First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

The Economist is wrong to back Ramaphosa

Defend Truth


The Economist is wrong to back Ramaphosa

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

To general surprise, The Economist, a venerable flagship of classical and economic liberalism, has endorsed the ANC in the 2019 national election. ‘To stop the rot in South Africa, back Cyril Ramaphosa,’ it said. It’s wrong. Don’t listen.

There has for some time been a feeling among Ramaphorians that South Africa’s only hope for a better future is to give Cyril Ramaphosa a “strong mandate” in the upcoming national election, to strengthen his hand in the effort to root out the corruption in his party and in government.

Peter Bruce, columnist and former editor of Business Day, is a notable proponent of this view (both articles paywalled), and so is Oscar van Heerden, an international relations scholar writing in these pages.

On 25 April, The Economist followed suit, officially endorsing Cyril Ramaphosa under the tagline, “Good man, bad party”. “The liberal opposition cannot win an election on May 8th. So it is up to the president to clean up his own party’s mess,” it wrote in its leader.

This is a very strange position to take. The liberal opposition also couldn’t win an election in 2014, yet The Economist endorsed the Democratic Alliance (DA) in that election. It’s spineless to endorse a party just because you think it’ll win anyway. The newspaper sacrificed its liberal principles on the altar of crude pragmatism.

It admits that there is a strong case for dumping the ruling party:

It has been in power for 25 years — too long for any party, anywhere. Despite Mr Ramaphosa’s efforts, it is still stuffed with crooks, some of them too powerful for the president to sack. Though home to a broad range of ideologies, the ANC has recently seen a worrying resurgence of far-left populism among its cadres. For example, it vows to change the Constitution to allow the expropriation of farmland without compensation.”

That is hardly a ringing endorsement. It also agrees that there is a strong case for backing the liberal opposition, the DA:

It is far cleaner than the ANC. Its charismatic young leader, Mmusi Maimane, believes in free markets. The parts of the country that it runs, including Cape Town and Johannesburg, are islands of efficiency in a sea of murk and incompetence. Though the vast majority of municipalities are controlled by the ANC, a recent study by Good Governance Africa, a think-tank, found that 15 of the 20 best-governed were run by the DA, alone or in a coalition.”

Despite this, however, The Economist endorses the ANC at the national level. Its reasons are that although the DA has the right ideas, it is in no position to implement them. This is self-defeating circular logic. If a majority votes for the ANC, in part thanks to The Economist’s endorsement, then no, they won’t be in a position to implement them. If one wants them to be in a position to implement their “right ideas”, then someone has to vote for them.

The newspaper argues that if the ANC performs badly in the elections, this would undermine Ramaphosa and embolden the large faction ranged against him. But there is no reason to believe that a comfortable ANC victory would in any way strengthen Ramaphosa’s hand.

In its own special report, The Economist admits that “there is no magic share of the vote that can solve problems with his party”. In particular, the margin of victory will not change the party’s leftward policy lurches on issues such as the national minimum wage, national health insurance, land expropriation without compensation and forcing private pension funds to buy up unsustainable state-owned debt.

It will also not change who occupies senior positions within the ANC. Neither as the country’s president, nor as the ANC’s president, does Ramaphosa wield the power to change that. This power lies with the branches and the patronage networks established by strongmen like David Mabuza, Ace Magashule and Supra Mahumapelo.

If Ramaphosa was unable to oust the rotten members of his own Cabinet before the election and was unable to keep the incompetent and the corrupt off the ANC election list, why would anyone expect him to do better after the election?

The Economist also believes that if the ANC were to fall short of an outright majority, it would be forced into a coalition with a smaller party such as the EFF, which, it says, would make matters even worse. Certainly, an ANC/EFF coalition is an awful prospect, and the newspaper is right to caution against its “racist demagoguery” and “disregard for economic reality”, and to warn that “such an alliance would foster an even more bloated, corrupt and ineffective state”.

But the ANC has already made overtures to EFF leader Julius Malema to “return home”, which would make the matter of a coalition moot.

More importantly, in warning against the danger of a weak ANC governing in coalition with the EFF, The Economist ignores the far more serious threat — eloquently made by IRR policy head Anthea Jeffery — that a strong election result for the ANC would give the ANC and EFF a combined two-thirds majority in Parliament, permitting them to amend the Constitution without fear of opposition. That poses a far greater danger to liberal democracy and the market economy than a governing coalition with a lesser majority.

The Economist has a shopping list of things it wants Ramaphosa to do — from replacing Zuma appointees with honest, competent people, to reducing job-killing regulations, to taking on the teachers’ unions — and believes that only a strong victory in the elections would enable him to pursue these agendas. But that is not true.

The power balance within the ANC is not determined by the national election. The policy objectives of the ANC are not determined by the margin of victory. What happens within the ANC is determined by its internal democracy. In the ANC, the power lies with the branches and those who control the local and provincial patronage networks. General election voters don’t get a say in this.

A good ANC election result does not benefit Ramaphosa at the expense of the Zuma faction. The national election in South Africa selects a political party. It does not select a president. It does not select policies. A good election result strengthens all the people on the ANC’s election list. This list is led by Ramaphosa, but it also includes a gallery of rogues with names like David Mabuza, Ace Magashule, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Nomvula Mokonyane, Bathabile Dlamini, Malusi Gigaba and Mosebenzi Zwane. When you vote for the ANC, you vote for all of these people. They will all get seats in Parliament. They will all resist Ramaphosa’s attempts to clean up the government. Whether the ANC gets 50% or 60% of the national vote will make no difference to Ramaphosa’s ability to pursue reforms.

Even if Ramaphosa does manage to sweep out the Zuma-era trash after the election, forlorn though that hope may be, one is still left with, well, Ramaphosa. The Economist correctly identified some of the radical left-wing policies adopted by the ANC. These policies won’t change.

Ramaphosa himself is a unionist and a committed socialist. Like the ANC itself, he remains committed to the National Democratic Revolution (NDR). This strategic plan with Soviet roots was originally written by the South African Communist Party and adopted by the ANC in the late 1960s.

The NDR not only called for the overthrow of colonial oppression and the establishment of a united, democratic and non-racial South Africa, which are laudable goals, but also called for extensive state control of the economy in the ultimate march towards socialism. At every Congress, the party reaffirms the NDR as its policy foundation. At best, a Ramaphosa-led ANC will continue along the path of a “mixed economy”, dominated and directed by the state.

This is what The Economist endorses, even though it goes against every principle of classical and economic liberalism for which the newspaper has claimed to stand for 176 years. What’s worse is that it is prepared to betray its own principles on grounds that are either wrong or wishful thinking. Its endorsement of the ANC is intellectually weak and morally bankrupt.

The arguments for giving Cyril Ramaphosa a “strong mandate” are false. That is not how South African elections work. Mandates for ANC leaders come from the branches, not from the general election voters.

Clinging to Ramaphosa as South Africa’s only hope is a capitulation to the poor economic policies and corrupt governance that the ANC has foisted upon hapless citizens, especially in the last dozen years or so. Endorsing a party that led South Africa into this morass of low growth, high unemployment, persistent poverty, corrupt institutions and failing infrastructure is a betrayal of every principle of liberty and sound economics.

Tomorrow, I won’t give my vote to Ramaphosa. The ANC does not need encouragement. It does not deserve a “strong mandate”. It needs to be removed from government, and the sooner that happens the better.

I’ll vote to help ensure that reasonably honest and competent governance continues in my DA-run province, and to try to get the Capitalist Party of South Africa (ZACP), a badly needed voice for free markets and liberty, into Parliament. I’ll give Cyril Ramaphosa no mandate at all. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted