Ramaphoria fades

William Saunderson-Meyer says the economy remains in a bad way, and the President's position is precarious


Of course, it never was going to last. Ramaphoria, I mean.

Ramaphoria is the warm, fuzzy feeling that washed over South Africa with the ascension of Cyril Ramaphosa to the presidency in December. With the departure of Jacob Zuma, the pall of gloom that had hung over the nation for almost a decade was lifted.

Suddenly all good things seemed possible again, in the “new dawn” that Ramaphosa proclaimed. The sun came out, the rand surged, optimism soared.

But Ramaphoria was never going to be the same high-octane potion as the Rainbow Nation mampoer that South Africans had got vrot on more than two decades ago. The Ramaphosa gilding of the ANC lily is already wearing off in patches, revealing the tacky, cracked plastic below.

The rand is in retreat. The public mood has soured and is again turning rancorous.

The degree to which corruption and looting has gutted the economy is only beginning to be apparent, with bankruptcies looming in both the corporate and state-owned sectors. The ANC’s Damascene commitment to expropriation without compensation has spooked investors, whatever the initial hopes that Ramaphosa would be able to limit the extent of the lunacy.

That the honeymoon is over was apparent in this week’s fractious parliamentary exchange between the habitually genial Ramaphosa and the DA chief whip, John Steenhuisen. Irritated by Steenhuisen’s continual sotto voce interjections while the president was outlining the benefits of the minimum wage, Ramaphosa lost his temper, telling  Steenhuisen several times, in a torrent of anger, to “shut up”.

Steenhuisen later tweeted, “To [those] celebrating that the President told me to ‘shut up’, laugh now but take note. It starts with the opposition being told to shut up. It will soon move to the media and pretty soon all will be ‘shut up’.”

That is either uncharacteristic hyperbole or sudden disillusionment from Steenhuisen. After all, this is the man that City Press claimed earlier this year resigned from the DA’s campaign team, because of the party’s initially hostile reaction to the new president. Steenhuisen reportedly argued that the DA should have judged the public mood more accurately and welcomed Ramaphosa’s election with graciousness.

And that is how the scenery has shifted between acts in the Zuma-Phosa drama. The EFF accords a respectful silence to a president who has apparently embraced their most controversial policies, while a disenchanted DA fires barbs and, according to Ramaphosa, expletives.

For the phlegmatic Ramaphosa to lose his cool over some mild parliamentary barracking – his predecessor chortled happily through much worse – may indicate the pressure he is under. Not from the opposition gadflies, but from the hornets of which he has yet to draw the sting, nestling within the ANC.

Ramaphosa gained power by a narrow margin. While he has moved adroitly to consolidate his authority, the battle is far from over.

Zuma is clearly not contemplating an idyllic rural retirement. He is not going to be spending his time wallowing with wife-of-the-week in the Nkandla firepool.

Instead, Zuma is continuing his war of legal attrition, smothering every attempt at putting him in the dock with an avalanche of counter-motions. He is also trying to bolster his provincial powerbase, while white-anting Ramaphosa everywhere, at every opportunity.

The precariousness of Ramaphosa’s situation is illustrated by events in North West. Fury over the incompetence and corruption of the administration of ANC premier Supra Mahumapelo – strongly aligned with Zuma – has for week boiled over in violent protests.

There has been at least one death, as well as scores of injuries, as police clashed with tire-burning, shop-looting mobs demanding Mahumapelo’s resignation. Vigilantes have barricaded hospitals and clinics, undoubtedly causing further deaths and misery.

In April, Ramaphosa cut short his trip to the United Kingdom to address the unrest. The textbook response to such anti-government violence is first to restore public order, then to address the root causes of the disaffection.

Ramaphosa has taken a more circuitous approach. While he wants to placate community anger by getting rid of Mahumapelo, this has to be done diplomatically, so as not to trigger a revolt by the Zuma faction in the ANC.

It seemed to be working. After meetings with Ramaphosa, Mahumapelo’s resignation was announced on Tuesday. Then, just hours later, when it became apparent that Mahumapelo’s successor would not be from the premier’s camp, the resignation was withdrawn.

Instead, Mahumapelo has decided to go on “leave of absence” and has appointed Finance MEC Wendy Nelson to act as premier in his place, while the behind-the-scene machinations continue. Nelson is certainly in Mahumapelo’s camp – both he and she are accused in an alleged R160m fraud.

To survive for the long haul, Ramaphosa has to manoeuvre carefully in these fraught early stages. However, he may not have time on his side.

For years there have been sporadic and seemingly spontaneous eruptions of discontent in many parts of SA. This week a Human Sciences Research Council survey reported that 13% of North West residents now see public violence as an effective instrument of political change.

For a democracy, that is a chillingly high percentage. It makes for a vulnerable presidency and country.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye