Ramaphosa: can he do it and does he have what it takes?

John Kane-Berman says ANC President will have to decide what he really believes in and then make the case for it

Apart from acquiring a few extra bodyguards, one of the first things Cyril Ramaphosa will have to do in his new job as president of the African National Congress (ANC) is arm himself with an independent team of top lawyers. This will be necessary to help him cope with all the obstacles that President Jacob Zuma will erect against him in order to keep himself out of court.

Unless he can swiftly get rid of Mr Zuma, Mr Ramaphosa is likely to be the target of sabotage and destabilisation.

The ANC had an opportunity in its recent elections to break decisively with the past. It failed to do so. That Mr Ramaphosa emerged with a razor-thin majority shows that while half the organisation favours change, the other half is committed to a continuation of the recklessness and skulduggery that characterises the Zuma administration.

The result is that Mr Ramaphosa's intellectual, management, and leadership skills will be tested to the utmost. So will his courage. He will not be able to stop the rot or introduce policy change unless he is able to build a wider power base. Ensuring that Mr Zuma is prosecuted will be essential to achieving this.

Beyond that, Mr Ramaphosa will have to decide what he believes in. Does he really want "the unrelenting focus on growth and investment" of which he recently spoke in a major address in Soweto. Or is his overriding commitment really to some of the other things he mentioned among his ten "priorities" in that same speech? These include "decent" wages, import substitution, local procurement, accelerated land reform, accelerated black economic empowerment, and "urgent free higher education for the poor".

You cannot have these and "unrelenting focus on growth and investment" at the same time.

You have to choose. You also have to choose between "quality education" and your expressed support for the South African Democratic Teachers Union. You further have to choose between growth and the National Democratic Revolution you favour as well.

Like so many people in business and in the media, Mr Ramaphosa believes in a "social compact". This is where business, government, labour, and civil society will get together to construct a "new deal". As we know from experience, however, such compacts are dominated by big business to the detriment of small business. They are also dominated by organised labour to the detriment of the unemployed.

As for "civil society", it consists of thousands of different institutions that do not speak with a single voice. Whoever shows up at "social compact" meetings claiming to speak for "civil society" is an impostor.

The National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), which is the very model of a modern social compact, has presided over legislation that has pushed unemployment up from 3.7 million when the ANC came to power to 9.4 million today.

Dumping policy options into the lap of a "social compact" risks perpetuating our unemployment problem, as well as all the legislation detrimental to small business.

If – it is a very big if – Mr Ramaphosa is serious about growth and investment, he needs to decide on the best policies to achieve these. There is plenty of evidence from the experience of other countries on what needs to be done. Mr Ramaphosa then needs to sell these policies. This means creating a constituency for them both in the ANC and beyond. It means taking the lead in spelling out the extent of the crisis facing the country. This is not just a question of economic stagnation. Nor even of corruption and "state capture". It also embraces runaway public expenditure, out-of-control state-owned enterprises, collapsing institutions of government, and failing education and other public services.

The kind of leadership that can pull South Africa back from the brink is not the kind that craves consensus. It is the kind that is brutally honest that this country is heading for disaster. It is the kind that then creates an electoral mandate for new ideas and new policies. Such leaders are rare. Let us hope Mr Ramaphosa is one of them.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.