President Cyril Ramaphosa is a modern Gulliver. Despite the substantial powers of his office, he has been rendered immobile by the combined actions of political midgets.
The Lilliputians in his own African National Congress have the president pinned down, bound tight, rendered useless. Far from being vanquished at the December 2018 leadership conference that put Ramaphosa in the top position, the forces of darkness that coalesced around Jacob Zuma during his presidency are hanging on grimly.
They may not be strong enough to bring him down, yet, but they sure as hell can stop him going forward.
On pressing issues such as joblessness, an ailing economy, and the impending collapse of state-owned entities, there have been few effective interventions. The only matters on which the Ramaphosa government has been able to move are those on which Zuma’s radical economic transformation faction will allow them to progress: land expropriation without compensation and the fast-tracking of a potentially financially ruinous National Health Insurance.
As former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas said at this week’s launch of his book After Dawn, while CR knows what has to be done and the present “dilly-dallying” is not sustainable, the extent of a well-funded fightback against the reformists has been underestimated.
Actually, no surprise there, regarding the financial resources of the state-capture faction. It was always obvious that having been able to mainline from the South African fiscus, the Zupta leeches were not easily going to allow themselves to be removed.
While there is currently no evidence of lawbreaking by either side, there should be no doubt that CR has been in a battle with a determined and deep-pocketed foe for years, stretching back to the 2017 ousting of Zuma. We now know that corporate donors and well-heeled individuals poured a massive amount of money into CR’s campaign to win the party leadership — the president’s men say R200m, the Public Protector claims R400m.
But let’s not forget that both sides were pouring money into that battle. At the time, there were unsubstantiated reports of bricks of cash being despatched to sway the support of delegates in favour of his rival, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, in that closely fought contest.
And a closely fought contest it remains. It is a sign of the evenly matched nature of the factions that it is remotely conceivable that a Public Protector who steadfastly averted her gaze from the siphoning off of an estimated trillion rands of public funds, might yet bring down Ramaphosa on a technical foul.
For Ramaphosa to break the bonds that at present constrain him, he first has to neutralise Busisiwe Mkhwebane, using the constitutional mechanisms in place that allow for removal of the Public Protector on the grounds of “misbehaviour, incapacity or incompetence”. On the face of it, this should not be difficult, since Mkhwebane has proven to be spectacularly inept, having lost 8-0 in terms of her rulings challenged in court.
In the surreal world of SA politics, however, ineptness is not necessarily a hindrance. The Economic Freedom Fighters find in her judicial reversals not proof of her incapacity but rather of what it describes as the incompetence of an old and untransformed judiciary — despite most of the rulings against her coming from a new, post-apartheid generation of black judges.
EFF leader Julius Malema last week slated the judges that had ruled against Mkhwebane, and also several times against the EFF, as “traumatised old people” who were buckling under political pressure from Ramaphosa. These “incompetent” judges had to be removed, demanded Malema, otherwise “they must know we will be left with no options but to take up arms”.
The hyperbole of the EFF aside — it’s not clear whether the EFF intends to shoot these recalcitrant judges before or after it launches its mooted genocide of whites — the common front that is being forged between the EFF and the Zuma faction in the African National Congress makes things tricky for Ramaphosa, as regards Mkhwebane. He has previously folded on this issue more than once, with successive opposition moves to launch the removal process being thwarted by the ANC at the parliamentary committee stage.
There are good reasons for Ramaphosa’s caution. The ANC has 57% of the seats in the National Assembly, of which an unknown but substantial number are anti-reformist. Ramaphosa won the ANC leadership by a majority of a mere 189 votes out of the more than 4,700 cast.
It takes a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly to remove a Public Protector. It takes a simple majority of an ANC congress to recall a president. No Public Protector has yet been recalled. Two ANC presidents have.
So, Ramaphosa’s conundrum is not whether he needs to neutralise the partisan Mkhwebane. He knows that he has to. It is whether he can do so without forfeiting the presidency.
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