Defend Truth


Cyril Ramaphosa is part of a structure that he is either unable, incapable or unwilling to dismantle


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Until he became deputy president of the country in May 2014, Cyril Ramaphosa was the stand-out example of a South African oligarch who effectively emulated the Russian model. By the time Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa arrived in the Union Buildings, the ‘oligarchocracy’ was in place and was being protected.

South Africans go to bed every night believing, hoping, perhaps, that the next day could not possibly be as bad as the one just left behind. There seems to be no end to this cycle of hopes dashed. We have to believe that the President, Cyril Ramaphosa, has hope, too. It’s fair, though not original, to make the claim that nobody rules guiltlessly. In this sense, and so much more, Ramaphosa is not without guilt.

I spent much of the past several days reading all the things that have been said about Ramaphosa, and reflected upon all the things that have gone wrong under his leadership as secretary-general of the ANC, as deputy president, and then president of South Africa. Though I am not a spiritual person and especially averse to things supernatural, the Biblical injunction, harsh as it may be, has a solid ring: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”

Ramaphosa has stumbled, badly. He was described by a biographer, Anthony Butler, as “a driven man” who “showed extraordinary stamina” under extremely difficult conditions (notably during the difficult 1980s), and who, “unlike other people,” was a “visionary pragmatist”, hardworking and “unstoppable”.

Sometimes hard work is just not good enough. You can work hard at the most mundane, mediocre and meaningless things for hours or days at an end.

Unravelling Ramaphosa

As a young journalist in the 1980s, I followed Ramaphosa’s work and achievements with the National Union of Mineworkers closely. As a not-so-young journalist, I followed his work as secretary-general of the ANC and during the negotiated settlement of the early 1990s with particular professional interest. I would miss almost all his time as a business leader.

Much later, fresh from academia abroad after 2010, I played a marginal role in the Secretariat of the National Planning Commission (NPC), where I observed closely Ramaphosa’s leadership, insights and general likeability. When the term of the first NPC ended, Ramaphosa went back into politics, and I would make my way back slowly to writing independently.

Here we are, in some ways, back where we started more than three decades ago. Cyril is (again) in politics, and I am writing. He is now Mr President…

The question I have thought about long and hard over the past several days, is this: how did we get to a person who has been described in Daily Maverick over (just) the past week as having lost control “of his own government [and] it may be impossible to determine what portion of our state’s failure is his fault, and what is beyond his control”.

He has been referred to as “our do-nothing president”, as “hapless”, as “devious Cyril”, and as a president who lacks an interest in his own country. There has to be more to the riddle that is Ramaphosa. We have to start looking at the structure(s) that put him and kept him in place, and their underpinnings.

Let me try an analogy before we get to some of the fleshy bits of the story. When a football team underperforms or fails horribly, we almost always turn to the manager.

Has the manager lost the dressing room? Have the players stopped playing for the manager? Are the opposition teams too strong? Has the manager run out of ideas? Has the manager taken the team as far as she can? Are there toxic individuals in the team? Are there cliques that destabilise the team? Are there players who receive a large salary, but underperform? Have the supporters turned on the team? Are the owners of the team (and club) still interested and active? Was the manager the right choice in the first place?

Well, it seems like the manager (Ramaphosa) has, indeed, lost the team (the Cabinet). There are, indeed, toxic characters in the team (Gwede Mantashe, Bheki Cele etc); there are also cliques in the team (ministers with RET tendencies); there are team members who receive large salaries, but you never quite know what the point of them is (Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma or Thembi Nkadimeng etc), and the manager has run out of ideas (Ramaphosa appoints a commission to do something he could do himself). We could go on and on…

The football analogy works at the surface level. Do let’s consider an image: Ramaphosa is sat at the head of a table resembling Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, a depiction of humanity’s fall from the state of angels, where excessive indulgences in Earthly pleasures (sanctified avarice) abound and where perversions are no more than mere normality.

The image is of an evil that can be lived with, where the devil always lurks, and where monsters take macabre delight in inflicting ghoulish punishments on people. Look closer and Ramaphosa is the thumb of a hand with the power to create or approve right or wrong, and provide stability.

Ramaphosa was ANC Secretary General at a time in history (1991-1997) when serious inquiry and reflection was to be had about the failures of Soviet communism. Beyond the exchange between Joe Slovo and Pallo Jordan (see here, and here) there was no stopping the actual influence of Soviet ideas in the actual building of the structures, and internal politics of the ANC-SACP alliance.

The “first generation” of democratic era leaders (people like Zola Skweyiya, Essop Pahad and others) were heavily influenced by the Soviets during the exile years. Their ideas about governance and the way forward, over the 1990s and early 2000s took precedence. Ramaphosa was ineffectual. This, like other issues discussed in this section, is a complex matter, but these sketches are useful.

Emergence of the Zuma-Guptas-Putin toxic triad

By early 2001 a toxic trio of actors would stand out: Jacob Zuma, the Gupta family and Vladimir Putin. Where was Ramaphosa? We come back to that below. I should proceed with caution and circumspection.

In very basic terms, the Gupta brothers very early identified the power and influence of a Putin presidency and Russian investment money. Zuma, too, recognised this source of power and influence, and reportedly cleared the offices of anyone who stood in the way of sources of money (people like Schabir Shaik, Nhlanhla Nene were expendable). Nene told the Zondo Commission that Zuma fired him in December 2015 for refusing to approve a nuclear deal with Russia’s Rosatom or, as he put it, for refusing to toe “the Gupta line”. (See, also, here).

The Guptas raked in money. Zuma developed close ties with a former intelligence officer of the KGB, a certain Vladimir Putin, and the toxic triad was established. The state was weakened. The Zuma-Gupta-Putin connection took precedence over almost all political-economic matters of state.

The former head of the foreign intelligence branch of the State Security Agency Mo Shaik explained: “There came a point in his administration where he could not separate, even in his state of mind, he couldn’t separate his relationship with the Guptas from his responsibility as the head of the national executive with certain constitutional obligations and requirements.”

Oligarch capitalism requires protection

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia embraced oligarch capitalism. In post-apartheid South Africa, and after he left his position as secretary general of the ANC, presumably with firm connections, Ramaphosa (and people like Tokyo Sexwale) would fit the description of an oligarch capitalist. With the Soviet-trained elite, that “first generation” of political leaders, now in place and the Zuma-Putin relationship taking shape, South Africa became an ‘oligarchocracy’ (I’m not sure it’s a word; it is now) protected by the highest offices of the state and ruling elite.

Until he became deputy president of the country in May 2014, Ramaphosa was the stand-out example of a South African oligarch who effectively emulated the Russian model. By the time Zuma and Ramaphosa arrived in the Union Buildings the oligarchocracy was in place and was being protected.

To get a sense of how oligarch capitalism in Russia is “protected”, consider how Putin asserted his (state) power over industry when, in 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the head of Russia’s largest oil company, Yukos, was arrested and sentenced to eight years in jail for tax evasion. Recall that Shaik was fired for not toeing what was effectively a Zuma-Putin-Gupta line.

Russian journalist Masha Gessen explained that Khodorkovsky, the richest man in Russia, made the mistake of criticising the corrupt state of Putin’s tyranny. Homo Sovieticus did not die completely in 1989/90, it lived on in Putin, and in the first generation of democratic South African leaders. Parenthetically, it is not the whole truth that the Soviet system died after the Cold War ended. It was simply a delayed announcement of an earlier death…

Nonetheless, Ramaphosa slipped unproblematically into the oligarchy that that new old system established, and he enjoyed oligarchocracy protection — until he went to the presidency. It all started well. The optimism of a Ramaphosa president was like that “new manager bounce”.

The Presidency and the weakening state

A corrupt state is necessarily weak. A state that is “penetrated” is necessarily weak. The state was weakened under the Zuma-Ramaphosa presidency, and the dominance of a ruling elite schooled in the Soviet system.

As a collective, they had inherited the Russian “disease” of respect for strong men, a former member of the Soviet politburo, Alexander Yakovlev (once a confidante of Mikhail Gorbachev) explained: “It’s a disease. It’s a Russian tradition. We had our czars, our princes, our secretaries-general, our collective farm chairmen, and so on. We live in fear of the boss.”

The Zondo Commission was a success. But as with so many commissions, meetings, committees, we should not conflate ambition and achievement. There is little chance of all the commission’s recommendations being put into place. There are at least two reasons for this.

First, as I previously wrote in this space (eight years ago), it’s impossible to arrest one person in a village for doing what everyone is doing. You cannot possibly arrest the entire village, now can you?

Second, there are no capabilities nor a reliable force (not penetrated or completely unaffected by the disease of corruption) that could go out and effect mass arrests. Consider how long it has taken for Markus Jooste, Ace Magashule or Zuma, for that matter, to be prosecuted for alleged crimes.

Another claim that can be made is that the ANC state has no incentive to have the Gupta brothers brought back to South Africa. Bathabile Dlamini’s “smallanyana” skeletons are small potatoes compared with what devils and demons lurk in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.

Where does Ramaphosa fit into all this? Well, that is the question that answers itself. Ramaphosa is part of a structure that he is either unable, incapable or unwilling to dismantle. He is unable because the fight back will be too enormous; he is incapable because he is conflict-averse (this I learned during the 1980s, 1990s and more recently); and he may be willing, but he would have to exorcise those lurking demons and devils in the broader picture, and implicate himself along the way.

The Cyril Ramaphosa of the National Union of Mineworkers died when the Secretary-General of the ANC Cyril Ramaphosa was born, and the alliance failed to shake off the “Russian disease” and its intellectuals failed to fully grasp the historical and ideological lessons of the Soviet Union’s collapse. They kept Homo Sovieticus alive.

By the early 2000s, they found ideological and ideational comfort in Vladimir Putin, material gains in the Gupta Family, and protection by Zuma. As for Ramaphosa (pardon the mixed metaphors), well he has chopped, diced, sliced, julienned and sautéed, but no dish is forthcoming. Using the football analogy, the ball is spread left and right, upfield and downfield, in and out of the box, but he just cannot get the ball in the back of the net.

This, a blend of commentary and analysis, is not the end of the story. Not by a long way.

What may be concluded is that Ramaphosa is everything that everyone has said. The only thing that redeems him, ever so slightly, notably since he was never trained and groomed in the former Soviet Union, is that the ANC’s problem is bigger than Ramaphosa.

Before he gets anything done, Ramaphosa himself will be done like a kipper — not sure that last thing is right, but it really is game over for Ramaphosa. He is what you get when oligarchocracy has been normalised. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    Excellent and tragic summation.

  • Maggie Toerien says:

    You are to be commended, Mr Lagerdien….. you’ve hit all the nails on their heads! I had such high hopes for this president…..

  • Hermann Funk says:

    An excellent synopsis of the present situation, its main culprits and how we got there; tragic!!!

  • R IA says:

    Very interesting to read what seems to be a very balanced and knowledgeable perspective of Rhamaposa and the ANC.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    Lots of food for thought in this story, despite the mixed metaphors hahaha. Yesterday (or the day before – I’m losing track because I’m outraged about 95% of any given day, sometimes even with the spellcheck which I find myself treating like an obstinately naughty child). Anyway… as I was saying, yesterday, thanks to a friend sharing his discovery, I finally realised what we are: a kakistocracy. I had heard this word before, but thought it was made up. A joke word. But its root is the Greek word ‘kakisto’ meaning ‘the worst’, which is probably the same root for the Afrikaans word ‘kak’, which I mistook for the joke origins of kakistocracy. No, it’s in the dictionary: a society governed by its least suitable or competent citizens. That’s a kakistocracy, and there is no argument that we are exactly that. And of course our leader is a kakistocrat.

    • Jacki McInnes says:

      This is fascinating and will go directly into my repertoire of great words to drop at braais, or wherever. Thanks for sharing!

  • Walter Spatula says:


  • Jacki McInnes says:

    Spot on Ismail. There’s something bizarrely cathartic in reading a piece that, while utterly devastating, nevertheless succinctly lays out everything I’ve always suspected about the past 30 years. But have never been able to articulate – not even to myself.

  • Graeme de Villiers says:

    Thank you Ismail, an outstanding summation of where we stand. Mixed metaphors aside, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. And how refreshing it would be to get landed with a new manager that is not hungry for him/herself, but to feed South Africa for a change

  • Frans Ferreira says:

    An accurate analyse of our country, the ANC and our president. To save the first (our country) we have to get rid of the other two.

  • Johan Buys says:

    CR is in his last term, he need not worry about re-election. He could clean house. He doesn’t.

    all I can imagine is that the RET faction holds some sword over CR.

  • Vanessa van Vliet says:

    It is difficult to understand why the man fought for power when he does nothing with it

  • Ernest Esterhuizen says:

    An excellent article with great and accurate perspective. I hope that Cyril reads or has read this article. Great job Ismail

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