Is ANC tiring of Ramaphosa?

William Saunderson-Meyer asks whether the party will soon put the President out of his misery


He is a trusted companion and protector. Or an indulged little lapdog?  

He’s a valued, noble steed. Or a broken beast of burden?

If Cyril Ramaphosa were a domestic animal — which, of course, we all know he isn’t — he should be eyeing any visit from the local vet with trepidation. 

For he knows that the ANC is a cruel master. It works its creatures hard. 

“Just one more load, one more step,” it gently cajoles. “Just one more…” Then, with callous pragmatism, it puts a bullet through the brave beast’s brain before the animal reach the destination, if circumstances seem to demand it.

The ANC is no different from any political party seeking re-election. If a scapegoat is needed to make it possible, one will be found. But it won’t be the gentle exit of being put to pasture. It’ll be the swift stroke of a savage blade across an exposed throat.  ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Ask his immediate predecessors, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. 

However, at present the consensus is that Ramaphosa’s presidency will survive at least until next year’s general election, the date of which is not yet known. The pundits argue that the ANC is hostage to his personal popularity. That without him at the helm, the widespread disdain in which the ruling party is held will spill into an electoral slaughter.

By this thinking, Ramaphosa would limp through until the votes are cast and then move over for a hand-picked successor. None of this would entail the president actually having to lead the country, a task that he has already provided evidence aplenty of being incapable of.

It would simply mean avoiding pre-electoral disaster. On the one hand, he would have to keep the various vying factions of the party from one another’s throats. On the other hand, he would have to keep at bay the Phala Phala scandal, which threaten personal disgrace.

The first objective can be achieved by going easy on corruption and criminality. 

No high-profile prosecutions — or, at least, not successful ones — against those identified by the Zondo Commission as looters of state assets. No jailing of Zuma. No end to cadre deployment.

No arrests of those who orchestrated the 2021 riots. (As an aside, it is revealing that the same ANC that is suing former Eskom CEO André de Ruyter over his failure to name the two Cabinet ministers he claims were involved in corruption, has been indifferent to knowing who were the dozen high-ranking ANC members that Ramaphosa claims organised the 2021 “insurrection”, but who have never been named) 

The second objective can be achieved with the assistance of a pliant Parliament and a State-oversight apparatus of criminal investigators, tax officials, Reserve Bank functionaries, Chapter Nine institutions, and prosecutors, which is heavily seasoned with ANC apparatchiks. The Phala Phala albatross may emit a heavy stench but with some manoeuvring by the cadres, that can be wafted away until after the election, when it will no longer matter.

All this would happen against an enabling backdrop of lavish and cynically directed spending. Eskom’s lights will be kept on at any cost. Pay and benefits will be increased for key constituencies such as public servants and the poor. 

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with this strategy, aside from a big bill that will have to be picked up after the election. The problem, however, is Ramaphosa himself and accelerating centrifugal forces within the party.

The president has long been out of sorts and is flagging. A few months back he impulsively wanted to resign, to the consternation of his closest lieutenants who, fearing the sight of their meal ticket walking out the door, narrowly managed to dissuade him. 

His emphatic victory at the leadership conference has failed to invigorate him. His notorious reluctance to take decisions has slowed further, to the point of paralysis. He seems often inattentive to his presidential responsibilities.

A case in point is last month’s EFF campaign for a national shutdown that it hoped would trigger a “spontaneous revolution”. This was accompanied by threats of violence and looting against anyone who failed to heed the stay-away. 

Despite corporate leaders desperately pleading for leadership from Ramaphosa, for him to signal that the government would act forcefully to maintain law and order, Ramaphosa remained silent.

Eventually, just days before the EFF’s ultimately unsuccessful shutdown, it was not the president but ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula — a party official who is no longer even a parliamentarian — who spoke out. He warned the EFF against actions that could trigger “anarchy of the highest order”. 

A day later, whether it was out of embarrassment or acting on ANC instructions one doesn’t know, Ramaphosa broke his silence. It was to echo Mbalula’s sentiments. 

“South Africa will not allow anarchy and disorder,” he said in reply to a question at a media conference on other matters. “Our security cluster will defend our people from any planned attempts to destabilise the country.”

Another case in point is the hot potato of an  International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant for President Vladimir Putin. The warrant demands that Putin be detained to stand trial in connection with the “unlawful deportation and transfer of Ukrainian children from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation, contrary to … the Rome Statute”.

In happier times, 20 years ago, South Africa played a major role in the crafting of the Rome Statute — not the “Roman statue”, as one ANC official described it on a news broadcast. This nominal commitment to human rights and international law crumbled before expediency the very first time that it was tested.

When the genocidal despot Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir visited in 2015, the Zuma government failed to exercise an ICC arrest warrant against him. It was a decision that the ICC declared unlawful. Our own Constitutional Court concurred, describing the Zuma government’s failure to act as “disgraceful”. 

In August, Putin is scheduled to attend a BRICS summit to be chaired and hosted by South Africa. He also happens to be a valued ally and financial patron of the ANC. 

So one would have thought that Ramaphosa would be keenly aware of the legal and reputational risks involved in exercising, or not, the warrant. It would appear not. 

Last week, sharing a platform with the Finnish president, Ramaphosa made the unscripted announcement that South Africa would withdraw from the ICC because of its bias in prosecuting those accused of war crimes. 

Confusion reigned. Just three months ago the ANC delegates to its policy conference pledged support for remaining in the ICC. A subsequent “clarification” by the Presidency reaffirmed the country’s continuing membership of the world body, blaming communication “errors” by the party and the president.

As is inevitable whenever there is a leadership void, rivals are circling. One of them is Mbalula, it would seem.

Less subtly than his intervention on the stay-away, Mbalula has on a couple of occasions recently publicly chided Ramaphosa, as if speaking to an errant child. Ramaphosa, he said in essence, does not have a grip on what being the head of state demands.

Following last month’s Cabinet reshuffle, there’s been, as predicted by the experts, much squabbling over turf between the three ministers who now each have some form of oversight of Eskom. But Ramaphosa denies that there is any friction and says the ministerial triumvirate “work very well together”. 

Mbalula is having none of that. “The president can't allow … a fallout. There [are] territorial battles as if this country is leaderless.”

“We expect the president to run his cabinet. Not his Cabinet running itself. If he's got a problem with that, we will have a problem with him.”

Similarly, Mbalula panned Ramaphosa over the juvenile dispute between Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande and his deputy over who gets media attention. “Why is he having a problem of ministers running amok?” 

The ANC did not want “a government that projects itself to be in a crisis”. Ramaphosa was the “chief executive officer of the country... [which] cannot be projected to be leaderless”.

Such harsh, unvarnished words directed at the party’s leader and the nation’s president might signal that Mbalula has personal ambitions of one day occupying the highest office. Alternatively, since Mbalula has always been alert to subtle shifts in the prevailing political winds, he may simply be preparing to hitch his wagon to a new, bigger and stronger, team.

Being a successful cattle farmer in his spare time, Ramaphosa will know that if the latter happens, unlike with a treasured pet, the old bull either goes to stud or to the slaughterhouse. 

No euthanasia for political animals.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye