Opinionista Ali Bahati Juma 20 May 2019

The Presidency: Either Ramaphosa’s poisoned chalice or a chance for greatness

The challenges President Cyril Ramaphosa faces are daunting. Some have speculated that he has the most difficult job of all post-apartheid presidents to date.

By all accounts, President Cyril Ramaphosa is starting his first term of office when South Africa is arguably at its most dire position. Its economy is hardly growing, poverty and inequality levels are sky-high, and the unemployment rate could easily spark an uprising.

These economic woes have significantly undermined efforts at social cohesion, which is probably at an all-time low. The rise of radical and populist rhetoric is reflected in the growing strength of the Economic Freedom Fighters and, ironically, a faction within the African National Congress. This is, in turn, a key factor in the resurgence of the Freedom Front Plus.

Politically, Ramaphosa faces an alleged fight back from within his own party. Reports of a possible recall, even if highly unlikely, have persisted, underlining his tenuous hold on the ANC. There are strong perceptions within ANC’s structures that he is probably too investor-friendly and, conversely, anti-working class interests. Some even accuse Ramaphosa of being wishy-washy on ANC’s conference resolutions, especially on land expropriation without compensation.

The president further faces the daunting task of restoring the image of his party, which has been beset by years of corruption, patronage, factionalism and careerism. The burdens of incumbency, such as poor service delivery and poor implementation of ANC’s own policies, are weighing heavily on the party. South Africans have, in all likelihood, handed the ANC one last chance. Patience has worn thin even among its own members and supporters.

Given the foregoing, Ramaphosa would be forgiven for wishing he was president of the ANC and South Africa much earlier, perhaps just after former President Thabo Mbeki. The challenges he faces are daunting. Some have speculated that he has the most difficult job of all post-apartheid presidents to date.

It’s no secret that Ramaphosa had the ambition to ascend to the highest office in the land for years, but now that he finally has his first term, is it a poisoned chalice? Or is it his golden chance to lead the ANC and South Africa out of their woeful miasma of decline? Can he grab the chance to join the ranks of South Africa’s greatest leaders?

To a large extent, it’s all in his hands. Ramaphosa simply has to pull some weight and show plenty of conviction. This is the only way to rally the people behind him even when economic realities are still hard. He will not be a great leader of the ANC if he prevaricates on the tough policies such as land expropriation without compensation. He undermines his own standing in the party when he says one thing to one audience and a slightly different thing to another.

To strengthen himself in the ANC, Ramaphosa has to ensure all party resolutions are implemented. This would take the wind off any nefarious designs his perceived opponents may have. They would have no quibble when he resolutely insists on renewing the ANC and ridding it of bad elements.

The president has made commendable decisions in terms of strengthening institutions such as SARS, Hawks, and NPA. As former President Kgalema Motlanthe has argued, strengthening the state is perhaps the most imperative and urgent task. Ramaphosa’s resolve to improve governance and accountability will be most tested when he moves on to the provinces and municipalities.

These have long been theatres of ANC-linked patronage and grand corruption and have implications on whether ANC structures would support him or not in the 2022 conference. Critically, municipalities are where the ANC is most intimately in contact with the masses on the ground. Complaints of poor service delivery are mostly related to municipalities. Renewing the party and improving service delivery through a well-capacitated developmental state are therefore intricately linked.

Equally important is how to get the economy to grow and create jobs at a much faster rate. Economists have argued that at the current rate of growth, it would take several years to even begin to reverse net job losses. Ramaphosa and the ANC simply do not have the leisure of time. As an analyst remarked recently, a week is a long time in politics, but five years is an incredibly short time to turn around an economy.

While the president’s efforts at attracting investments are commendable, more of the same neoliberal economic approach simply wouldn’t be enough. He probably would have to go against his own economic beliefs to seriously consider the ANC’s forgotten policies such as establishing a sovereign wealth fund as well as a state bank.

Radical economic transformation (RET) is probably anathema to some, but the president has to insist on strengthening township and rural economies at a much greater urgency beyond rhetoric. The stated 30% procurement spend on small enterprises should, in fact, be much higher, and the state mining company should play a much bigger role. Finance minister famously toyed with the idea of 40% state ownership of mining companies on social media – it is time to consider this seriously.

Simply put, the president cannot afford to follow the same unfettered economic model that has failed to transform South Africa for 25 years. He has to embrace some policies that have been derided as RET but which, on closer inspection, actually hold the key to breaking monopolies that have had a stranglehold on this country and its marginalised, dispossessed and excluded masses.

Interestingly, ANC’s pre-election manifesto contains many of these policies. Ramaphosa has to summon the courage to go against all that he believes in to implement them. Compared to the emerging radical parties, the ANC is arguably the party that is least reckless in terms of economic policy. It is best placed to steer South Africa away from economic sabotage that could result from another party implementing the same policies.

Being the president, Ramaphosa therefore has to lead the ANC from the front in this regard. He cannot be the one to hold it – and South Africa – back. To put it mildly, he stands on the cusp of greatness – or dismal failure. Even average performance as president would be a failure at this point in South Africa’s history. It’s literally his choice to make. DM

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In other news...

South Africa is in a very real battle. A political fight where terms such as truth and democracy can seem more of a suggestion as opposed to a necessity.

On one side of the battle are those openly willing to undermine the sovereignty of a democratic society, completely disregarding the weight and power of the oaths declared when they took office. If their mission was to decrease society’s trust in government - mission accomplished.

And on the other side are those who believe in the ethos of a country whose constitution was once declared the most progressive in the world. The hope that truth, justice and accountability in politics, business and society is not simply fairy tale dust sprinkled in great electoral speeches; but rather a cause that needs to be intentionally acted upon every day.

However, it would be an offensive oversight not to acknowledge that right there on the front lines, alongside whistleblowers and civil society, stand the journalists. Armed with only their determination to inform society and defend the truth, caught in the crossfire of shots fired from both sides.

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