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Political platitudes: Unpacking Ramaphosa’s ‘real battle’ in aftermath of Zondo Commission testimony


Susan Booysen is Director of Research, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), and visiting and emeritus professor, Wits School of Governance.

The big question in the aftermath of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s second Zondo Commission appearance is whether the politician had as little to offer as his evidence to the commission suggested.

As it started winding up high-level proceedings on Thursday, the Zondo Commission was variably assisted and frustrated by President Cyril Ramaphosa. The collective Zondo mind was trying to finally and authoritatively hear what had happened and how a recurrence can be prevented.

The commission chairperson, acting Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, and a host of evidence leaders tried to get the help of Ramaphosa, currently and presumably the most powerful person in the country. The scatterings of substance that were extracted showed a president who was arguably aloof, politically blindfolded and out of touch. There was a mere flickering of possibility that it was the sensitivity of the subject matter that was preventing more satisfactory presidential responses.

On the first of his two days of evidence, Ramaphosa clarified that he had chosen to work from inside the ANC, and in particular the deputy presidency of South Africa, to bring about change and counter State Capture and corruption. He contrasted this with being silent, complicit and acquiescent. Yet, much of his two days in the hot seat were shrouded in questions of how these alternatives differed from his chosen path. As his answers unfolded, the presumed differences fused into suspicions of complicity, by silence and negligence, in the Jacob Zuma project of capture.

Ramaphosa put in a defence of “the changes we see now are because people decided to stay in the ring”. He stressed that “in the ring”, where he was, was the site of the “real battle”. 

To prove his case, Ramaphosa elaborated on his resistance to the axing of Pravin Gordhan as minister of finance. Evidence leader Paul Pretorius challenged Ramaphosa to specify additional cases of him having resisted State Capture. Ramaphosa obliged, mostly without details. First, he offered a quotation about the strongest among us being “those who do battles we know nothing about”, then he gave the example of stopping a commission of inquiry into South Africa’s banks, and resorted to saying that turning around State Capture is “like turning the Titanic around”. 

Defending himself against the suggestion that he had been complicit through silence, Ramaphosa argued that “many chose to be strategic” and picked their battles, working within the system to bring change. The evidence leader remained unconvinced by the isolated illustrations of resistance that Ramaphosa offered: “It seems the former president [Zuma] was firmly in control”, he pointed out. Pretorius cited the fear by the capture objectors, such as Ramaphosa, of being removed from positions should they speak out, as evidence of Zuma having been in command, comfortably unchallenged.

Zondo wanted to know what Ramaphosa could offer to reassure the people that South Africa’s State Capture trauma would not be replicated in future. The president cited the Zondo Commission as a defining moment. He added that the strengthening of structures of the African National Congress, and of the party’s Integrity Commission in particular, should also give comfort. He argued that the ANC has to make itself acceptable to the people… “We will change because we must.” Earlier he had said the denunciation of corruption was an existential matter for the ANC.

The big question in the aftermath of Ramaphosa’s second Zondo appearance is whether Ramaphosa had as little to offer as his evidence to the commission suggested. He used appeasing, platitude-driven answers and diversions as his most common form of answering questions. This repertoire meant that profound questions elicited one-phrase, almost-specific responses, followed by a diversionary lesson in political strategy or political platitude.

Ramaphosa struggled to articulate the “markers” that had alerted him to the existence of State Capture – he had to be careful not to contradict his own argument that he had only become aware of the problem, or the scope of the problem, at a late stage. He could mention the 2011 Fikile Mbalula revelation to the ANC National Executive Committee that the Guptas had told him about a pending appointment, and the 2013 landing of the Gupta wedding planes at Waterkloof. There were the Transnet, Eskom and Prasa cases. Ramaphosa interspersed these references with phrases such as “so hidden” or “we could not immediately link the dots”. 

Dodging specific answers was noticeable when Ramaphosa was called on to answer security-related questions. Their importance was linked to the possibility that the Zuma capture project and associated control had extended well beyond financial benefits and into the heart of owning the South African state, including in the present. The ultimate evidence was in Operation Veza in which Zuma’s private intelligence armed unit (led by Thulani Dlomo of July unrest fame) was investigated. Investigations had been stopped by high-ranking Cabinet members, both in 2011 and more recently.

Ramaphosa did not respond to the Pretorius point that a well-functioning State Security Agency would have made a difference. His unspecified answer was typical of so many others in the course of the day: “It happened as many other wrong things, inexplicable things.  Our task now as we move forward is to deal with all the things that went wrong.”

When asked about Operation Spider Web (concerning the improvised capture of the Treasury), Ramaphosa again gave a one-sentence analysis, and no actual answer. Comparable classics that substituted for answers included “the level of alertness was just not there” (on the question whether the ANC has done enough to deal with signposts of overwhelming capture), “the ANC has embarked on a process of renewal” (indicating the corrective measures Ramaphosa has taken), “our task is going to be to repurpose the State Security Agency” (responding to the link between dysfunctional security apparatuses and recent unrest in South Africa), and “it is a proposition, not unreasonable, and it is part of the investigation under way…” (when asked about the names of operatives and arms details that were locked away in suspended earlier investigations while the July insurrection was spreading).

Such opaque, even seemingly obtuse explanations notwithstanding, Ramaphosa was emphatic that he accepts full responsibility for the decisions that he made in dealing with State Capture and corruption. The next question is whether he will be decisive in translating his hitherto vaguely articulated correctives into specific action.

Ramaphosa’s two days at the commission extracted accountability from South Africa’s upper political class. This was a rare occurrence, especially for the leader of a dominant governing party. Ramaphosa will be required to step out of his “long game” and not wait for others (including courts and commissions, as I argue in Precarious Power) by default to take his decisions for him. It could take a long, long time for Zondo Commission findings and recommendations to reach finality. As Zondo noted, aggrieved parties may still take the report on review. Will Ramaphosa finally take the bull by the horns, or is he waiting for Godot? DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Godot, sadly, is most likely his approach!

  • Hermann Funk says:

    As I commented on a related article; this President has either got a lot of dirt on his hands or suffers from a total lack of backbone. Maybe both?

  • Gerhard Pretorius says:

    Transparency, the backbone of a true democracy, is not a CR strength. He is still protecting the ANC instead of living up to the oath he took to serve South Africa above everything else.

  • Terence Dowdall says:

    It’s easy to criticise Ramaphosa as an armchair observer. But he is the best hope SA has. His ‘long game’ was the only way to gradually consolidate enough of a base to not be swept aside. I think he has picked his battles and has changed, and continues to change, the political landscape subtly but hopefully decisively in the right direction. Without a large base, he has managed to put good people into the key positions and start the ball rolling in the right direction. At times he has had to do nothing or bide his time because it was not worth throwing away everything to make a grand gesture. It would be nice of course to hear him thundering about wrongdoing, or axing the wicked more dramatically, but we are actually incredibly fortunate to have a good person in the right place. The country would have had no chance, like Zimbabwe, but now it has a fair chance of getting things better.

    • Ian Wegerle says:

      “he is the best hope SA has”: In the ANC yes. South Africa has much better talent than any ANC cadre. Ramaphosa is a liar and he has shown it by not doing anything about what everybody knows what is happening in South Africa. He is just concerned about the ANC. He is putting criminals into cabinet. At least, ones who should have seen the inside of a court room a long time ago! Ace is expendable and he is just the excuse this #Ramaliar needs to be able to show that he is “doing something”

    • Mike Meyer says:

      I so desperately want you to be right but hope is fading daily.

  • Sandra Goldberg says:

    Well , I think it went as we thought it would- no great revelations, only a fuzzy sort of acceptance that there were”lapses” in the governmental activity that probably led to state capture, opaque acknowledgements that some things were wrong,and an insistence that now we are improving. The most interesting thing was Ramsphosa’s plea to Judge Zondo not to make an adverse finding against the bedrock policy of the ANC, that of “cadre deployment”. Whether the eventual findings of the commission will ever be acted upon,that is another matter

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Against the backdrop of the trickiest ANC political landscape imaginable the possibilities I hear for CR seem to cover:
    1. Useless
    2. Spineless
    3. Corrupt
    4. Tactical

    Everyone will pick their own of course. I choose 4.

  • Chris van Lierop says:

    We live in Africa and are governed by Africans who have a culture of backsheesh. In all business and governments of the world kickbacks are the norm. South Africa is the same and this includes the previous government. It’s the way things are done. Politicians use this method to gain power and to stay in power. It’s the norm all over the world.
    However in South Africa, although politicians like Zuma are extremely wily, they are stupid and get caught. Their kickbacks, given and demanded for themselves, have robbed the Sate. Rhamaphosa and others are realistic and understand how things work, but need the same system to stay in power. Hopefully, eventually he may bring about some semblance of order and in so doing allow business and other leaders to grow the economy and make up for the theft from the state.
    Again to be realistic this will take time.

    • Chris van Lierop says:

      As DM editor states, “Ramaphosa’s act reminds one of a man juggling several balls, some of them explosive, in the air. If he drops any one of them, the others will soon follow.” Let’s hope he is successful.

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