Ramaphosa’s catastrophic year

William Saunderson-Meyer on the record of our underperforming President


Happy anniversary, Mr President!

Yes, in just a week’s time our Great Helmsman will be celebrating that propitious day in December 2017. The day that he assumed office as the 14th president of the African National Congress and took de facto control of the running government with the exit of Jacob Zuma.

Of course, Ramaphosa’s actual four-years’ office as president of the Republic of South Africa is reached only in February next year. But we all know upon which of these two public offices he places the highest value. Always, the party before the nation.

But let’s not be snide. In these grim times, any excuse for celebration must be seized, especially when we have a confluence of relatively good fortune. No lockdown. No bans on the sale of tobacco, alcohol and open-toed sandals.

Overseas tourists, were there any, can legally go onto the beach without a sinister dude in gangster headgear, claiming to be the Minister of Police, kicking sand in their faces. Admittedly, it’s an unfortunately telling measure of the state of South Africa that the police and army killed and detained more people — at least 11 shot or beaten to death and 230,000 arrests — enforcing Covid restrictions, than containing a July insurgency in which 360 died and at least R50bn of destruction occurred. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

At this four-year milestone, if CR were a US president, the situation would be comfortably predictable. He’d either have been dumped for a new, improved model or He’d be contemplating how best to cement in his second term the legacy laid down in the first.

But for Ramaphosa, it’s more complicated. For one, there isn’t yet much of a legacy to build on.

As he said this week, upon his return from gadding around Africa to rally the continent against the perfidious West, it’s been a “catastrophic” year, what with Covid chaos and a shrinking economy. Nevertheless, he remains of good cheer. “Upstanding and ready for the next fight,” he said pluckily.

“Upstanding” is an interesting word, since it has both a literal and philosophical dimension. While few would question Ramaphosa’s personal morality — as a politician who has risen to the top of a particularly malodorous dungheap, he’s probably as good as the ANC gene pool goes — the flaws lie in his execution.

The president may well be physically vertical but by any other manner of speaking, he’s been slip-sliding in every direction, like a poorly-set jelly in an earthquake. It’s difficult to think of a single promise that he’s delivered upon in all the past four years.

Jobs? No, unemployment is at almost 50% the highest ever. Curbing violent crime? No, murders, assaults and rapes are all up. Economic growth? No. Efficient and accountable government? You’re kidding?

How about his assurance of an end to cadre deployment, the subject of an earnest Letter from the President’s Desk? Or the pledges to end ANC looting of the state and jail those responsible. Nope to both of those.

The latter undertaking is key to Ramaphosa reputation and to the survival of South Africa. It has featured in virtually every major speech he’s made.

In his victory address at Polokwane in 2017, Ramaphosa said: “We must act fearlessly against corruption and abuse of office within our ranks.” On his return from his Africa tour this week, he said: “The next fight is to strengthen the capability of government, and we face many challenges from the prosecution area … [but] all it requires is commitment.”

In this same speech, the president labelled as “economic sabotage” the “completely unacceptable” blockading of the N3, the “major artery of our economy” This “is an act we are going to be coming down on heavily”. In 2019, when the first clearly coordinated torching of trucks closed the N3 for almost a week, he said exactly the same thing. Nothing happened.

It is perhaps in these platitudinous mouthings on criminality that Ramaphosa failings are most obvious and perturbing. Unless he straightens his spine, and soon, the whole country will be crushed by a culture of criminal impunity that has been growing for decades and has become more brazen in the wake of the July uprising.

Hence the plight of poor old Shamila Batohi, for whom December is also supposedly an occasion for celebration. On this day, three years and a fortnight ago, the then highly regarded Batohi was appointed head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).

Her public brief from Ramaphosa was stirring. Quoting from a Constitutional Court judgment, the president said “The rule of law dictates that the office of the NDPP be cleansed of all the ills that have plagued it for the past few years. With a malleable, corrupt or dysfunctional prosecuting authority, many criminals — especially those holding positions of influence — will rarely, if ever, answer for their criminal deeds.”

Batohi has, obviously, so far failed at the task. The NPA, which she described at the time of her appointment as “a house on fire”, is still blazing brightly three years later, its Zuma-supporting arsonists continuing to make merry. And not a single high profile prosecution has taken place.

Batohi is at present taking a public drubbing, with commentators and editors baying for her head. Democratic Alliance Shadow Minister of Justice Glynnis Breytenbach — a former NPA prosecutor herself and shortlisted for the NPA top job before she withdrew to become an MP — is one person who one might expect to join the mob and put in the boot. Instead, she’s surprisingly supportive.

Breytenbach says Batohi has “a task of great enormity”, while lacking the “tools to do the job” and facing the “now obvious reality of a lack of political support”. “If you want to assess ANC commitment,” Breytenbach tells me, “look at the slashed budgets.”

The figures are indeed telling. This year, the NPA had R422m cut from its R4.9bn budget.

The NPA’s Investigating Directorate, established by Ramaphosa’s presidential proclamation to target the big fish behind the trillion rands looted during the Zupta era, has a budget of R107m. Little wonder that its head, Hermione Cronje resigned this week.

In comparison, the National Youth Development Agency, a historically corruption-ridden sump to which the ANC deploys its most venal young cadres to get on-the-job embezzlement training required before progressing to richer pastures, has a budget five-and-a-half times bigger.

For further context, the government’s propaganda arm, the GCIS, has a budget of R750m. The bureaucrats who register companies and trademarks have a budget just shy of R650m. And the Public Works section that manages (badly) the government’s properties has a budget of R190m.

Whatever Breytenbach’s instinctual sympathies for Batohi’s plight, she hit the nail on the head during the grilling that the embattled NPA head was given this week by the parliamentary Justice committee.

“It’s not frankly good enough to keep telling [South Africans] that we must be patient,” said Breytenbach. “We need to see prosecutions happening. We need to see people going to jail. It’s as simple as that. It’s not hard.”

Did you hear that, Mr President?

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

This is the final column for 2021. Publication resumes in the new year.