Opinionista Mzukisi Qobo 16 January 2018

The dangers of false optimism in a Ramaphosa presidency

If sentiment could be turned into concrete in the way that stones were turned into bread in biblical times, we would be bracing ourselves for good fortune in 2018 – but there are serious factors that militate against a positive outlook.

The year 2018 is likely to be the longest and most confounding in South Africa’s political calendar. In the wake of the ANC’s elective conference in December 2017 and election of Cyril Ramaphosa as ANC president, there has been a resurgence of hope, a flicker of light, and a sense that South Africa’s renewal is on the horizon. The ANC faithful who have witnessed darker days under Zuma seem upbeat about the prospects of the country in the coming years. Even the rand has sustained a strong climb since the ANC’s elective conference, with the business community sounding positive about the future.

If sentiment could be turned into concrete in the way that stones were turned into bread in biblical times, we would be bracing ourselves for good fortune in 2018. There are serious factors that militate against a positive outlook. In these times we need to guard against what Roger Scruton in The Uses of Pessimism calls the dangers of false optimism, whose impulse is to cast away the shackles of concern in the face of lurking danger. Such optimism can cripple the mobilising force of civil society and undercut the emergence of a progressive opposition movement. What we need more than optimism is to intensify the pressure on the ruling party, precisely because the outcomes of the elective conference portend darker days ahead – and not the renewed confidence that the party leaders sell to the public.

Cyril Ramaphosa is yet to demonstrate confidence and stamp his authority as the new leader of the ANC. He missed an opportunity to do so when presenting the party’s January 8 statement to mark its 106th year in existence. He bleeted meekly, like a sheep. It is not lost to him that he stumbled to victory when he won by a slender margin at the ANC’s elective conference in December. His tentative climb to the top position in the party was largely on the strength of support from David Mabuza, a man who has a chequered history as premier of Mpumalanga. Ramaphosa’s weak legitimacy should be a great source of concern for a number of reasons.

Ramaphosa must be aware that although he occupies a powerful position in the party, it will take another year and a half for him to become the country’s president. In the meantime, his opponents will work hard to clip his wings. The debilitating factions in the party were not settled at the elective conference at Nasrec. They continue beyond, and will mark much of the year ahead, right up to the preparation for the general elections campaigning season. Ramaphosa’s biggest challenge in the ANC NEC is not so much Zuma’s loyalists, but individuals who, under Zuma’s rule, have broken the law and stolen from the state. These individuals were never loyal to Zuma in the first place, as much as Zuma was not loyal to anyone but himself. His cronies exploited his vulnerability for their own interests, just as Zuma used everyone who was pliable to maximise his interests to secure his personal survival. These tendencies are enduring across the party.

With Zuma no longer ANC president, and with many in the leadership body of the ANC tainted by corruption to varying degrees, Ramaphosa’s work is cut out for him. The party he presides over is eminently corrupt, venality seeps very deep in the marrow of the ANC, and corruption is a thread that runs from local to national government. Dismantling corruption and strengthening the rule of law could become a life-and-death battle for Ramaphosa, figuratively and possibly literally. This could be more so given the likelihood that the party’s coffers are tainted by dirty money from corrupt activities in local government and through procurement projects in state-owned enterprises.

There is further false optimism that Ramaphosa will, over time, gradually gain the full confidence of his party in a way that diminishes his negligible margin at the elective conference, and that on the back of this renewed goodwill he will be in a stronger position to rebuild his party, clean corruption in government, and drive socio-economic change. This sentiment will crash into the concrete realities in the ANC where factions have congealed and are institutionalised. Further, any attempt by Ramaphosa to go after the Mafia and criminals in his party will be blocked. If he persists, he may find himself serving only one term as party leader and the country’s president. It would not be the first time a South Africa president served one term. Mandela too served only one. In the case of Mandela this was by choice, whereas with Ramaphosa this will be the making of the interplay of factions in the party.

When he finally becomes the country’s president in 2019, if indeed that happens, Ramaphosa will find it hard not to appoint David Mabuza as his deputy. From such a position, Mabuza will have a good shot as a serious contender for the position of ANC president in 2022 and South Africa’s in 2024, a mere seven years away. It should be remembered that Mabuza received the highest number of votes, surpassing even Ramaphosa, at the ANC’s elective conference. This certainly gives him clout. It is Mabuza who ultimately facilitated Ramaphosa’s win, and he will expect some payback for this gesture.

The prospects of a Mabuza presidency in 2024, barring any opposition or coalition victory at the ballot, are very real. Zuma has lowered the bar for the highest office in the land, and has demonstrated that if you want to barricade yourself from the law, you can ride the wave of ANC factions and take refuge in the presidency. Thus, false optimism will not help South Africa to navigate out of these dangerous waters.

It is too early to celebrate Ramaphosa’s rise. Even under the best of circumstances in which he serves two terms, the challenges facing the country are deeper than an individual leader can shoulder. Ramaphosa is neither a messiah nor a magician. He will be severely constrained by, on the one hand, his party’s factions; and on the other by competing demands in society, depleted capacities in government, dysfunctional governance in various local authorities, and diminishing resources and fiscal constraints. What is needed more than ever before is that society remains vigilant and continues to put pressure on the ruling party, focus its attention on governance challenges, and support civil society activities. We should take to heart the ANC’s popular song, “The road ahead is arduous and full of thorns”, while we push hard to loosen its grip over the country. DM

Mzukisi Qobo is Associate Professor and deputy at the NRF Chair on African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy, University of Johannesburg

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