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The Ramaphosa versus the Zuma gap years – how the rules AND the game have changed


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

When Jacob Zuma replaced Thabo Mbeki as president of the ANC – and later the country – he was not faced with much opposition within the party after the formation of the breakaway Cope party. Ramaphosa has to negotiate very different waters after almost a decade of Zuma's reign.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is in a “gap year of fire. A comparison of Ramaphosa’s year between assuming the presidency of the ANC and leading the party into the next national elections with Jacob Zuma’s 2008 shows how irrevocably South African politics have changed.

While being tasked with forging unity out of’ an impossibly divided ANC, Ramaphosa in 2018 has to make convincing progress in cleaning up government (amidst purge phobia) and re-establish some credible international and economic profile for the country. All three aspects have to help lead the ANC into a clear-cut 2019 national electoral majority.

The comparison 2008 and 2018 is set against the timelines of substitution of presidents of South Africa. Zuma, elected ANC president in December 2007, only assumed power of the presidency of South Africa in May 2009. Thabo Mbeki remained ensconced as president until the ill-judged Nicholson ruling of September 2008. On appeal it was reversed but it set the ball rolling to force Mbeki into resigning.

As caretaker president Kgalema Motlanthe kept the presidential seat warm for Zuma to step into full presidential power after the 2009 elections. This process was tainted but not thwarted by the knowledge of Zuma’s flawed politics.

Ramaphosa’s victory at Nasrec, in December 2017, forced a new ANC pathway. The CR17 campaign required an urgent transition into state power. Zuma’s legacy of ill-repute, corruption and state capture, along with an incredible mound of evasion of court appearances and obfuscated links into wrong-doing, combined with the approaching 2019 elections. Preceding election results and an accumulating body of polling data showed that “what Zuma had done” was to bring the ANC to the verge of electoral defeat.

Ramaphosa’s transition into the state presidency had to be immediate, or the ANC would be a sitting duck for the status of below 50 percent in a next election.

In a major step forward the historical two days from 14-16 February this year saw Zuma exit and Ramaphosa enter the presidency of South Africa. There was a decade of damage, extending into state collapse, to be undone. This contrasted with Zuma’s entrance on the back of the “1996 class project”, associated with Mbeki, who had alienated principal cadres.

Mbeki’s ideological and policy base was contested, but it came without the corruption-capture nexus, and without the personal-political-capital investment that the Zumaists attached to their policy base.

Zuma’s promise of popular reconnection and radical policy change came to none, except in his final parting shots. Instead of the concerted use of state resources for the betterment of lives and realisation of the promise of democracy, the Zuma decade increasingly plunged South Africa into the darkness of hijacked state resources.

Given Mbeki’s gradual and relatively graceful exit from first ANC and then state power, Zuma’s gap year gave him the opportunity to consolidate his power base in the run-up to his faction taking over political and bureaucratic power in the clean-sweep in 2009. ANC candidate lists were Zuma lists. The extensive fusion of state and party power under Zuma followed and ensured that Zumaists were deployed across the board of state institutions.

Ramaphosa a decade later, in planning for 2019 and at a time that the ANC needs it most, does not have the luxury of bringing in an unambiguously new slate. The Zumaists’ post-Nasrec purge phobia – both real and used as shield to fend off Ramaphosa’s clean-up actions – and the task of forging unity define the Ramaphosa transition year. It forces the ANC to mute its clean-up actions while piggy-backing on public sentiment that favours Ramaphosa, all in the name of trying to secure an electoral victory come 2019.

This reveals a core difference between Ramaphosa’s and Zuma’s transition years. A decade ago Zuma’s task was eased by the split-off of the Congress of the People (Cope) in the name of the revolt of the pro-Mbeki (often simply anti-Zuma) group, ultimately without Mbeki himself. Zuma did not have to fight his battle to assert his new promised order internally. The “enemy” had taken itself out of the ANC into a new party. The Mbeki-ists could be attacked relentlessly in their political, social and financial positions. Cope had split from the ANC; it was free game.

A decade later the ANC finds itself in a fragile political-electoral position; the freedom of splitting and retaining a national electoral majority has contracted. Besides, the Zumaists across the spheres of government are fighting to retain the patronage networks which they had constructed in the last decade.

It is a war at the lower levels of party and state where, a decade ago, the Zumaists could just move in and take over. Ironically, it was the excesses and transgressions of the Zuma decade that forged the new ANC dynamics.

Unity” has become the name of the ANC’s 2018 game. The new and daunting rules are: persuade an electorate that demands change away from the dictates to the Zuma decade that this change will be delivered by a faction and its president that cannot move decidedly, that have to forge unity with the discredited ones, and have to embrace the members of the old Zuma order, declaring them to be immune from excision and replacement.

Winning a 2019 election on the basis of popular sentiment is pitched against ‘re-establishing Zumaist control over the ANC.

These changed rules – a symbol of the gap years of two South African presidents – are being put to practice as the ANC’s branches, regions and provinces fight one another and the national leadership structures for control of the ANC. DM


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