Opinionista Susan Booysen 6 February 2019

The ANC Endgame – the next move is SONA

The 2019 State of the Nation Address is the next move in a vexed endgame to determine the character of the African National Congress and its government. On or between the lines, the SONA – a collective ANC-government document – is set to unravel some of the riddles of Ramaphosa’s strengths and weaknesses.

Its tell-tales will signal whether Ramaphoria is a mirage, whether a post-election ANC (in power) may carry the epithet of “reinvented”. The SONA on Thursday will be a test of a special type to Cyril Ramaphosa. Tactician, player of the long game … but how long can this game be stretched, with what guarantees?

All of South Africa and the ANC (even global investors) will be watching. They will be looking for signs of Ramaphosa’s consolidation of internal ANC power, political will and post-Nasrec ability to act on state corruption. It will not be the time for bland restatements. The bar has been raised. Ambiguous signals to date on Cyril Ramaphosa’s ability and willingness to act against corruption, urgently, mean that Ramaphoria has lost crucial shine. Commissions of inquiry are good, but popular cynicism grows about prospects for perpetrators in seats of legislative assemblies rather than on court benches. And, directly and indirectly, corruption affects economic growth and job creation.

The ticking of the chess clock reminds observers that in the months ahead there will be limited openings for definitive moves, some in internal ANC context, others (concerning especially ANC deployees at the coalface of the state trough) relevant to state operations. This is the domain of the SONA; this is also where the main fightback against state clean-up is focused. All eyes will be on whether Ramaphosa can step up this game – besides putting to bed suspicions about his own probity.

He will, most certainly, place multiple clean-ups and clean-outs of state-owned entities and prosecuting authorities at the centre of his argument to show that he is making headway. He will try to demonstrate that he is delivering on the earlier promises, including those of SONA 2018.

The SONA is a platform to persuade voters that this is the new ANC (in government) that is addressing the nation. In many respects, the SONA is the most potent of election campaign forums. Ramaphosa will have to be convincing in his assertion of power over counterforces in the ANC. He would have to prove to a very cynical electorate that he is in control of the ANC, has consolidated his position in the National Executive Committee (NEC) and National Working Committee (NWC) (this is the case already, give or take occasional counter-indicators), and that he does not fear a possible factional pull-back in lower ANC structures, that could prevent him from executing unadulterated clean-ups.

Ramaphosa’s SONA act will be required to build up the credit to shelter him and his ANC from dented believability once the ANC elections candidate lists surface – and those who are implicated and suspected of wrongdoing (albeit often not charged or convicted) populate those lists. Can any SONA be strong enough to carry Ramaphosa and the ANC through a likely list crisis?

Ramaphosa’s SONA 2019 has to pass the test of persuading voters who are wavering in their commitment to the ANC that he and his contingent will be able to remove the contaminated reputations – very likely to be on the candidate list – without fear of fightback and recall from the benches sooner, rather than “in Zondo time”.

Rumours of a Ramaphosa ‘‘blitzkrieg” post-election are not enough. It is only with evidence that Cyril Ramaphosa feels sufficiently secure in ANC inner chambers, and that he carries an unambiguous mandate to clean up ANC and ANC-controlled government, that this expectation will hold water. The SONA is the platform: if Cyril Ramaphos does not bolster the belief pre-election that he can and will undertake this action, on what grounds can voters believe that he might feel empowered post-election?

In a related set of actions, the pseudo-nationalist outcry against “imperialism” perpetrated by countries whose investments might help South Africa’s – and Ramaphosa’s – project of growth and jobs gain gravitas could very well scare off investors. These agents have by now been cowed into submission, reverting to having been “quoted out of context”, and that undercover diplomatic channels would have been preferable as a channel for them to remind the government of the need to act on corruption. The likelihood, in this complex endgame: Ramaphosa’s investment drive dented, and his post-election detractors bolster their base. “At least”… those Chinese investment billions come without anti-corruption strings.

The endgame is far from over. Will the SONA signal a checkmate, in any direction? DM

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