Ramaphosa's defence force

William Saunderson-Meyer sizes up the just launched Defend Our Democracy movement


As a rallying cry, “Defend Our Democracy” is a stirring, clarion call. And an apparently spontaneous assembly of South Africans ready to confront the forces of political darkness is undoubtedly welcome. 

Except that last week’s launch of the Defend Our Democracy (DOD) movement is only peripherally related to the threats that exist to the South African Constitution or law and order. What it’s really about is the defence of President Cyril Ramaphosa against his foes within the African National Congress.

The unstated aim is to ensure his political survival as leader of the “good” ANC. The unstated reasoning is that if Ramaphosa is unseated at the party’s leadership convention next year, the Constitution will become an early casualty of the rampant populism of the “bad” ANC — the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) bloc.

Were our political order functioning properly and not under the spell of liberation politics, such an intervention would not be necessary. Then, if the Constitution were threatened by extra-parliamentary groups, the revolutionaries would be jailed. Then, if the Constitution were threatened by the actions of the governing party, it would be voted out of power.

That’s because in the world’s robust democracies it is general elections that matter most to the governing party. Losing one’s majority brings a change of direction, policies and people.

But in fledgeling democracies, such as ours, it’s the governing party’s internal elections that matter most. With no existential threat from the opposition, everything is about controlling the machinery that dispenses patronage and decides succession.

It makes for big-stakes internecine battles. To achieve Ramaphosa’s wafer-thin victory against Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in 2017, his campaign spent R400m. There is no reason to think that the Dlamini-Zuma camp’s expenditure, which allegedly included R19m from state security funds to buy “kingmaker” delegates, was substantially different.

Despite the subsequent three years of Ramaphosa’s soft-shoe shuffling and building “social compacts” with the various factions of the alliance, those opposing forces appear still to be pretty evenly matched. Arguably, the RET faction may even be gaining traction.

Last week, the ANC instructed its MPs to vote for a parliamentary inquiry that may impeach the RET’s secret friend, Public Protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane. Although there was a three-line ANC whip — meaning only the dead, dying or detained are excused— 60 of the party’s 230 MPs defied the instruction.

Historically, disregarding the ANC whip was an act of political suicide. This is a party that demands — and almost invariably receives — the total obedience of its public representatives. 

ANC MP Jennifer Ferguson ignored the whip in a 1997 abortion vote and soon afterwards resigned from Parliament. In 2011, ANC MP Ben Turok walked out of the vote on the controversial 2011 Secrecy Bill, while his colleague, Gloria Borman, abstained. Aided by Turok’s iconic status as a Struggle stalwart, they managed to ride out calls for their dismissal and threats of disciplinary action. Both, however, retired as MPs before the next general election.

The party’s response to the 60 who defied Ramaphosa has been markedly different. ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule, when asked whether there would be repercussions, shot back, “What repercussions, when they’ve done the right thing?” And, within days, the ANC high command improbably announced that all 60 had valid excuses for not voting.

This increasingly brazen and defiant championing of the RET faction by Magashule is an indication of the group’s growing confidence that they can win a head-to-head confrontation with the Ramaphosa reformists.

For months Magashule has defied the ANC national executive’s instructions that those criminally charged should stand down until their cases are resolved. He has also supported Zuma’s nose-thumbing at a Constitutional Court judgment that he must appear before the Zondo Inquiry into State Capture. 

Magashule’s sidekick, Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte, in a recent article suggested that the Constitution itself is counter-revolutionary and contradicts one of the ANC’s basic principles — that its representatives are accountable first to the party, since their authority comes directly from the people, and only then to the Constitution.

Duarte wrote further that former Chief Justice Ray Zondo, whose inquiry is the greatest threat faced by the RET forces within the ANC, was practising his “craft based on the narrow parameters of existing laws”. If this was allowed to continue, it would “turn our democracy into more of a neoliberal concoction than it already is…”

While this belief in the primacy of the ANC over a constitutional order is not that of the Ramaphosa bloc, it nevertheless is significant within the ANC. And since Ramaphosa will do almost anything to keep the RET in the party, it’s an inextricable part of the ANC’s DNA. If DOD wants to defend democracy, it will have to get into the ring against the ANC itself, not just shadow box with the RET.

If not, DOD — which criticises Zuma but not once mentions the broader ANC’s connivance in and responsibility for the crisis that South Africa faces — will end up being just another Ramaphosa-boosting exercise. It is conceivable that DOD may grow into a genuine, grassroots movement that can unstick our politics, but as it stands now, DOD is a transparently cobbled together alliance that exists to give external respectability to an internal battle.

Although DOD includes a veneer of prominent academics, legal figures and leaders of civil society, most of the initial 300-plus signatories are from within Ramaphosa’s reformist wing of the tripartite alliance. Indeed, some of the ANC signatories — such as Mo Shaik, Essop Pahad and Frank Chikane — were personally responsible for undermining, over decades, the very Constitution that they now suddenly claim to want to defend.

As News24’s Adriaan Basson points out in his column, Shaik was a prime mover in Jacob Zuma’s campaign to seize the presidency from Thabo Mbeki. This included manufacturing lies about Bulelani Ngcuka, the former National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) and initiator of the Scorpions, being an apartheid spy.

Essop Pahad, Minister in the Presidency during the Mbeki year, brought the Guptas, the architects of state looting, into the ANC and made them cosy. And Chikane, Director-General of the Presidency under Mbeki, was instrumental in the removal of another NDPP, Vusi Pikoli, because he prosecuted corrupt police chief Jackie Selebi.

And while there are some credible, independent, pro-democracy organisations listed in DOD’s launch statement, the overwhelming impression is of desperation and political naïveté. Among the five dozen organisations that signed, there’s an insurance company, a public relations agency, a management consultancy, and an array of ANC-aligned organisations of limited influence and marginal importance.

That includes the support of a paltry three branches of the Congress of SA Trade Unions and the Greater Mayfair Civic Association of Johannesburg. The GMCA last flexed its political clout, social media reveals, in July 2014, when it participated in a motorbike cavalcade to Zoo Lake, to mark Gaza Solidarity Day.

In all, not the most impressive credentials for the defence of democracy. But better, I concede, than those of my favourite signatory to the DOD’s launch declaration — The Teddy Bear Foundation for Abused Children.

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