Anatomy of our disappointment

RW Johnson writes on the unrealistic expectations we had of the ANC, and Ramaphosa

A glance at social media reveals a clear recrudescence of racist attitudes among both black and white. Without doubt this is related to the ongoing and catastrophic failure of the ANC. As whites look around at all the dysfunctional institutions, the water and electricity shortages, the bankrupt airline, the railways under administration and the bankrupt municipalities they feel angry at what the ANC has done to a country handed to them on a plate in good working order.

The result is a torrent of abuse of black people, often depicted as congenitally inferior and taking the country back to the stone age. Many Africans react in equally racist terms against whites, their anger spurred by an unhappy consciousness that things have indeed gone badly.

All of which is a great pity. True, there were many unrealistic expectations in the euphoric glow of 1994 but the real gains of that period – treating everyone as equal citizens regardless of race, the ending of discrimination and the forging of inter-racial friendships – were hard-won gains which need to be preserved.

Much of this sound and fury derives from unrealistic expectation. In the first flush of enthusiasm for change many whites were eager to believe that the new black government would rise to the challenge of governing South Africa well – and, of course, the ANC insisted that this would indeed happen, that they were “ready to govern” and there would be “a better life for all”. This was, of course, all nonsense but many people had a huge emotional investment in wanting to believe it.

At present Cyril Ramaphosa is the focus of much of this bitter disappointment because he too was the subject of quite unrealistic expectations. A lot of this was due to “progressive” whites who tend to build up black figures of the moment partly to show how enlightened they are. Just as we were once (ludicrously) assured that Thabo Mbeki was a man of giant intellect or that Mamphela Ramphaele was a future saviour of the nation, so we were also told that Thuli Madonsela and Mmusi Maimane were saviours too.

But no lawyer seems to have any regard for Madonsela's legal expertise, while Maimane's inexperience and refusal to believe in evolution were clear warning signals. In much the same way we were endlessly told that Ramaphosa was a genius at negotiation and a whizz at business.

This was absurd: Ramaphosa had led the mineworkers into the greatest industrial defeat they had ever suffered and he had the simplest of tasks in the constitutional negotiations. Once De Klerk had set the electoral deadline of 1994, the ANC, backed by a huge array of international forces, merely had to delay or engage in mass action in order to get what it wanted.

In addition, Roelf Meyer's belief that preserving the process of negotiation was more important than any particular bargaining point meant that in the end he would always give way. As for Ramaphosa's business career, he merely sat on boards, drew large fees and benefited from generous share deals: usually he left board meetings well before they ended. All his money came from other people's companies.

As is now evident, Ramaphosa is a man of limited political intelligence (a man always “shocked” by the obvious) and startlingly bereft of any strategic sense. It is remarkable that he could have served for several years as Zuma's deputy without understanding or learning any of the rules of the political game going on around him.

It should have been obvious that the ANC is now mainly a patronage network, held together by a complex web of nepotism, tenders and corruption of every kind. So how could Ramaphosa campaign for the presidency by promising to clean up corruption?

The answer is, of course, that every presidential hopeful in every African country does that but that none of them ever mean it. The only real exception to this rule was Jerry Rawlings in Ghana who would march corrupt ministers and civil servants down to the firing squad waiting on the beach. This earned Rawlings lasting political popularity but it has not prevented the re-emergence of corruption in Ghana.

Moreover, Ramaphosa promised that he would appoint a greatly slimmed-down cabinet. What this meant was that he hadn't thought at all about how he was going to placate the ANC's myriad factions – a remarkable failure for someone who had already spent years sitting in the middle of that maelstrom. He was quickly battered and bullied by the factions and we have had a giant-sized cabinet ever since. His equally naive commitment to punctuality went out the window at the same time.

Anyone who looked at the problems South Africa faced – the over-large and over-paid public service, the terrible education system, the absurdly over-regulated labour market and the loss-making SOEs – could not be unaware that progress could only be achieved through a series of showdowns with the unions.

Yet Ramaphosa based his presidential campaign on the support of Cosatu and the SACP. This not only meant that he could not tackle any of the necessary structural reforms but it meant that his support on the NEC would quickly ebb away as the economy continued to stagnate. Ramaphosa does not seem to have thought of this and his solution – endless committees and compacts – is not a solution.

It is often said that Ramaphosa is handicapped by the narrowness of his victory at Nasrec in 2017. This is nonsense. This wasn't an election but an auction: the ANC's conferences have seen naked vote-buying for some time and in this case the going price was R100,000 per ANC branch. In the end Ramaphosa won not only because he matched Zuma Rand for Rand but because a deal was done with Mabuza for the deputy-presidency.

The trouble is that the votes which settled the outcome were not bought, only rented. So the minute Ramaphosa had won he had to start all over again trying to win support on the NEC. Here too, support could be rented – either with money or well-paying jobs. The currency of African politics is …. currency.

Moreover, Ramaphosa's position is weak because he is a lonely Venda in an Nguni party. All ANC leaders right back to Luthuli have been Zulus or Xhosas. Mbeki was supported initially by an exile mafia but he famously ruled through a “Xhosa Nostra” while Zuma built his coalition around a solid Zulu base. (National Party politics was the same: leaders always came from the Cape or the Transvaal. Nats from the OFS or Natal had no hope of disturbing that.)

But Ramaphosa has no such base and he hasn't even dared to bring Sothos, Tswanas or other minorities into the cabinet, where Xhosas and Zulus continue to rule supreme. And ethnicity does count: Mbeki noted how ministers almost invariably chose directors-general from the same ethnic group as themselves.

If Ramaphosa won the leadership this was always going to be the case but the surprising thing is that he had absolutely no plan for how to deal with the resulting situation other than to try to get everyone round the table. And this so-called compacting doesn't really work if the chairman himself is only there on suffrance.

The most remarkable things about Ramaphosa was that such a mediocrity could get to the top and that he had absolutely no tactical or strategic plans with which to tackle his situation. Like so many ANC “leaders” he just wanted to be in charge. His only economic policy was to make hapless appeals for foreign investments. Now that those have mainly been cancelled he is adrift and rudderless on a stormy sea. But we shouldn't have expected anything different and we shouldn't now feel disappointed. The facts were always plain in front of us.  

RW Johnson

A version of this article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.