ANALYSIS

As Mcebisi Jonas opens up on State Capture years, perceptions of Ramaphosa’s role are bound to change

By Stephen Grootes 26 August 2021

Former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas. (Photo by Gallo Images / Beeld / Werner Hills)

Former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas this week emphasised the impact that Cyril Ramaphosa had by staying on in the government during State Capture. Jonas’s statements must have been seen as helpful by the president, whose political imperative is to get SA moving forward again.

Stephen Grootes

As evidence mounts of how many people no longer trust the state and believe that all politicians are corrupt, one of the key symbols of the government’s legitimacy is President Cyril Ramaphosa. His testimony at the Zondo Commission, while virtually unique in the democratic world, has led to his reputation with some being tarnished and much sharp criticism for some of his conduct during State Capture.

To many, the main point of criticism is that he remained in government as Jacob Zuma’s deputy when State Capture was under way. As a result, his own actions have come under sharp scrutiny. But now, for the first time, someone in a virtually unique position to shine a light on his actions has come forward.

Mcebisi Jonas was the deputy finance minister during this period and himself blew the whistle on the Guptas in the most public way, while Zuma was still president. He is now not in a public position and thus able to speak more freely than those who may also have tried to resist Zuma from within government, but are still in government. Because of this freedom, his view of Ramaphosa and his actions is significant.

On Wednesday night, Daily Maverick published an interview with Jonas, the first that he had conducted since Ramaphosa’s testimony at the Zondo Commission. The following morning Jonas had his only broadcast interview, on SAfm with this reporter.

In both interviews, Jonas was keen to emphasise the impact that Ramaphosa made by staying on in government, even though State Capture was happening around him.

As he explained to SAfm, “We had a big debate about resigning and going public; I wrote many papers to motivate for that. One argument that stuck in my mind is, if you go tomorrow, you’d have been replaced so gladly. Think about it… you move Nene and you have Des van Rooyen and that shows the arrogance of the system. If… [Ramaphosa had resigned] you’d have somebody else coming in to replace him and the project would have continued.”

In essence, this has always been the argument from Ramaphosa and his supporters: that he had to stay in government to stop the situation from getting worse.

But Jonas has described it in a slightly different way. All through his SAfm interview, he made the point that this was not just about one person and it should not be seen as a situation where if you replace one person the State Capture stops.

As he put it, their dilemma about staying in government was that, “It’s the complexity of stopping a system from moving in directions that would be destructive to the country, that was in my view very complex.”

This highlights the difficulty for Ramaphosa, Jonas, Pravin Gordhan and others – that they were up against a system, not just one person in Jacob Zuma.

That then leads to the questions: what did Ramaphosa actually do to stop State Capture and how did his decision to stay in government help prevent State Capture from getting worse?

Jonas is clear that what really saved South Africa was the fact that society outside the ANC and government was galvanised, that civil society worked to stop the country from falling apart.

He says that while that was happening, “You needed the internal dynamic of slowing down and monitoring etc… and many people played that role very well.” 

He explains: “The momentum that happened outside the state in civil society was because of the amount of data and information flowing out of the system – if there was no one inside the system that flow of information could not have happened, quite frankly.”

In other words, it was the people inside the system of government who helped the people outside the system stop State Capture.

There are several obvious examples, some already public, which Jonas points to about what Ramaphosa did during this period, while he was deputy president.

There is the case of how, as Ramaphosa told the Zondo Commission, he threatened to resign when Zuma fired Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister in December 2015. Jonas describes the early morning meeting where Ramaphosa told him, and the then Treasury director-general, Lungisa Fuzile, not to resign. And the relief and conviction in Ramaphosa’s voice when he phoned him that Sunday evening to tell him Des van Rooyen was no longer the finance minister, that he had been replaced by Gordhan.

But perhaps less examined and brought to the fore this week by Jonas is how Ramaphosa prevented the government and the ANC from trying to save Gupta-owned bank accounts.

During this period, the banking groups told the Guptas that they would no longer provide them with banking services and that they had to close their accounts. They said that the way in which the Guptas were operating was a risk, because it might mean the banks would break licensing laws in the US, as the money being taken out of the country was the proceeds of crime or corruption.

Zuma’s response was to try to institute a judicial inquiry into the decisions by the banks. The then Mineral Resources Minister, Mosebenzi Zwane, said that the Cabinet had made a decision that such an inquiry would be held. Later that day the Cabinet itself issued a statement saying Zwane had been speaking in his personal capacity.

Jonas says that during this time there was, “Huge pressure for Pravin and myself, for us to intervene with the banks. Even in the conversation around that, he [Ramaphosa] joined forces, he led the discussions to say this country has laws and we are not going to force people to do an illegal thing.”

The importance of this cannot be overstated. It was precisely because of the importance of the banking facilities to the Guptas that Zuma was putting so much pressure on them. If the Guptas could not get their money out of South Africa, the country would never be safe for them to use in the future.

Jonas suggests that Ramaphosa was keenly aware of this and intervened to ensure that the rule of law prevailed.

While this is important in terms of what actually happened during the period Zuma was president, what really matters is whether this will change perceptions of Ramaphosa.

There will be some impact. Jonas is sometimes described as one of the “heroes” of that period. His apparent support for Ramaphosa and his conduct during this period could be significant in that context.

But the bigger problem may be that Ramaphosa is the head of a party that has been shown to have a large number of corrupt leaders, deployees and members. His approval ratings have, for a long period, been higher than those of the ANC. The longer-term impact of the Zondo Commission for Ramaphosa may be that he is now seen as part of the party, and not, as he perhaps once was, as above it.

In other words, the ANC’s own reputation is damaging his reputation. And it was his testimony at the Zondo Commission that entrenched this.

That does not mean that, in the long run, it was the wrong option for him to testify. By testifying the way he did it is likely that a line will be drawn under that period. He will not be asked about it again. This may give him an opportunity to move forward without being dragged down by his conduct during this era.

Unfortunately, it is not possible at this stage to predict whether the way in which he is perceived will change.

Only time will tell, and quite possibly a period of time of at least one full election cycle. DM

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All Comments 55

  • Good luck Mr President – 0nly the truly sinless may enter this comments zone.

    And no strategy mind, this is a strictly death or glory scenario. Perfection or death.

    (please don’t mind the people holding stones, they’re very open minded and pragmatic)

  • The only thing for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. Everything a man says now is an excuse for what he has not done previously. It is clear that Ramaphosa did not need fame or money or politics. He had ambition and bided his time and put saving the party ANC and it follows that he saved himself from not losing the presidency. Come on, this is politics, “What are you expecting the man to say? What is the future Minister of Finance with perhaps dreams of presidency going to say himself?” I doubt he will say that Ramaphosa is a self-centred egotist. There is naught else left to say for the president or Jonas to look after a broken gravy train. Hey, the ANC needs to pay salaries.

  • And so the narrative is being spun that actually the CR faction of the ANC saved us by letting the other part of the ANC steal and waste trillions. We should be thankful that it wasn’t worse, and definitely are not allowed to have an opinion contrary to this.

    • “Letting”? If they wanted to stop it, it seems to me that there was no easy bold gesture that would achieve this. Only a long, slow, calculated set of moves and countermoves from within a political minefield, with the objective of gaining control of the system by altering the balance of power. Think about the alternative if the other candidate had achieved the presidency because CR had nobly and quixotically resigned. In political systems as degenerate as the SA system had become, you have to pick the right battles to fight at the right time, and the right moves to make over time. This isn’t like playing “Snap”, more like a veery complex game of chess.

      • Oh I get it (hence the sarcasm in my comment) yet that still doesn’t make it right, and we should keep on reminding ourselves of this. ANC is a great fan of rewriting its own history to suit its narrative. Soon they will be telling us how they self-corrected and all that when it was civil society that forced it, not CR.

  • If the reporting is accurate, then Mr Jonas seems to be fond of stating his assumptions as fact. He doesn’t say “in our opinion”, or, “we feared”; instead, he simply assumes that if Ramaphosa and others had left, then the thieving would have continued. Well, guess what? The thieving continued anyway. And it still continues to this day!

    Is there no possibility that if Ramaphosa and others of high stature had left, not quietly, but instead telling the whole world about the disaster that was happening inside the ANC, at disastrous cost to the poor and every decent person in this country, that that would not have slowed down or halted the corruption much sooner?

    Were Ramaphosa and his friends not in an ideal situation to gather hard evidence about what was happening, to walk out with to media and private prosecutors, waiting with open arms?

    The truth is that we will never know, because they lacked the integrity and the courage to act in a courageous, honest, and uncompromising way. In my view it is compromise that brought us to this point, and it is compromise that continues to encourage the thieves that they can continue with their evil business unabated. Now, they simply kill the witnesses!

    Shame on every last one of them!

    • They were always going to protect the ANC first, and then the country. There is no one in the ANC government whose aim and moral duty is to act for and on behalf of the people of South Africa, they will always place the ANC gravy train before the well being of South Africa. It is so sad to see Ramaphosa leading this pack of hyenas.

    • So sadly UPSETTING that Hendrik is exactly right! There is no hope for the ANC to ever be free of corruption since it is run by politicians and for a politician to remain uncompromised is requiring a politician with a supernatural heart. So…

    • There is no better option than CR on the political horizon. If we don’t get behind him, if we continue the endless negativity, things won’t get better. They will get much, much worse.

      We have 8 years to turn this country in a positive direction. If we don’t make meaningful progress, the populists will return and it is hard to see how we will recover from that. If you want a future in South Africa, we need to have a clear vision of the two divergent paths we face. One path is with CR and reform of the government. The other path is endless negativity and cynicism, undermining CR and expediting the rise of the populists.

      It is not clever or wise or visionary to describe the ANC as riddled with corruption and incompetence. Everyone, including CR, knows this. The question is how do you solve the problem while retaining majority support of the NEC which is comprised of many of the selfsame corrupt incompetents?

      For the geniuses who dream of another party, the DA in particular, rescuing the country. This is a fantasy. It is pure political ignorance to claim that this is possible. It cannot happen within the next 8 years. And that’s all we have left.

      So please stop filling the DM comments section with News24-level comments about cANCer and how the sheeple must abandon the ANC. Propose a serious way forward that can actually happen and not suburban dinnerparty fantasies of what “they just need to” do…

      • I’m not sure how your response applies to my comment. I have never commented on cANCer or sheeple (until now). I have also never tried to encourage anyone to support the DA or any other party and I doubt I ever would.

        If objecting to the president of the country being dishonest and obstinately continuing to put the welfare of his party ahead of the welfare of the country equates to undermining him, then I confess that I am guilty of that. But how about he stops being dishonest and putting the welfare of his party ahead of the country? Wouldn’t that be wild? I understand that it’s a lot easier, though, to just appeal to people like me to stop voicing their displeasure at the president’s less than presidential behaviour, rather than trying to get the president to change his behaviour.

        From your panicky and apocalyptic description of where we are heading as a country if we don’t compromise on allowing CR to continue to be dishonest and to continue to put the welfare of his party ahead of the welfare of the country, I deduce that you are happy to make that compromise, because if you don’t then your future would be less rosy. I accept that.

        You will probably have to learn to accept that some of your fellow citizens are more principled than that, though; they will not compromise on those principles, even if it means that their future might be a lot less comfortable and rosy.

        I’m sorry that my voicing such an uncompromising, principled stance is so distressing to you.

        • Hendrik, I don’t think you understand what is at stake here. I’m not talking about an apocalyptic event that involves some version of the stagnation we see now. I’ve spent enough time in failed states like the DRC and Liberia to understand that when a country implodes, it looks like something so horrific that you would be a lot less sanguine about the prospect. Think of a hybrid of the July looting, spread nationwide plus Kabul airport and you grabbing what you can in minutes with whatsapps flying in from every direction of which part of your suburb is under attack, running the gauntlet of burning roads to the nearest refugee camp in a neighbouring country. Hopeing the World Food Programme will deliver food in time.

          You might think this is scare mongering, but I don’t think you recognise that our economy and social system is unique on the continent. There is no other country on the continent that depends as heavily on cash coming out of ATMs for survival. If that system breaks down, you will have millions of desperate people within weeks with no other option than to take from those who have. Stability in SA hangs on a thin, fraying thread.

          In July, the other provinces were able to save KZN from starvation. If the looting had spread nationwide, there was noone left to do the saving.

          At this point pragmatism and action is needed.

          Please explain how your “principled” approach will realistically achieve success and avoid catastrophe.

          • Dave, do you have any idea how patronising you are?

            Do you seriously believe that you have some kind of unique, privileged, prophetic insight into how how bad things can turn out for South Africa?

            If we do end up in the situation you describe it would put us on a par with the most likely post-liberation scenario in Africa, if history is anything to go by. And long before that, most of you will run away, and some of us will stay to do what we can to survive and assist others to survive, and rebuild, if we can.

            I believe that compromise is what got us into this mess, and I don’t believe that compromise will get us out of it. You disagree. You and I come from polar opposite views. Try to make peace with that.

            PS: Why did you put “principled” in quotes? Is the idea of principles really that foreign to you?

          • Hendrik, do you realise how sanctimonious you sound? As if you alone live according to principles? How about the principle of reduce suffering and preventing war?

            In some idealised country of peace, homogeneity and low inequality, perhaps a political culture of 100% honesty can succeed. In most countries, the need to appeal to multiple conflicting constituencies results in politicians trying to be all things to all people. Hence the almost global dissatisfaction with politicians being “liars”.

            In SA’s specific case, we can see what happened to politicians who took “principled” stands against Zuma. Nene, Jonas, Makhosi Koza, etc hailed by the public for doing the right thing and then dismissed to political oblivion and powerlessness. If Ramaphosa had done the same, we would more than likely now have President Zuma and Deputy President Magashule.

            Politics is a dirty game everywhere. In SA it is a brutal cage fight. And right now our biggest hope is for Ramaphosa to emerge victorious.

            Feel free to give a realistic road map of how your “principled” approach would lead us out of the mess?

    • As usual I love the way you slam the symptoms without enough honesty or empathy to look at the true cause; which is glaringly obvious:

      – Your ancestors – and mine – did not educate, uplift or in any way assist an entire nation of people. They were simply used as the equivalent of slaves.
      – after generations of this disgusting behaviour, the next step was “ooh, it’s getting a bit hot in this kitchen, we’re opting out . Ok completely suppressed and uneducated people, we’re getting a bit scared of you so here are the keys to the country – run it”

      …and your expect perfection? And sit in your ivory tower and judge?

      Shame on you. You are part of the problem.

      Until we all learn to compromise and to forgive; and to foster good intentions, however imperfect – this country is doomed.

      • Some of the most honest, righteous people I know are uneducated.

        Stop putting words in my mouth.

        CR is educated. He is also dishonest, lacks integrity, and puts the ANC ahead of the country.

        Shame on you. You are part of the problem.

  • Cyril Ramaphosa has been a very wealthy man for a long time . So what if he had been expelled from the party- he certainly did not depend on it financially. If he was so keen to fight its massive deficiencies such as corruption, he could have done that with public support, as it was essentially the pressure of civil society that brought down the Zuma Regime. He remains,and has always been,a party man , as evidenced by his espousal of the ANC’s defective policy of cadre deployment. There cannot be effective reform of the governing party without the departure of that system.

    • Our president’s defense of the ” high cost to members of parliament”, necessitating their recent salary increases from already bankrupt state coffers also says much about his support for the party no matter what. Two-thirds plus of our parliament are cadres or ex – ANC members that need to be pleased. Imagine the difference a thirty percent salary cut to all those MP salaries would release to create sustainable business projects in communities for instance. That would still leave them within the ranks of top earners in SA.

    • Ok, so let’s say CR had left like Jonas. Then what? Please provide a realistic argument as to how CR would have managed to stop Zuma handing over the presidency to one of his cronies. Note: Public Support did not bring down Zuma. Nor did civil society. CR brought it down with his victory by narrowest of margins at the elective conference. I have not seen one political commentator who claims that CR could have won that conference as an outsider.

      Just look at what happened to Makhosi Khoza. Resigned in a blaze of glory and then? What did all that “public support” get her? Nothing. Forgotten. Powerless.

  • MAYBE there was another way, e.g. resigning etc. as other commentators have said but I am just grateful that Zuma is gone and was not replaced by a Malusi or Dudu or Ace or or or…. Better the devil we know and at least he is wealthy enough to not need to feed at the trough!

    • What a shame when we reach the stage where we prefer the lesser of two evils and we abandon the hope of any alternative.

      Like so many victims of brutal attack, should we simply be grateful that we survived, or should we be outraged regardless of the fact that it could have been worse?

      • The Weimar Republic wasn’t up to much, but if it had carried on muddling through, as the “lesser of the two evils”it would have been a lot better than Hitler.

      • But most public and private decisions are the lesser of two evils, and in this case more useful than public outrage which carries no weight with these criminal thugs. We all have to deal with the hand you are given. The other immutable rule in politics is that your policies /views/attitudes mean nothing unless you first get elected/appointed.

      • Fine, be outraged. We are all outraged. And then what? Everyone magically votes for the DA?

        What is the actual plan you have that is better than supporting CR in his efforts to reform the ANC?

        • Not a bad idea, voting for the DA. Look at what the DA achieves in the areas where they govern, in comparison to the chaos, theft and utter derelict of duty where the ANC governs.

          • It is glaringly obvious that it is possible to both vote for the DA and still support CR in his efforts for positive change.

          • So in your opinion, the DA who’s support is shrinking, has a chance of winning a national election within 8 years?

            Please provide just one political analyst who supports this view.

  • If the president is really serious about serving this country, he would leave the ANC. The party is long gone, no one would be able to save it. He keeps putting himself in compromising positions, for what? Definitely not for you and me. Many moons ago, I used to believe that he could do something for the populace, not anymore. My heart bleeds when I see what happens to whistleblowers under his watch and the man barely lifts a finger to do anything about their plight. One thing he has never failed to do is to protect and promote those who have been found wanting…..

  • Thank you for publishing Mcebisi Jonas’s information. My faith in our president is totally justified by Jonas’s inside information.

  • Few of us realise how difficult it must have been and still is to be in the ‘belly of the beast’ yet unable to halt arrogance and corruption within a political party as well as within government…Every move is watched, each word monitored and quite likely endangerment of life and limb! Rebuilding state institutions after being hollowed out and implementing change from within is going to be a slow and fearful process – even if an opposition wins the next general election all criminal stains remain.

    • I suspect that it is not nearly as difficult as it is for honest civil servants with no political aspirations, who pay the ultimate price for taking a principled stand and doing their jobs against all odds, without the necessary protection from Ramaphosa and his allies.

      I don’t believe that Ramaphosa was shackled to the ANC against his will.

  • The end will justify the means! CR did the correct thing to fight the scourge from the inside. There are a lot of “armchair critics” who seem to know all, but what experience do they have in Politics? Very easy to point fingers! What were these critics doing when the Zuma camp was in the ascendancy? In the UK Bris Johnson also remained when the Brexit approach was falling apart. Today , because of his patience the Tories are riding a wave!

  • Reading Grootes above and Comments below also raises the broader issue of the media’s responsibility for public opinion on Ramaphosa and other politicians. The narrative is shaped by journalists whose reports – apparently informed by unnamed insiders speaking off the record, whom the rest of us have no access to or means to judge – are routinely presented as “truth”. Now we get this news that there was (may have been, likely still are) many players acting discreetly and effectively behind the scenes to counter some of the forces of state capture and corruption. This suggests that readers should take such reports as necessarily partial and incomplete editorialising, and that journalists should keep reminding us and yourselves that there is a lot going on that we don’t know about and may simply be wrong about.

    • Quite right, Helen. CR started quickly by appointing a new leader of the NPA. She has been faced with the disgusting job of cleaning up the capture of that organisation. Her success is showing in the level of top level criminals now facing jailtime. And guess where jz is, and what his “foundation” is exposing. It’s happening, but the wheels of justice grind exceedingly slow. We just have to be patient. Those who think they can still get away with robbing the poor will soon ( or eventually) be gifted with orange overalls. And they know it. But are truly stupid.

    • Karam Maharaj
      The general populace will hold back on the throwing of stones Mr. Ramaphosa until and unless you can show us that the ends justify the means. Bear in mind that the decent masses still see the current ANC as a criminal enterprise that needs to be destroyed and buried as a matter of urgency. The glorious ANC of Mandela, Tambo, Sisulu and all the Rivonia Trialists that we were honoured to be associated with is now extinct. To think that the current ANC is worthy of preservation through self-correction will prove to be an exercise in futility. Support for it with its history of criminality especially in the last decade is not only a blotch on our common decency and honour but an aberration of our character.
      You, Mr President , will be judged by how you act today in galvanising the goodwill of all the active citizens that stood by you during the recent Insurrection in the country and how who still believe that you should be given a second chance to lead us out of the morass and mayhem that the country is going through. The benefit of the doubt will be yours and you will be forgiven for all your actions or inactions while serving as Deputy President if you succeed in your actions today.
      Your only salvation and that of all of us lies in placing the interests of Country and its people above that of the putrid and decayed ANC. Prove your Leadership qualities now Mr. President or leave a legacy forever damned to perdition.

  • SCORPIO

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