The explanation for President Cyril Ramaphosa’s continued high levels of public support, considerably beyond the electoral popularity of his party, is not his presidential performance. It is not his abilities or performance.
It’s fear. Fear that his departure would mean that the state capture faction — cloaked under the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) label — would regain control, with all the attendant ghastly implications.
Corruption would resume unchecked. There would be a looting free-for-all as the cadres scrambled to grab what they could before the South African state was bankrupted.
The economic changes that are now a survival imperative — such as an end to financial life support for failed state-owned entities; a smaller public service that is not work-shy and featherbedded; and municipalities run to the benefit of the populace — would under a restored RET presidency be postponed or rejected as unnecessary.
Populist measures, such as expropriation without compensation of private property and the diversion of private pension funds into state projects, will gather pace. Such pay-offs will be the mechanism by which the ANC retains the support of its core voting constituency.
In other words, there will be a complete and utter Zimbabwe-style meltdown. In other words, exactly what is already happening, but at an accelerated pace. Given Ramaphosa’s manifest inability to act decisively over the past two-and-a-half years, all that’s at issue here is the speed at which the disaster unfolds.
The president cannot make the economic changes that are necessary because he dare not defy the union movement and the SA Communist Party that got him elected. He cannot act effectively against corruption since the entire party appears to be implicated in it.
As ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule put it last week, in response to public outrage over vastly inflated Covid emergency health relief tenders going to the politically connected, including Magashule's children: “Tell me of one leader of the ANC who has not done business with government?”
It’s an astonishingly provocative response by Magashule. He is basically saying that Ramaphosa is just the latest in a long line of ANC presidents who are corrupt.
Ramaphosa has neither denied such culpability nor has he taken any disciplinary action against Magashule. One must then conclude that either Ramaphosa concedes that he, personally, is as ethically challenged as are so many of his colleagues, or that he cannot or will not rock the party boat.
Since there has been no evidence of Ramaphosa being a crook, the problem is one of presidential paralysis. He is paralysed because for Ramaphosa, “cannot” and “will not” are the same thing.
As he has repeatedly stated, the most important thing for him is not to preside over the break-up of the party. And despite being in control since the end of 2018, his avowedly reformist faction has still not been able to wrest control from former president Jacob Zuma’s RET cronies.
On the contrary, judging by the recent behaviour of Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the woman he narrowly pipped at the post for the leadership, his stature and options within the party have since diminished. While Ramaphosa has wafted about during the past months of the coronavirus pandemic trying to look statesmanlike and in control, Dlamini-Zuma is the one who appeared and behaved as though she were, in fact, in charge.
Most humiliatingly, the militantly anti-smoking Dlamini-Zuma peremptorily countermanded his lifting of the ban on smoking, exposing him to public derision. Even if this were the “joint decision” that the government has unconvincingly insisted it was, the fact that Ramaphosa heads a Cabinet that changes it mind only days after making it up, indicates weak leadership, at the very least.
There is plenty of other evidence of such weakness. Police Minister Bheki Cele has rampaged through the lockdown months like a spaghetti Western baddie — inventing regulations, decreeing illegal arrests and seizures, and tolerating, if not encouraging, brutish behaviour by the security forces. Yet Ramaphosa has not uttered a word of rebuke.
Since Ramaphosa is unlikely to undergo the personality change necessary to take control, sequentially, of his Cabinet, his national executive committee, his party, and his tripartite alliance, we have to hope for events to break the impasse. Ramaphosa’s professed worst nightmare, a split in the ANC, would do exactly that.
It would be an event of seismic proportions. Previous breakaways from the ANC have been splinters rather than splits.
The centre-left Congress of the People (Cope) garnered a respectable 7.5% of the vote in 2009 but squandered it in pointless Tweedledum versus Tweedledee leadership squabbles, to be reduced to barely a quarter per cent in 2019. The expulsion of ANC youth leader Julius Malema and cronies saw the formation of the radical Economic Freedom Fighters, which grew from just over 6% support in the 2014 election to almost 11% in the 2019 election.
An ANC split down the middle, now, would likely lead to the RET forces, led by Dlamini-Zuma making common cause with the EFF. That would conceivably lead to a far-left coalition forming the next government.
But, equally, it could see the Ramaphosa reformists in the ANC aligning — or supplanting — the Democratic Alliance and formations such as those recently founded by the likes of Herman Mashaba and Mmusi Maimane.
There is a substantial number of disaffected ANC supporters who have in the past dozen years become disillusioned but have been unable to bring themselves to vote for the opposition, so have stayed away from the polls. They might well be drawn to such an ANC-led, market-oriented coalition, especially if the alternative were a Dlamini-Zuma/Malema victory.
Such speculation is of limited use. One can endlessly debate the likelihood or desirability of any number of such scenarios.
The point is simply that the status quo is unsustainable. Economic and social pressures, aggravated by the pandemic and lockdown, are enormous. Something has to give and the ideological logjam that is paralysis government has to be broken.
Ramaphosa is getting weaker within the tripartite administration, not stronger. Unless he acts soon, the RET forces will be emboldened enough to act against him.
Ramaphosa and the reformists should be clear about the consequences. If the RET faction reclaims power, there will be a thorough house cleaning. Dlamini-Zuma is not as squeamish as he is.
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