Opinionista Imraan Buccus 6 August 2018

Where is your backbone, President Ramaphosa?

Cyril Ramaphosa came to power promising a new dawn. But his announcement last Tuesday evening of the ANC’s decision to change the Constitution is a clear indication that he does not have the backbone to resist the populist temptation.

As many commentators have pointed out, Cyril Ramaphosa’s decision to use the public broadcaster to make an ANC announcement in his capacity as party president was a gross violation of the independence of the public broadcaster. It was, to speak plainly, a return of aspects of the banana republic antics of Jacob Zuma.

And, as has also been pointed out by many commentators, the whole matter of the Constitution is just a red herring. The Constitution is no barrier to land reform. The reason why land reform hasn’t happened since 1994 has nothing to do with the Constitution. On the contrary, the failure with regard to land reform is solely a matter of a lack of political will on the question of land reform.

The forces around Jacob Zuma, including outright opportunists and people like Carl Niehaus and Andile Mngxitama, tried to blame the ANC’s failures on the Constitution to deflect popular anger away from the party, and because they wanted a more authoritarian alternative. If Ramaphosa had a backbone he would be honest about the ANC’s failures and commit to doing better going forward. Instead he has sacrificed his integrity by associating himself with Zuma’s dishonesty and opportunism.

Some have suggested that it was no coincidence that Ramaphosa chose to make his announcement on the same day that catastrophic new unemployment figures were announced. The very high rate of unemployment, especially among young people, is a national crisis and places the stability and viability of our democracy at serious risk. If Ramaphosa hoped that a promise to change the Constitution would give hope to the unemployed he is a very cynical man indeed.

For a start, that announcement, and the way that it was made, will damage the economy and worsen the unemployment crisis. Moreover the ANC’s land reform programme has long been subject to elite capture and there is no evidence to suggest that this will change any time soon. If more vigorous land reform does happen it is likely to benefit elites connected to the party rather than the millions of young people without work. And, of course, the majority of these young people live in cities and no one seems to be really taking the urgent need for urban land reform seriously.

Ramaphosa’s announcement was not about the interests of the people of South Africa. It was an attempt to outpace the EFF, and renew the fading support for the ANC, before the 2019 election. The EFF may get huge media coverage but it has only 6% of the vote, and the polls show that it won’t grow much in the next election. Ramaphosa really shouldn’t be worrying about the EFF and the fact that he is so obviously concerned about his increasingly militaristic and racist rivals makes him look weak.

What Ramaphosa should be seriously concerned about is the urban majority that is rapidly losing confidence in the ANC. Some of these people vote for other parties with reluctance, while many more simply stay at home on election day. Many of this urban majority are poor, without work and desperate for urban land.

The social media-driven discourse on land is largely an elite discourse. This discourse focuses on commercial farm land. But when we look at popular politics we see clearly that there is no social movement struggling for rural land. But in every city across the country poor people are struggling for urban land. In some cases they are organised and in others not. But the vast scale of the struggles for urban land is undeniable.

If Ramaphosa was a more astute leader he would offer his support to this constituency, and commit his subordinates in the provinces and municipalities to take rapid action to release urban land to the poor. This could all be done with the framework of the law and would generate a huge boost to his personal popularity, and to the ANC in the 2019 election.

It will take at least a generation for our country to recover from the massive looting of the Zuma years. We cannot expect overnight change, or miracles. But for us to get out of the mess that we are in, and to avoid the real risk of having to go to the IMF for a bailout, we need astute and mature leadership. At the moment Ramaphosa is failing to offer that leadership.

His craven apologetics before the Zulu King, and now this banana republic style announcement, make Ramaphosa look weak, and politics is largely a matter of perception.

Ramaphosa is doing an excellent job of cleaning up the stinking rot at the state-owned enterprises. For this he must be commended. But he is not taking the same decisive action with regard to the education crisis, and the related unemployment crisis. On the land question we are not seeing the astute and decisive vision that we need. Instead we are seeing a man who looks panicked giving in to the most damaging forms of populism.

It seems that it will fall to civil society to offer a credible vision of the way out of the mess. On the land question it will be up to civil society to ensure that land reform does in fact happen, that it is not subject to wholesale elite capture and that the people who need it most – the vast numbers of people without employment – are the ones who benefit.

In the meantime we all need to hope that our President finds a way to acquire a backbone. He desperately needs it, and we desperately need him to pull through and offer a clear vision of a better future. DM

Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad program on political transformation.

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