Almost three years into President Cyril Ramaphosa’s promised New Dawn, yet barely a crack of light is to be seen over the South African horizon. And by the time that this eagerly anticipated but tardy sun has risen, it will reveal a bleak and barren terrain.
It will unmask a landscape where the “green shoots” of economic growth, which the president endlessly babbles on about, are nowhere to be seen. Instead, South Africa’s physical infrastructure and service delivery mechanisms, even before the recent violence and destruction, are by any measure in a worse condition than when his administration took control in 2018.
Given how little Ramaphosa has achieved, the durability of his popularity — which is consistently 8-10 percentage points ahead of the electoral support for his party — is impressive. He has no lack of defenders, not only among the commentariat but among many who would usually vote for one of the opposition parties.
Perhaps this unusual behaviour is a political manifestation of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We cling to kindly Uncle Cyril’s reassuring knee because we still experience nightmarish flashbacks to the traumatic years of institutional rape and pillage by former president Jacob Zuma’s barbarian hordes.
The Ramaphosa backers, however, would argue that although the president has failed to reverse this inherited institutional collapse, at least his government has not behaved like a marauding army or a plague of locusts. The moribund state of the nation is not because of Ramaphosa’s ineptness and timidity, they explain, but rather a necessary staging post as he cements his power within the African National Congress, citing the president’s supposedly legendary tactical prowess at playing the “long game”.
In a sense, it’s a fruitlessly circular argument.
We need to take on board that this is a government immunised against reason and whose one consistency is its determination to cling to archaic social and economic models that have failed in every country that they’ve been implemented. Think Cuba and Venezuela. Don’t think China, whose capitalism in socialist clothing remains an intellectual challenge to most ANC leaders, beyond the formulaic mouthings gleaned from Marx and Mao.
We also need to accept that this is a populace in penury, entirely and increasingly dependent on government handouts to survive. The worse the economy gets, paradoxically, the stronger the ANC’s attraction. No ANC supporting constituency, yet, needs to worry about being subjected to tough love. Pandering is this government’s instinctual response.
And then there is whatever lingering romanticism attaches to the now well embedded narrative of a revolutionary liberation movement, which never managed to stage a revolution. By the time that the ANC alliance’s voting fodder have a Zimbabwe-style oppositional awakening, it will be — as has happened in Zimbabwe — too late for anything but to pick up the shards.
On the other hand, whatever the immediate reasons for Ramaphosa’s resilient reputation, his backers have it right. There is a convincing argument to be made that he is the best leader that the ANC has had since Nelson Mandela. He is also the best available one for the foreseeable future.
This brings the sobering realisation of the essence of the South African tragedy — this is as good as it is going to be. After 27 years in power, three of them under the stewardship of our designated saviour, we are experiencing first-hand the very best that an ANC government can deliver.
It is difficult to overstate the gravity of the situation. The ANC is irretrievably divided but neither side can contemplate a split. They’re in a death embrace that will drag all of us down with them.
The gap between the Radical Economic Transformation faction — to whose estimated trillion rands of state looting over 10 years one can add a R200bn bill for a weeklong looting spree initiated by its supporters — and the Ramaphosa reformists, cannot be bridged. At least, not likely in any compromise that would deliver a modern, democratic, and efficient state.
So for South Africa to survive as a nation one would be proud to live in, the Ramaphosa group has to win decisively. It has to comprehensively vanquish the RET.
Although Ramaphosa has through a process of organisational attrition sufficiently loosened the grip of the Zuma-ites on party levers of power to make it impossible for them to regain control, that is not enough. To eradicate their pernicious effect on how he exercises power, they would have to be expelled — a split in the party that is simply inconceivable to the president.
For the Zuma cabal, however, a draw will suffice. Under a political stalemate, it will then be able to plunder the state, as it indeed has continued to do during all of the Ramaphosa era, albeit in a less brazen fashion than before.
Whatever the motivations for Ramaphosa’s inaction, whether it is attributable to the “long game” that his acolytes think he’s playing, or whether it’s the personal timidity that his critics discern, doesn’t much matter.
After the recent violent eruptions, for which there is plenty of evidence of incitement by the Zuma faction, including the former president’s direct family, it is difficult to imagine Ramaphosa will act decisively against the RET cabal. The violence was a Zuma gauntlet and Ramaphosa’s instinct will be to regard it anxiously from a distance, not to seize it.
In every endeavour, Ramaphosa continues to move at a glacial pace. It has taken him seven months to replace a minister in the Presidency who died and almost as long to induce the resignation of a Health minister immersed in a corruption scandal.
This week’s cabinet reshuffle brings the country’s spies directly under Ramaphosa’s control — a favourite tactic of beleaguered African presidents, although never a reassuring move in a young democracy — but leaves a slew of inept and dangerous ministers untouched, including Bheki Cele, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Gwede Mantashe, Ebrahim Patel, Angie Motshekga and Fikile Mbalula. This is no dream team.
The president has placed in the key Finance portfolio a man with welcomely moderate economic views but trailing a financial scandal dating back to 2012 and involving R100m in missing trade union pension funds. Ramaphosa’s challenge, of course, is that there are very few ANC ministerial candidates who are not tainted by allegations of corruption. A cabinet meeting of the unsullied could be convened around a card table with seats to spare.
Ramaphosa is vastly different in character and personality from Zuma. The president is clever, modest, engaging and, on the face of it, a thoroughly decent person. Zuma isn’t.
But the difference between the outcome of their presidencies threatens to be negligible. Zuma brought South Africa to its knees. Ramaphosa, as it is playing out at the moment, will at best keep us from collapsing face down into the dirt.
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