Ramaphosa’s Rubicon: President under pressure on the vision and strategy for South Africa

Ramaphosa’s Rubicon: President under pressure on the vision and strategy for South Africa
President Cyril Ramaphosa during operation clean-up and rebuild following days of looting and anarchy in Meadowlands on Mandela Day on 18 July 2021 in Soweto, Johannesburg. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake)

President Cyril Ramaphosa faces difficulties on several fronts. Can he get rid of underperforming Cabinet ministers, and still appease different interests within the governing party?

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Cyril Ramaphosa is under increasing pressure to make some bold moves to back his election promises of a new dawn of reform, renewal and a stamping out of rampant corruption. And with more than half of his current term complete, time is running out.

For Lawson Naidoo from the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, the expectations for Ramaphosa were high after the Zuma era, especially because he made promises on fighting corruption and kickstarting the economy. “I don’t think he has done badly, but he hasn’t done as well as he could.”

Ramaphosa has provided some leadership and increased his control over the ANC but “whether he has used that power appropriately is another question”.

Ramaphosa could have provided “better and more decisive leadership” during the period of unrest – “The country was screaming out for better leadership,” says Naidoo.

Paul Hoffman from Accountability Now says the faction-fighting in the ANC has paralysed Ramaphosa, as well as “the fact that he became president by a very narrow majority, and a majority that his RET [Radical Economic Transformation] opponents regard as a stolen majority”. His campaign was funded by rich businesspeople, and David Mabuza, then Mpumalanga premier and now deputy president, seemed to change sides at the last minute to back Ramaphosa.

Hoffman said Ramaphosa came in on an anti-corruption ticket but isn’t doing “anything effective” about it. He said Ramaphosa might have his hand forced by the DA’s proposal in Parliament for a Chapter 9 body to deal with corruption. “My analysis is that as long as grand corruption is tolerated or practised by the ANC, we’re on a road to nothing in this country. We will fail.”

Flip Buys from AfriForum says Ramaphosa has used his presidential power to appoint people to let go of some rotten apples, replacing them with good people. This also helped to strengthen the institutions.

Buys says the measure of a good leader is whether you have a good successor lined up. “If anything happened to Ramaphosa today, what will happen? He’s not a genius but he’s the best option we have. It’s a bad sign. Mandela was an iconic leader, Mbeki was a good leader, Zuma was a bad leader, and I’m not sure that Ramaphosa is a leader.”

Buys says it would be good if Ramaphosa could speak from the heart sometimes, rather than read speeches, and if he’d answer questions from journalists, because they ask things that the public wants to know about.

“For me a leader has to be able to say what is wrong with the status quo, have a vision, and plot a strategy to get out of that. Ramaphosa has had a lot of plans, but we don’t really know what his vision is or his strategy to get there,” he says. He says Ramaphosa has to cross a Rubicon of sorts by changing the government from a breadwinner to a housekeeper, who makes the rules of the game but isn’t a player itself.

“The private sector should be the breadwinner, but the problem is that the private sector is losing courage,” he says.

Buys says the state shouldn’t be running businesses like the state-owned enterprises (SOEs), but should go back to basics and ensure safety and get legal frameworks in place.

Buys challenged Ramaphosa not to waste the current crisis, but use it to effect the reforms he wants to effect. Wayne Duvenage from the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse says Ramaphosa and the ANC should not be confused. He says Ramaphosa has managed to effect a lot of changes. “I never thought Zuma would go to jail, and Zweli Mkhize stepped aside,” he says, referring to the leave requested by Mkhize following the Digital Vibes scandal.

He says Ramaphosa still has one hand tied behind his back when it comes to corruption, because members of his Cabinet are tainted.

He says he sees why Ramaphosa has to move slowly, because moving faster might create turmoil “rather go on the right trajectory”, he says. Duvenage says Ramaphosa’s pronouncement against cadre deployment was a good sign, but this has to reflect in his choices of Cabinet ministers for there to be any meaningful change.

It’s easy to throw stones at Ramaphosa, he says, but who else could be governing now? “You have to support the best of the worst bunch. The ANC has ideologies and policies hamstringing him, and he is trying to challenge it. Why do you think Ace is no longer there and Zuma is in jail?”

Duvenage says he believes that, if Zuma could cause a lot of destruction as president, Ramaphosa could similarly cascade positive change from the top of government. “It is like a set of dominoes. Once you start it, it can have a ripple effect and move fast,” he says.

Ramaphosa’s management of South Africa and the economy over the past 17 months has come under intense criticism from big business and the labour movement.

Labour and business agree on one thing: the Covid-19 pandemic has tripped up Ramaphosa, exposing the many weaknesses in his leadership qualities and those of his Cabinet members.

Zwelinzima Vavi, the general secretary of the SA Federation of Trade Unions, acknowledges that Ramaphosa is a good communicator, who shows “passion and conviction” when it comes to his regular updates to the nation about the government’s Covid-19 response.

But Vavi says poor people have been largely left on their own to survive while Ramaphosa has – on more than one occasion – intensified lockdown rules without immediately offering income-relief measures to financially distressed households and businesses.

The special Covid-19 relief grant of R350 a month is an “insult” to poor people, Vavi says. The Unemployment Insurance Fund has been “managed shambolically” – it still faces administrative problems in processing pay-outs to laid-off workers – and “it is shocking” that Ramaphosa has resisted calls to introduce a permanent basic income grant.

Cosatu is equally critical, with the labour federation’s parliamentary officer Matthew Parks saying Ramaphosa’s government has been “far too lax” in the implementation of long-touted economic structural reforms in areas such as energy, telecommunications, reducing red tape for small businesses, promoting competition, and restructuring bankrupt SOEs.

“The pandemic has been a learning experience for the entire world, SA included. However, [the government] has been weak, even when it comes to the enforcement of the various health and safety measures such as the wearing of masks in public, social distancing in public transport,” Parks says.

Big business believes that the recent street violence in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal has been a blight on Ramaphosa’s Cabinet and its inability to uphold peace and stability in the country. It took at least five days for more police and army officials to be deployed to high-risk areas, where shopping malls were looted and key supply chains were blocked.

“The response by the state has been poor. We still want urgent and drastic action in holding the instigators of the violence and looting accountable,” says Business Unity SA president Sipho Pityana, adding that investor confidence might never fully recover after SA’s week of anarchy.

But big business still backs Ramaphosa. “We have full confidence in Ramaphosa and his efforts to fight corruption and ensure that the rule of law prevails. We stand fully behind him,” says Pityana.

Ramaphosa also has the support of foreign governments, but whether that will help him navigate the extremely choppy waters of a toxic ANC at home is a moot point.

Western governments in particular appreciate his courage and integrity in forging ahead with reform efforts, especially cleaning out corruption in the ANC. But they are also increasingly impatient with him for being so slow in doing so.

“NPA people tell me they are worried that if the police are not working they won’t get the evidence they need to convict people. So that needs urgent fixing,” one Western ambassador said, also pointing to the paralysing standoff between Cele and his national police commissioner Khehla Sitole.

“In the days of unrest the absence of the police minister was glaring. He seems more concerned about arresting people for walking their dogs during lockdown than dealing with the turmoil.”

All the ambassadors DM168 spoke to felt that although Ramaphosa badly needed to reshuffle his Cabinet and should have done so long ago, it would never be easy because of the delicate balances of forces – and the lack of competence and talent – in the ANC.

“For instance we have Gwede Mantashe [as energy minister], who is never going to be a driver of the transformation Ramaphosa wants. But, on the other hand, he’s not going to be number one on the list to be fired,” said one ambassador.

All agreed that Ramaphosa’s absolute priority had to be replacing the security cluster, which had let him down so badly during the turmoil and would continue to hobble him.

None of the ambassadors DM168 spoke to believes Ramaphosa is a lame duck, but they do see him as severely hampered in what he can do by internal ANC politics.

Some felt that Ramaphosa did not lack a vision for South Africa, but that he should target it more at his constituency. “He has sometimes tried to formulate a vision in terms of building a bullet train and this future city in Lanseria. He should be more down to earth. Simply get people a better life, especially by increasing the efficiency of government, because that’s where people are really suffering, whether its electricity or service delivery or bureaucracy,” said one ambassador.

Another ambassador said that, far from being a lame duck, Ramaphosa was in a stronger position than he had been at the start of the year – despite the recent turbulence. “Ace Magashule is out in the cold and Jacob Zuma is behind bars. And he has made important economic reforms, the most important being lifting the cap on the amount of power that independent power producers can put out,” he said, reflecting a common appreciation among foreign governments.

Though some analysts – domestic and foreign – believe that the recent havoc has shown South Africa teetering on a precipice with a president who lacks the wherewithal to turn it back, Western governments are generally more sanguine.

And all agree that South Africa, in any case, has no one to replace Ramaphosa right now.

“If you are not in the RET faction, who else would you want to be leading the country right now?” one ambassador asked. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Rg Bolleurs says:

    If you’re not in the RET faction who would you want to lead right now? The DA would be my answer.

    Forget the personalities , their policies and values are spot on.

  • Sandra Goldberg says:

    Ramaphosa’s insistence on the nonexistent “unity” of the ANC has been the albatross around his neck- it has consumed valuable time in moving the country forward- surely as a leader, country comes before party?

  • Johan Buys says:

    Mantashe tried to pull off one of the biggest schemes of state capture (the powerships) while Zondo is in sitting. CR should clean his desk out when the cabinet gets halved in size.

  • Stephen T says:

    I must admit I am surprised by the positivity of foreign ambassadors. It gives me a small glimmer of hope that they still see some potential where we the average citizens might be unable or unwilling to appreciate a neutral and objective perspective. Hopefully the ANC can bring itself to shed the tired old trappings of a liberation movement and start becoming a proper government. And by proper I mean an administratively competent decentralised body of people that can put their ideology aside for a moment to end the folly of the Nanny State. If the conditions are right, the People themselves will build this country back. The government cannot help its People permanently by doing for them what they could and should be doing for themselves.

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