ANC desperate for a Plan B

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the growing chorus of criticism against Ramaphosa coming from Mbeki, and the RET camp

Sure, we all know that politics makes for strange bedfellows. But how kinky can it get?

In the past week we have had former presidents Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki, neither a paragon of blameless governance nor unblemished probity, simultaneously letting loose salvos of criticism at President Cyril Ramaphosa. One doesn’t know whether the two men — previously mortal foes — are deliberately coordinating their fire, or whether it’s just grubby political opportunism.

Probably the latter. After all, Ramaphosa is on the home stretch to being endorsed for a second term by the rank and file at the African National Congress’s leadership conference in December. That’s despite a string of serious allegations against the president over large, mysteriously acquired sums of US dollars concealed in the furniture at his Phala Phala game farm.

Both Zuma and Mbeki have experienced the humiliation of an early recall by the party. Although it’s petty, it’s also simply human that they would delight in the prospect of watching Ramaphosa, too, have his nose rubbed in the dirt. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Zuma’s motives are the more transparent of the two men. His attack on Ramaphosa was the usual muddle of incomprehensible non-sequiturs and fake indignation. It is clear, however, from the scale of the lies (that the Western Cape High Court ruled that Ramaphosa’s firing of the Public Protector was for the ‘“sole purpose” of covering up his Phala Phala corruption) to the schoolboy nature of the insults (that Ramaphosa’s poor presidential performance stems from him busily trying to keep his “side hustles” going), that Zuma’s thirst for revenge is all-consuming.

Mbeki’s motives are murkier. Although there is a history of bad blood between the men, he and Ramaphosa were briefly allies of convenience in the battle to oust Zuma in 2018. Since then, Mbeki has become steadily disenchanted with Ramaphosa.

Whereas he previously made a prideful point of his revolutionary discipline in refusing to criticise his party or his successors, this recently changed. At the June memorial service for Jesse Duarte, he castigated Ramaphosa over undelivered promises to address poverty, unemployment and corruption. Ramaphosa had “no national plan” and this had caused a potentially explosive situation where “spontaneous civil unrest” triggered by a single event might “spark our own version of the Arab Spring”.

Mbeki’s supporters and some commentators portrayed this warning as statesmanship. The great man had been forced to break his monkish vow of silence for fear of the nation being destroyed.

Such a flattering interpretation is to ignore Mbeki’s Machiavellian nature, his legendary ability to nurse a grudge, and the fact that he and Ramaphosa have always loathed one another. This strained relationship stretches back to Mbeki outmanoeuvring Ramaphosa to take over Nelson Mandela’s mantle.

Matters were not improved when, in 2001, the paranoid Mbeki called in the State Security Agency to investigate an alleged treasonous plot by Ramaphosa and other two ANC leaders to harm and oust him. Needless to say, no evidence of a plot was ever unearthed, but the accusations had the useful effect of neutering for a long time any presidential ambitions among the “plotters”.

Whatever Mbeki’s true reasons for now joining the fray, there can be no doubt that his June bombshell fed readily into the Zuma narrative. According to that, an Arab Spring has already been narrowly averted when a “single event”, the jailing of Zuma, caused “spontaneous civil unrest”, the riots of July last year. Do it again, runs the Zuma cabal’s threatening subtext, and this time around the “Arab Spring” might indeed happen.

Mbeki, hammer and chisel in hand, was this week again pounding at the Ramaphosa plinth. Speaking at an ANC-aligned policy conference, he said that Ramaphosa was under “a lot of pressure” because the Phala Phala allegations were the subject of criminal, Reserve Bank, Public Protector and parliamentary probes. Given the possibility of impeachment proceedings, the ANC leadership had no option but to discuss whether it would ask Ramaphosa to step aside.

The former president then asked: “Do we say to [Ramaphosa] he must step aside or do we say, ‘no, let it continue through the parliamentary process?’ What is the impact of that on the ANC in the public mind.” Since Mbeki has many times defended the ANC’s “step aside” policy — ironically first introduced by Ramaphosa as a mechanism to sideline his foes in the Zuma camp — there can be no doubt that this is a rhetorical question.

The Ramaphosa administration is certainly under no delusions as to what is happening. KwaZulu-Natal, North West and Limpopo provincial leaderships have all stepped up to decry Zuma’s and Mbeki’s “unprecedented attacks” on Ramaphosa. And during a media briefing on Tuesday, Presidency spokesperson Vincent Magwenya said that while Ramaphosa valued engagement with the former presidents, particularly with Mbeki, he expected them to approach him privately if they had criticisms.

“What would most be appreciated is constructive engagement that contributes to taking the country forward … To shout at President Ramaphosa from the rooftops does not in any shape or form aid all these endeavours.”

Ramaphosa and his supporters are painfully aware of his political vulnerability. The drip feed of damaging allegations from Zuma’s Radical Economic Transformation camp continues and will likely reach a crescendo before the December 14 election, with all Independent Media’s titles — large in number, if not in circulation or influence — providing full orchestral support to efforts to oust the president.

This week, there was yet another leaked letter from former spy chief Arthur Fraser to the Hawks, claiming that Ramaphosa’s top adviser, Bejani Chauke was the courier of millions of illegal US dollars from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Morocco and Equatorial Guinea to the president’s secret coffers. Fraser’s letter, which contains detailed advice to the Hawks on where and how they can best access the corroborating evidence, must be causing Ramaphosa a new world of pain, despite the Presidency airily dismissing the letter as “apartheid-era disinformation”.

Mbeki’s anti-Ramaphosa broadside took place at an annual strategic summit held by former president Kgalema Motlanthe’s foundation. Although none of the other participants, an array of disaffected ANC veterans and those “clever blacks” so scorned by Zuma, was as personal and damaging in their criticisms as was Mbeki, there was much talk of precipices, chasms, abysses, and imminent national collapse, accompanied by warnings of the need to formulate alternative plans.

The problem with all these proposed Plan Bs is that they appear to be premised on changing the ANC from within. What none of these well-intentioned people has as yet been able to concede is that the ANC cannot be reformed, or at least, not in time to avoid South Africa’s collapse.

It’s worth remembering that Ramaphosa was the ANC intelligentsia’s Plan B to get rid of Zuma. And Zuma, in turn, was Plan B to get rid of Mbeki. The latest Plan B alternative to Ramaphosa has to be something more imaginatively conceived than what’s gone before.

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