Ramaphosa stumbles, but the DA fumbles

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the main political battle to come going into 2024


Both the governing African National Congress and the official opposition Democratic Alliance face a nerve-wracking countdown to the 2024 general election. Almost everything that happens in our politics from now until then is about influencing the outcome of that day.

To resort to a cricketing analogy, the captains of the major contenders, President Cyril Ramaphosa on the one side and John Steenhuisen on the other, will try to play it safe and bat out the clock without making any major errors that would gift the advantage to their opponents.

Based on their personality traits, Cyril Ramaphosa might on the face of it be the better bet. Where Steenhuisen is mercurial, Ramaphosa is imperturbable. He’s a man who is difficult to dislodge, as the Radical Economic Transformation faction has repeatedly discovered to their chagrin.  ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

We know from Ramaphosa’s record of failing to score over the past five years that he is by instinct a prodder and plodder. He’s at his best just occupying the crease and endlessly nudging the ball back to the bowler, rather than trying to probe the field and seek the boundary.

Unfortunately, given the predicament that we are in, this is not the style of play that South Africa needs. The country needs a leader with some steel and some verve, neither of which Ramaphosa has.

Last week, he declared a national state of disaster (SOD) to deal with an Eskom crisis that he told Parliament was “an existential threat to our economy and social fabric”. To emphasise the urgency, in a dramatic gesture, the SOD was “gazetted to begin with immediate effect”, even as he delivered his State of the Nation Address (SONA).

Such amateur theatrics is calculated to convey the impression of the decisive leader reacting with determination to an unpredictable event. But this is no Black Swan. This particularly ugly duckling was hatched by the ANC and grew up in Ramaphosa’s feathered nest. 

It’s a problem that has been his direct responsibility for at least the past eight years, first as deputy-president, when he was appointed by Jacob Zuma in 2015 to run the so-called “Eskom War Room”. Then, since 2018, as president, while all the time giving assurances that his administration had the problem in hand.

However, far from helping, Ramaphosa has been actively obstructive. Whether it’s been additional funds for fuel to run the backup gas turbines, a licence allowing Eskom to cut out the middle-man in buying diesel, or an exemption to race quotas on hiring specialised engineers, Ramaphosa has repeatedly said no.

How a captain treats the members of his team is a good measure of the quality of leadership. The one thing that Ramaphosa personally could have done to make a difference, supporting the Eskom CEO at a critical moment, he lacked the backbone to do.

When Energy Affairs Minister Gwede Mantashe slanderously accused André de Ruyter of being a treasonous saboteur — “actively agitating for the overthrow of the state” — there was not the smallest squeak of disagreement from Ramaphosa. 

In an interview with the British Sunday Times last week, De Ruyter said this was what finally broke him. He would likely have stayed on if Ramaphosa had asked him to or had distanced himself from Mantashe’s words, said De Ruyter. It would also have required a commitment from Ramaphosa to act against those involved in corruption.

In practical terms, the SOD is unnecessary and there is a very good chance that the courts, who have been approached to rule on it, will agree. Its gazetting is not about Ramaphosa needing the draconian powers available under the National State of Disaster Act. Rather, it’s about moulding voter perceptions in the run-up to the election. 

To start with, none of the ministerial underpinnings required to run a SOD has yet been put in place. 

It’s now more than two months since Ramaphosa was endorsed by the ANC for a second term, thus opening the door to a Cabinet reshuffle. This hasn’t happened because Ramaphosa has been doing what he does best, dithering about, all under the guise of consulting his pals about who to select for the team

Although we know there will be five ministers whose portfolios encompass different aspects of Eskom’s operation, including a new Minister of Electricity, we still don’t know who they are. Perhaps more germanely, given that the ANC’s talent pool has long been reduced to a muddy puddle of mediocrity, there is already confusion about what the lines of responsibility will be. 

Will the electric minister be the “single point of command” as Ramaphosa described it in SONA? Or will the shocked minister find, as Mantashe sees it, that he or she is merely a “project manager”? The arm wrestling over job descriptions will take months. 

In short, Ramaphosa is a hopeless president, the least bad among miserable options. It’s no wonder that the voters stay away in droves. Even the old-school ANC reformists who’ve punted Ramaphosa’s elusive virtues so enthusiastically for years are losing steam.

Melanie Verwoerd, a News24 columnist who is a former ANC MP, tried valiantly this week to attack the “criticism bordering on hysteria” that met Ramaphosa’s SOD move. It was “important to realise”, she wrote, that the next election was not between the ANC and the DA but more likely between the ANC and EFF. “A case of the devil you know versus the one you are petrified of.”

Oscar van Heerden, an indefatigable optimist who is close to the Ramaphosa camp, concedes by implication in a News24 column this week that the president is now simply the caretaker in a holding exercise. “Chances are that [Ramaphosa] will not serve out [his] full second term as president … and that, soon after the elections, once a proper coalition government is formed, [he] would exit active politics anyway.”

So, faced with such a cack-handed night-watchman batsman as Ramaphosa, one might think that the DA should feel pretty confident about the face-off. Unlike the ANC, they have an enviable record of achievement in every council or province that they have governed. 

The Western Cape is unchallengeably the most competently run province in South Africa. As a consequence, it is steadily siphoning skills and investment from the other provinces. Ironically, the very same people who shout loudest about never voting for the DA, are often the same ones who’ve upped sticks from ANC-blighted hellholes in the rest of the country, to live in the Cape.

And Steenhuisen, after all, is a confident player. Lots of flash and dash, unlike Ramaphosa.

The problem, however, is the long history of unexpected DA collapses because of successive leaders’ propensity to clobber their own wickets. During one SONA innings, Steenhuisen managed it twice. 

First, he rose in tight-lipped fury to challenge the Speaker over the ejection of the EFF MPs. The protection officers, some of whom were armed, said Steenhuisen, broke protocol by entering the National Assembly without the express invitation of the Speaker. 

In response, the Speaker sensibly pointed out that the physical threat of thugs storming the stage to silence a president outweighed procedural niceties. One suspects that most potential DA voters watching the television coverage would agree. 

Then Steenhuisen staged his own bit of look-at-me drama by declaring that even while Ramaphosa was speaking, announcing the SOD, the DA had already set in motion a legal challenge to it. Predictably, over the next few days the DA was skewered by the ANC, other opposition parties, and the public, for now attacking the president over something that the DA had, starting in early 2022, repeatedly urged him to do.

Put on the back foot, the DA has since been desperately trying to explain, yes, it had wanted a SOD. But it wanted a “ring-fenced” SOD, confined to Eskom. Whatever the dubious merits of such a difficult-to-implement DA plan, the damage had been done. They looked like a bunch of shape-shifting hypocrites.

There was another minor misstep this week. DA Shadow Minister of Communications Dianne Kohler Barnard condemned the retrenchment of 6,000 SA Post Office (SAPO), given the country is “suffering from a catastrophically high unemployment rate”. 

This is an embarrassingly transparent DA attempt to court the public service worker vote. While it is indeed scandalous, as Kohler Barnard points out, how badly SAPO management has treated its staff while enjoying lavish perks, South Africa’s terrible unemployment rate doesn’t excuse overstaffed, barely functional state entities.

It’s obvious from their recent performances that both captains will have to up their game. But, of course, it isn’t a game. This will be the most important election since 1994.

Forget all the noise about the supposedly important role of the smaller parties and, even more implausibly, “independent” candidates, in 2024.

No matter what political accommodations may happen afterwards, it is the electoral performances on the day of two parties — the ANC and the DA — that will determine the ideological shape of South Africa as it enters its fourth decade of democracy.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye