Ramaphosa has just run out of excuses

William Saunderson-Meyer says President's RET adversaries have been exposed as a paper tiger


President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Stalingrad Defence, coupled with his willingness to sacrifice a brace of high-value Eskom pieces, has succeeded. 

Twice in the past week, the strength of the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction has been shown to be vastly overstated, including by the president and his allies. Another trouncing awaits them at the weekend.

First, the president last Sunday easily won the backing of an ANC national executive committee (NEC) that has always been touted as having so strong an RET presence as inevitably to thwart Ramaphosa's best efforts at reform. But instead of the predicted mutiny, the NEC lauded his statesmanship and meekly backed his recalcitrance over a parliamentary impeachment inquiry.

A second potential mutiny, this time of the parliamentary grassroots, didn’t materialise either. Speculation that between 30-40 ruling party MPs would on Tuesday disregard the NEC’s instructions and vote with the opposition for an impeachment inquiry, proved hopelessly out of touch. The motion was defeated by 214-148, with only four ANC votes in favour. Of the embattled rebels, only one, the Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, is a significant voice in the party.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Reading the tea leaves well, Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, the other strident RET voice in Cabinet, rather sneakily didn’t even cast her ballot. Of course, she would have voted for the motion, she afterwards assured the media, but she inadvertently had hastened outside the chamber to answer a text message, at the exact moment that her name was reached in the roll-call. 

One can safely deduce from the pathetic performance of the RET forces in these two skirmishes, that a drubbing awaits them at this weekend’s leadership conference. Ramaphosa will easily be re-elected as party leader and, consequently, will be the ANC’s candidate for a second presidential term in 2024.

These may, however, have been Pyrrhic victories. 

South Africa enters the final stretch of what has probably been one of the most dismal years in close on 50 years — I can remember only the mid-1980s, with its diplomatic isolation, economic sanctions, and armed insurrection being as dire a time— not with optimism for 2023, but with dread.

Ramaphosa’s personal integrity and the standing of his office are at new lows. The decline from the popularity and public respect of four years ago has been steady and is probably irreversible. 

Ramaphosa’s substantial body of supporters in the media and on public forums has excused his evasions and weaknesses by arguing for pragmatism — better the little devil known than the big devil lurking — not for his innocence. 

Few of the defenders of his various legal stratagems to escape the parliamentary inquiry truly believe that was not involved in some kind of financial shenanigans at Phala Phala. How could it be otherwise? The president has yet to provide the electorate with any credible explanation, except to say simply that he did nothing wrong. 

On the other hand, not many of Ramaphosa’s detractors would deny that South Africa is better off for him having outflanked/ his RET enemies. The crux is what happens next. With the routing of the RET, Ramaphosa no longer has any excuses to hide behind. Any continued preference for inertia over action will look not like justifiable caution but contemptible spinelessness.

This is illustrated in his abject failure to protect Eskom CEO André de Ruyter from vicious attacks from within the party and its allies, and the resulting resignation of De Ruyter on Wednesday.

De Ruyter’s departure, to be followed by other key Eskom staff, is a disaster for the country but politically expedient for the ANC and the president. It shows, yet again, Ramaphosa’s unwavering commitment to putting his and his party’s interests before that of the country.  

Black business organisations had from the outset opposed De Ruyter, a white Afrikaner male, when there were, in their view, so many superior black candidates available. So, too, the ANC-aligned Congress of SA Trade Unions, although it dressed up its racism by claiming that it was his lack of an engineering qualification that disqualified him from the job.

While the issues of race are always fizzing and popping somewhere in the South African cauldron, the real objection to De Ruyter was not his skin colour but his determined campaign against corruption. During De Ruyter’s three-year tenure at Eskom, the spigots of tenderpreneurial corruption were slowly but relentlessly being closed.

This threatened to deprive ANC political elites of a lucrative target for looting. It is evidence of the depth of corruption at Eskom and within the ANC, that the exit of President Jacob Zuma, chief enabler of state looting, and the arrival of his supposedly anti-corruption successor, made little difference to the pace at which Eskom was being stripped down and ripped off.

On the contrary, the response to De Ruter’s crackdown was an upping of the ante, with the widespread sabotage of generation facilities by staff. The supply of substandard coal (padded with rubble to increase profit margins) also continued, indicating the degree to which corruption had become the norm at Eskom. 

The lives of De Ruyter and his number two, Jan Oberholzer, were threatened, as well as those of their families. Social media abuse became shriller and more vicious.

Law enforcement has remained negligible, with the only arrests coming from private security consultants hired by Eskom. Prosecutions have been hampered by dilatory and shoddy preparatory work. Convictions have been rare, with magistrates suspiciously magnanimous towards the accused. 

As De Ruyter wryly observed about the resistance of the unions and the Department of Mineral Affairs to Eskom's attempts to ease supply woes by encouraging renewables, “The one good thing about the sun and wind is that they cannot be stolen.”

However, the biggest reason for his resignation, De Ruyter told News 24, lay at the highest level. “The job in its current configuration is impossible. There is a lack of support and when this became clear to me, it became fundamentally untenable [to continue], given the repeated attacks on me and Eskom’s strategy by senior members of government.”

De Ruyter was referring to the scurrilous attacks on him by Gwede Mantashe, Minister of  Mineral Resources and Energy. Last week, Mantashe accused the Eskom CEO and his executive of “actively agitating for the overthrow of the state” through load shedding. Load shedding, said Mantashe, was “worse than state capture” and De Ruyter acted “too much like a policeman” in trying to prevent corruption at the utility.

These astonishing statements — including the defamatory slur of treason — were calculated to provoke the exit of De Ruyter. And when neither Pravin Gordhan, the Minister of Public Enterprises, nor Ramaphosa uttered a word in defence of De Ruyter or in rebuke of Mantashe, the CEO’s resignation became inevitable. 

None of this should surprise us. Ramaphosa has always been forthright in stating that his primary objective as president of the Republic is to prevent divisions within the ANC. 

So, to sacrifice De Ruyter, the ninth Eskom CEO since 2014 and the country’s best shot at avoiding the collapse of the national grid, was a simple decision. Ramaphosa didn’t even have to fire him. All he had to do was remain silent and passive, both of which come naturally to the president.

There is one, problem, though. The president and his acolytes can no longer credibly put it about that his failures to act decisively are for fear of provoking an RET-engineered recall. 

The RET has now decisively been shown to be a paper tiger. How the president behaves in the next few critical months — the ministers he fires, the executive actions he takes— will be telling.

If he does not act boldly, it will be reasonable for voters to conclude that the RET has for the past four years been nothing but a convenient fiction behind which to cower.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundiced Eye

This is the final Jaundiced Eye column for 2022. It resumes on January 13, 2023.