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Ramaphosa’s mettle and political skill will be severely tested over next 18 months

Mzukisi Qobo is head of Wits School of Governance (designate), University of the Witwatersrand.

There was much fanfare about how a Cyril Ramaphosa victory at the ANC elective conference will bring the dawn of a new hope for South Africa. The outcome of the top six posts, however, was more complex, throwing up a frightening hodgepodge of a leadership team made up of pro-Zuma factionalists and some who have been amplifying rhetoric of reform.

Ramaphosa may have won the big prize of ANC president, but he emerges with his authority neutered by a very thin margin of just under 2%, and the fact that half of the top six of the ANC’s leadership comprises controversial figures such as David Mabuza, Ace Magashule, and Jessie Duarte. Ramaphosa, therefore, lacks the needed pull to implement whatever ideas he may have about reforming the party or the state. He could spend the next 18 months as a eunuch leader unless he takes some big decisions.

The top team six represents a mixture of interests ranging from champions of State Capture – Magashule and Duarte’s sons along with Zuma’s son have worked for the Guptas – to those who have presided over tender irregularities and mafia-style governance in Mpumalanga, in the case of David Mabuza. These characters represent anything but a reform agenda. The other two figures, Gwede Mantashe and Paul Mashatile, may have a tough time in asserting themselves as the face of reform behind Ramaphosa.

Another important factor to consider is that being elected ANC president does not automatically make Ramaphosa president of the country as market sentiment seems to believe. It will take another arduous 18 months or so before general elections are held, paving the way for the election of the country’s new president by a newly constituted parliament. The ANC’s top six will largely determine the composition of the ANC list of Members of Parliament, with Mabuza heading the party’s deployment committee in his capacity as deputy president. At this stage, change is not certain.

The period of 18 months between January 2018 and August 2019, when general elections may likely be held, is a very long time in politics. In the interregnum, Ramaphosa’s mettle and political skill will be severely tested. While politically Ramaphosa is putatively senior to Zuma, the latter still holds the reins of government and key state institutions, including the security cluster. Further, Zuma’s interests in Luthuli House are well protected by Magashule and Duarte. These three figures, including Zuma, enjoy a deep bond that is sealed through their sons who operate at the heart of the state capture project in Gupta’s Saxonwold.

Against this picture, there is likely to be permanent stalemate on crucial decisions that could be viewed as threatening to Zuma by his faction. At the level of government, the relationship between Zuma and Ramaphosa will become increasingly tense, with energies sapped away from implementing important reform measures in the next 18 months, thereby sending conflicting signals to Cabinet ministers, senior government officials, and the markets. The transition between Zuma and Ramaphosa is likely to be long, uncertain, and marked by policy paralysis.

Those who were hoping that Zuma would be recalled if Ramaphosa becomes president will have to reconcile themselves with another phase of a bumbling Zuma Presidency until mid-2019, with damaging consequences for the economy and public institutions. The ANC caucus in Parliament is unlikely to institute a vote of no confidence against Zuma, since it takes directives from the ANC’s national executive committee.

For those looking for a silver lining, there is a small window of opportunity that Ramaphosa will need to fully exploit within the next three months of becoming ANC president. To succeed, Ramaphosa will need to think less about his position as president of a dysfunctional party, which he can do very little to fix. He must forget about fantasies of party unit. The ANC has long lost its moral soul and is beyond repair. Ramaphosa will need to see himself as a bold and decisive reformer who can take unpopular decisions and leave a positive legacy for the country.

There are two major decisions that have been handed to him by legal fortune, and that could be game-changing politically. If he misses these, he will go down as having been an inconsequential leader of the ANC, and may not ascend to the top position in the country as prospects of a coalition government could loom large and dislodge the ANC in 2019.

The first window of opportunity is the ruling by Judge Danston Mlambo earlier this month that gives authority to Ramaphosa to appoint the head of the National Prosecution Authority. At the end of Zuma’s appeal process, and if such an appeal fails, Ramaphosa will need to act swiftly to appoint someone with credibility to head the NPA, allowing the process for Zuma’s prosecution on criminal charges to proceed. Were Ramaphosa to play this card, this could force the NEC to persuade Zuma to step down early, as it would be untenable to have the country’s President spending most of his time defending criminal charges in courts with the general elections around the corner.

The second decision that may embolden Ramaphosa and inject life into his reform agenda is another ruling by Judge Mlambo that enjoins him to establish terms of reference for the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture. This would then guide the work of a judge to be appointed by the Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. Importantly both processes – the work of the new head of NPA and that of a Commission of Inquiry – will happen independently – enabling Ramaphosa to be hands off.

While all of this will certainly open up possibilities for cleaning elements of government that have been corrupted during Zuma’s Presidency, it will not bring about quick fixes to South Africa’s deep-seated challenges. Zuma’s faction – or the State Capture project – is still well entrenched in the ANC’s top leadership in Luthuli House. Further, Zuma still has a trump card to play: he could reshuffle his Cabinet and reassign Ramaphosa in another role to scupper the appointment of an NPA head by someone he does not trust. He is capable of doing so since he has been playing cat and mouse with the law. In playing this card, Zuma would hope he could ride the storm of opposition within the ANC NEC. After all he has everything to lose if he doesn’t act to neutralise his deputy.

Whatever the case may be, what is clear is that the challenges facing the country will persist for the next 18 months. These include low business confidence, low growth, mounting debt levels in government, rising cost of living, and high joblessness. Progress on the policy implementation front will be stunted. Zuma will push Ramaphosa into the spotlight to solve the impossible in the absence of full authority, including implementing free education and dealing with public sector workers who are agitating for steep wage increases. He will also be tasked to deal with the business sector and investor community to give them a false sense of hope. Zuma has used this script before when he appointed Ramaphosa to head the Cabinet War Room on the energy crisis, and also put him in charge of reforming state-owned enterprises.

On both counts, Ramaphosa could not produce success as real powers lay with Zuma. It is difficult to point to any meaningful policy change that could be attributed to Ramaphosa during his time as deputy president in the last five years. It is a leap of faith to think he will perform miracles when a pro-Zuma faction in Luthuli House babysits him.

It is too early to celebrate Ramaphosa’s rise. He is unlikely to have muscle to reform the party or the state. Driving real political and economic change requires a leader who has full confidence, and who is empowered to take decisions.

Sometimes what may appear to be light at the end of the tunnel could turn out to be another train coming from the opposite direction to wreak havoc, as one Slovenian philosopher once cautioned. For now, South Africans will have to prepare themselves for yet more turbulence ahead. DM


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