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The Ramaphosa Dilemma – the wake-up call of the North West protests


Susan Booysen is Director of Research, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), and visiting and emeritus professor, Wits School of Governance.

The Mahumaphelo protests unfolding around the North West province are an ominous cloud over the nascent Cyril Ramaphosa regime.

No doubt Ramaphosa would have preferred concerted time to focus on building bulging investments and growing a little South African economic tiger. Instead, on his doorstep arrived the North West protest crisis (besides the eThekwini ANC regional revolt), disconcerting because it pushes the new, CR-centred ANC to confront its Nasrec demons head-on and without delay.

Premier Supra Mahumapelo’s counter-attack, to defend himself against the rising calls for him to step down, has encompassed allegations of the victorious Nasrec faction around Ramaphosa being on a witch hunt, purging the losers of the ANC elections of December 2017, thereby “endangering the unity” of the ANC.

With the sluice gates of corruption allegations against Mahumapelo and his associates only just opening, the province’s Mahumapelo praise singers have been lauding their patron’s performance in governance, while most of the provincial regions (not known for ethical operations in preparing organisationally for the Nasrec nominations, for example) have come out in guns blazing in support of their “Black Jesus” (Mahumapelo’s self-description).

Ramaphosa appears to be damned acting either way. The conventional “prisoner’s dilemma” has been upgraded into “Ramaphosa’s dilemma”. He has to show evidence of rooting out corruption and inventing a new ANC that will be undefeatable in national elections, but needs a united ANC or  he will fail in this mission. The “Supramecists” are exploiting the situation every millimetre of the way.

Mahumapelo shields himself, alleging that the calls for action against him are factional, vengeful or harmful of ANC unity. He ignores the popular nature of the revolts and focuses his fight-back on provincial structures that are loaded in his favour. Ramaphosa, continuously paralysed by the modesty of his 179-vote Nasrec majority, still appears terrified of being seen to be taking action against protagonists in the Zuma (Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma) camp… and the Mahumapelo contingent exploits this to the full.

The Mahumapelo camp also hides behind the fact that their “Jesus” is innocent until proven guilty – and there are no guilty verdicts against him. After all, he has been in charge and able to ensure invisible paper trails, at least while the singing patron was ensconced in the Union Buildings. Part of the Ramaphosa dilemma is that the unfolding protests – threatening in their own right – are an imminent and pressing threat to the new President’s credibility for fast-flowing anti-corruption action.

Provincial citizens have been living under the Mahumapelo regime, have seen dubious government projects unfold, and have heard about a litany of enrichment schemes (some have seen chunks of evidence). Their priority popular demand is to bring in political change, and they expect to see the Nasrec Ramaphosa victory replicated at the provincial level – and after that at the municipal level where North West municipalities are frequently in a state of disintegration. The Ramaphosa dawn has not appeared in the North West as yet.

The protesting citizens have seen and heard enough. Some certainly are under the influence of anti-Mahumapelo leaders, but hordes of them are not. Judging by voices on the ground, due process for them is laudable, in principle. After years of experiencing maladministration, collapsed services and probably corruption, they demand justice and leadership change, now.

This further highlights Ramaphosa’s dilemma. In the mere two months since Zuma’s Valentine’s Day resignation and the formal end of Zuma power, Ramaphosa has overseen the start of multiple legal processes against the suspected corruption perpetrators. Some of the clean-outs in state institutions have been decisive.

Ramaphosa, or “CR-179” (given his slim Nasrec margin of victory), however, loathes to be seen to be acting without the backing of the top ANC structures. With Mahumapelo, as was the case with Zuma, Ramaphosa is attempting to tip these scales… while multiple towns are burning.

In the case of Zuma, however, there were metaphorical fires around the country (combined with targeted political killings of course). The case of the Mahumapelo fires is different. In tumbling domino action communities are joining in the protest action – anger about the premier and suspected abuses of provincial power is finding fertile ground in despair about erratic and frequently failed local and provincial government.

Community protest in South Africa, sometimes equal to “service delivery protest”, has not yet translated into generalised uprisings that unseat governments. As more and more North West Communities, however, join the fray it becomes more likely that the wave of protests might be the first in South Africa to unseat a (provincial) government – and condemn the credibility of a national government that was hamstrung by the edict of party unity.

Tick the list, in main Mahikeng, Vryburg, Taung, Christiana, Delareyville. So far, the targets have largely been “soft” – foreigner shop owners, a few bigger shopping centre occupants, burning street barricades, an evacuated bus, trucks that transport lootable items, and municipal infrastructure (besides threats to burn the houses of the premier and Mahikeng mayor). Beyond Mahikeng and surrounds, towns with a loaded political message, the protests looked much like standard local-level South African protests.

Even if the wave of North West protests subsides or is suppressed – and this was not happening at the time of writing – it would have been a South African benchmark. It is probably the closest that community protests in South Africa have come to knitting together across municipal boundaries to constitute a generalised uprising that forces a change in political incumbency. Short of assuming this character, the protest might still go down in history as having revealed the mutilation that inaction and slow-motion action against corruption, constrained by dictates of party unity, can inflict on the invention of new, clean government. DM


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