditional ” authorities clinging on the an early Iron -age style nepotism , patronage and paternalism. The Rama Man knows he must not kill the Hen that lays the golden eggs, The ANC want to nationalise it. It will all end in tears.

  • Strange to write an article about prospects are better than ever for economic reform, without discussing the content of that reform, as if there is no debate about it. Do you mean austerity or spending, reducing the power of the unions or improved minimum wages and Universal Basic Income, do you mean tax cuts or a wealth tax?, do you mean doing everything possible to encourage foreign investment, or some industrial policy to encourage growth in particular industries?

    • I agree Cedric. I normally find Stephen’s articles very informative and lucid but yes, what reforms is he telling us will happen. There are so many possibilities, both good and bad.

    • Once the theft and corruption are stopped and the funds recovered, there will be funds available for all the reforms. Construction of extra prisons being a priority.

    • I am increasingly ignoring Grootes’ so-called analyses. Between all the ‘may’s”, “mights”, “coulds” and “perhaps’s” there is very little of substance. Even the headline is suggesting a fiction. While its true that a capable state is required to effect any real change, almost everything this president has done in the last two years has moved us in the opposite direction, towards a less democratic state.

  • “There may also be skills shortages in that the “state” may not have the capability to actually change. There just might not be enough competent managers and technocrats left in South Africa.” Exactly! Many competent citizens (White and non-white) have left the government and in fact South Africa because of anc cadre deployment, enforced BEE and undeserved AA appointments.

  • Stephen, for your next article, you should consider banning your use of the words, “weaken” and “strengthen”, particularly when they keep being used in the same sentence to illustrate opposite conclusions.

  • Am afraid Stephen is being overly optimistic in believing that the BEE BILLIONAIRE really wants to reform the ANC and to tackle corruption. History shows that as Deputy President he did Bu…r all to stop State Capture. Will he do any better as President!? PPE curruption proves otherwise. His Spokes Person (?) and her family were involved for heavens sake. The Digital Vibes matter is still playing out, but Mkhize should have been fired a week ago. State Capture suspects are still in powerful positions , thanks to being .appointed by CR. So sorry Stephen , we will have to agree to disagree.

  • The ONLY option for thinking people is to strengthen democracy by increasing the strength of the democratic opposition. Voting for Ramaphosa will not strengthen anything except an unpredictable Ramaphosa who supports racist BEE, illegal cadre deployment and defunct, disproved soviet communist policies. Support for democracy by the media would also be much appreciated.

  • How do you “reform” officials in the health service, the municipalities, the educational system and in SOEs who were appointed because of their skin colour and their connections and given no training?
    I have sympathy for these people. It must be utterly dispiriting to know you can’t do your job but you also can’t stop the pretence because you have to feed your family.

  • The ANC will not self-correct, modernise, reform, …whatever. It is too entrapped by it’s embedded patronage network (which includes the racist EFF). Therefore Steven, anything that weakens them is preferable. Ramaphosa may not be as corrupt as his fellow trough-feeders but he represents the existential threat that the ANC is to this country. I agree with Glyn Morgan: the ONLY thing to do is to strengthen the democratic opposition.

  • One step forward and 2 steps back … we think he is one our side, then he isn’t. There are all sorts of indicators that we are going the wrong way: Expropriation without compensation , no guns for self-defence, ongoing new corruption, ESCOM maintenance, no new power initiatives, opposition to green power through low capped levels of licencing, ongoing indications we are drifting ever closer to socialist/communist idealism, nationalisation of key assets like health, pensions, land, private businesses etc., high government employment levels, diminishing tax base, unemployment growth…………..
    What are the positives? Some movement on corruption perhaps, but not nearly enough, Zuma on trial, Ace and cohorts being sidelined, a more favourable ANC NEC balance, improved rand exchange rate through outside economic influences such as commodity prices increasing, improved balance of payments.
    How long can this situation last. At best Cyril has a last opportunity to effect meaningful change before the avalanche dscends upon us a la Venezuala, Zimbabwe. It must happen now!!!

  • I agree with the comments that the ANC, despite what I believe to be a good man currently at the helm, needs to be replaced ” one can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. I also don’t believe a single alternative party exists for this. While the DA has proved capability, our numerous official languages are telling. I wish it was possible to form a “pre election coalition” to campaign the next national vote. Has this been done successfully anywhere else? And if it is possible who would be the best parties to include?