Cyril Ramaphosa's elephants and his blind spots
Cyril Ramaphosa's call in his recent speech in Port Elizabeth for the appointment of a judicial commission of enquiry into allegations of state capture is a neat little blow against Jacob Zuma. But it is also a way of kicking the issue into touch.
Such an enquiry would drag on for years, by which time a lot more capture would have taken place. In the interim Mr Ramaphosa's call has enabled him to do a spot of virtue-signalling by telling protest marchers that he has heard them.
However, what he really needs to do is explain how he would get rid of state capture should he ever become president of the country. This does not need any commission of enquiry. It needs only leadership. But this is where Mr Ramaphosa's problems start.
State capture and related practices, "if left unchecked, could destroy the revolution," he said. The snag is that state capture is an intrinsic part of the "revolution". Its stated purpose is to capture all "centres of power". Its main instrument is the deployment committee of the African National Congress (ANC), to whose chairmanship none other than Mr Ramaphosa himself was appointed four years ago. "We know there is an elephant in the room," he said in Port Elizabeth, "but we do not want to talk about it". Indeed not.
Mr Ramaphosa is choosing his elephants carefully. The one he suggests no one wants to talk about is the "private individuals who exercise undue influence over state appointments". But there is another one. This elephant is his party's cadre deployment committee. As chairman of the National Planning Commission set up in May 2010 - seven years ago - Mr Ramaphosa would be well aware of its finding that political interference in senior appointments had caused "turbulence" which had undermined citizens' confidence in the state. He will also be aware of his commission's subsequent recommendation that the public service needed to be "insulated from undue political interference".
What Mr Ramaphosa now needs to do is to spell out exactly how he would insulate the public service and other state institutions from such "undue political interference". This needs no commission of enquiry. What it does need is recognition that the origins of the brazen abuse that now characterises "state capture" are to be found in the fact that Luthuli House rather than a professional public service commission makes key appointments, not only to jobs in government at all levels but also to state-owned entities. From there to abuse of the process by factions, or individuals, within Luthuli House is a small step.
Though "state capture" may be largely associated now with the behaviour of the Gupta family, abuses go back to capture by Mr Zuma of the National Prosecuting Authority, the intelligence services, sections of the police, and other institutions. The National Treasury appears to be the next target.
The rot has set in far and wide and deep. The damage to the economy, to the nation's finances, and the country's international reputation is incalculable. A campaign against the whole sorry practice of political appointments should find a ready response from a public clearly disgusted by it all. No half measures. Just get rid of the whole notion of capture of centres of power and cadre deployment. Give us an independent professional public service instead, insulated from capture by anyone.
"We need to correct our ways," said Mr Ramaphosa. Leaders worth the name tell people how they plan to do that. If he does not spell out a fundamentally different alternative to the tawdry Zuma/Gupta era, Mr Ramaphosa will merely confirm that he remains a slave to the outdated and destructive revolutionary ideology that has captured the mind of his party just as various institutions have been captured by politicians and their patrons.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. His memoirs, Between Two Fires - Holding the Liberal Centre in South African Politics, have just been published by Jonathan Ball.