Cyril against the Zuptas

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the bare-knuckle battle being fought out within the ANC


God’s Chosen vs Mr Clean

At the moment, South African politics is a bit like bare-knuckle boxing. Both appalling and riveting.

The May election was pitched by the African National Congress establishment, as well as sympathetic media commentators, as an unambiguous battle between good and evil. This, they argued, would be a must-win showdown between the anti-corruption ANC of Cyril Ramaphosa and the state-capture ANC of Jacob Zuma. 

Well, Ramaphosa won the conventional battle handily, but Zuma’s forces show no sign of surrender and have simply gone guerrilla. And they are using their insider knowledge to devastating effect.

This week, the former Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini dropped by Ramaphosa from the cabinet resigned as MP. Her rambling, sometimes incoherent, resignation letter made veiled warnings of “foreign elements” that were steering the ANC off its path; predicted the early exit of Ramaphosa; accused the wives of unnamed ministers of corrupt practices; and accused Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan of murky dealings at the behest of the banking sector.

One can expect further accusations from disgruntled Zuma-ites who are being dumped from key ANC positions. The challenge for them is to smear the Ramaphosa administration with enough detail to sway public opinion, but not quite enough to goad SA’s sluggish police and prosecutors to conduct investigations that will inevitably end up also jailing players from the Zuma-Gupta axis. 

The Zupta forces also have a powerful ally in the battle. The Public Protector Busiswe Mkhwebane is flailing energetically at the Ramaphosa grouping and is inflicting real damage, at least in public perceptions, if not by so far uncovering anything of prosecutorial substance.

Nevertheless, it would be an enormous setback for the reformists if Gordhan was neutralised by the fallout from at least four new investigations that Mkhwebane has launched to examine accusations against him. 

These inquiries relate to matters that, in some cases, date back a decade and have been investigated half a dozen times already. This sudden burst of energy comes from a Public Protector who for years appears to have ignored or brushed over blatant corruption by the state capture forces.

An even greater setback to the reformists would be if the president, Mr Clean himself, was linked directly to corruption. Mkhwebane’s dogged investigation into whether Ramaphosa had knowledge of tainted funds, donated via his son, to his 2017 campaign for the party presidency, is clearly politically driven, given her earlier reluctance to engage substantively with the shenanigans of Zuma and his cronies.

But her motivations for targeting only reformist faction figures are irrelevant, should she uncover evidence of wrongdoing. As far as Ramaphosa goes, all that matters is her now finalised report.

As is his legal right, Ramaphosa had first-sight of the findings and asked for a fortnight to cross-examine witnesses and to challenge her conclusions. Mkhwebane has given him a week, until June 21.

This is make-or-break stuff for both of them. If the report is typical Mkhwebane — in other words, so legally inept and/or patently partisan that it is reversed on appeal — she will almost certainly face parliamentary recall. If it withstands judicial scrutiny, Ramaphosa will face enormous pressure to go quietly or to be fired by his party.

It would be most ironic. One would have a R500,000 campaign donation unseating a president whose predecessor remains legally unscathed, despite a decade-long presidency marked by literally billions stolen from the state.

It would also be a political tragedy. The anti-corruption impetus would falter and eventually peter out. The Zupta faction would reassert control of the ANC and the country. 

On past history, however, the worst is unlikely to happen. Every one of Mkhwebane reports that has been challenged in court has been overturned. 

A month ago, in the High Court, Judge Ronel Tolmay ruled that Mkhwebane’s failures and omissions in the Vrede Dairy investigation were inexplicable unless done with “some ulterior purpose”. There was either “a blatant disregard” of her constitutional duties or a “concerning lack of understanding” of them. This pointed either to “ineptitude or gross negligence”.

Last year, in the Absa matter, the Appeal Court found that she did not comprehend that her high office placed on her an obligation to be “objective, honest and to deal with matters according to the law”. 

Mkhwebane is also behaving increasingly eccentrically and may just implode without any judicial or parliamentary assistance. 

She recently chose YouTube, rather than the Government Gazette, to give public notice of additional investigations into Gordhan. She then confided on Twitter that it was God himself that had appointed her to the Public Protector position and that it was only God who could remove her. 

As for those journalists who had called her a “moron” and others in public life who had “insulted” her, she had a way to deal with them as well. She was in the process of opening cases against them in terms Section 9 of the Public Protector Act, to protect the dignity of her office.

It’s going to be an awfully crowded dock.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye