Opinionista Imraan Buccus 11 February 2019

Ramaphosa has rebuilt confidence at home and abroad, but that can easily unravel

President Cyril Ramaphosa quietly sent an assuring signal in his State of the Nation Address to the five governments who received a diplomatic rebuke from South Africa after urging action against corruption.

The bluster of a fortnight earlier around an unsigned memo from the diplomatic missions of Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the US and the UK urging action on, inter alia, corruption might not have elicited a direct response in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Thursday evening State of the Nation Address (SONA).

This is in spite of a reported demarche or diplomatic rebuke from the Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, Lindiwe Sisulu to the apparently offending countries. The ANC and the South African Communist Party also came out with guns blazing. Seldom heard rhetoric like “imperialist forces” and “latter-day colonialists” featured prominently in their hurried missives.

It was a dreadful comedown for both the Minister and the political grandees when it emerged that the document in question was apparently dated and had been buried deep on the desk of a presidential adviser. The further denial from the diplomatic missions of any formal correspondence added to the embarrassment that comes of inexperience.

Reading deeper into the SONA one does get the distinct impression that the questions raised in the memo did elicit a veiled reaction. The lines that stand out, in particular, is Ramaphosa’s appeal to be alert to the quantum of foreign direct investment. He stood up on his toes as he gushed:

In 2017, we recorded an inflow of foreign direct investment amounting to R17-billion. Official data shows that just in the first three quarters of 2018, there was an inflow of R70-billion. This is a phenomenal achievement.”

This was clearly a quiet assurance to the “offending” governments, who comprise South Africa’s bigger and historic investors, that he was alert to their abiding interest in the country. Quite how this might have been received by South Africa’s new BFFs in BRICS, one cannot be certain. India, China and Russia have rapidly emerged with potential and demonstrable investor alternatives for South Africa.

The former two have pursued South Africa quite aggressively with the bilateral hotlines puffing steam. The Russian way of doing business leaves aside the diplomatic pleasantries, as we saw in the heavy-handed approach to the nuclear deal.

As the Zondo Commission Inquiry into State Capture unfolds, we are more likely to see further embarrassing revelations. Former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene laid himself bare before the commission. He implicated a number of other Cabinet colleagues who apparently put him under pressure to sign off on the nuclear deal. As he found strength in his backbone, his patriotic duty forced him to fend off the offending pressure.

In announcing additional investigative muscle to bolster the National Director of Public Prosecutions, Ramaphosa was making no bones about tightening the screws on alleged offenders. Looking on the flurry of the past week with, among others, the announcement of the search for a SARS Commissioner, Ramaphosa is especially keen to send a strong signal that the institutions of state and government occupy priority among the host of other items on his agenda.

Since assuming office Ramaphosa has distinguished himself as a high-energy president and an even more able juggler. He has had to hold both party and state together. He has had to pander to intra-party sensitivities and balance that against demands to act against or fire those in his ranks with skeletons in their cupboards.

In the face of these inevitable challenges, Ramaphosa has kept a steady hand on the wheel. His persona within the party has been affable, but firm. His manner with foreign heads of state and multi-national corporations alike is one that evokes confidence and respect. A strong background in both political negotiation and the boardrooms of big business have given him an unparalleled skill.

In the responses to the SONA, the DA’s Mmusi Maimane, in a predictable playbook, again badgered him about acting against corruption within ANC and Cabinet ranks. Ramaphosa has demonstrated a firm intent to act, but he has to balance that against a number of known and unknown variables. His grip as ANC President is legitimate and credible, but not unassailable.

Intermittent squeaks from those that hark to an ancient regime have enormous nuisance value. A good demonstration of that was the failure of the ANC Secretary-General to put up a spirited fight against the legal challenge by the North West’s Supra Mahumapelo.

A feeble legal team with a weak or non-existent argument was assembled in the face of a direct challenge to both Ramaphosa and the ANC NEC’s authority. A court can only come up with a decision on the basis of the facts put before it.

Ramaphosa cannot allow himself to be let down. He has earned considerable confidence at home and abroad, but that can easily unravel. He played his hand very carefully with the memo from the foreign governments by responding neither belligerently nor meekly. He demonstrates a formidable skill in holding things together by saying and doing the tough things that are his responsibility.

The diplomats have a far easier job. Whatever their intentions, they may be well advised to seek a quiet chat when they have a bee in the bonnets, rather than resorting to unappreciated memoranda. DM

Buccus is a senior research associate at ASRI, a research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad  programme on political transformation. Buccus promotes #Reading Revolution via Books@Antique at Antique Café in Morningside, Durban.

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