South Africa on the brink

RW Johnson says both Ramaphosa and the DA need to grasp the gravity of our current situation

On 2 September 1939 the Panzer columns were rolling towards Warsaw, Hitler having invaded Poland the day before. It was now clear as never before that appeasement had not only not worked but had served to strengthen the Nazis. Neville Chamberlain, the arch-apostle of appeasement, who had accepted the Aanschluss, the Munich crisis and then Hitler’s devouring of all Czechoslovakia, was teetering, clearly uncertain as to whether he should live up to Britain’s pledge to protect Poland.

In the debate in the House of Commons that day the frustration of the Churchill group knew no bounds as one after another Tory speaker rallied to support Chamberlain’s limp-wristed response. Finally, Arthur Greenwood, deputy-leader of the Labour Opposition rose to speak. He was a weak and ineffectual man, not really up to the occasion. But Churchill’s supporter, Leo Amery, a former First Lord of the Admiralty, could not contain himself and as Greenwood rose to speak he shouted across to the Labour benches “Speak for England, Arthur! Speak for England!” Greenwood, though flustered, denounced Chamberlain’s shilly-shallying and the die was cast. Britain entered the war the next day.

Amery’s remark has echoed down the years as the desperate plea of a patriot, casting party differences aside, to appeal to the Opposition to do what his own party would not do. It is relevant to us now in our very different circumstances which are, nonetheless, strangely comparable.

Let us be frank. We face a situation of the utmost gravity. Twenty four years of majority rule have all but ruined the country, Ramaphosa and those who support him have their backs to the wall as the corrupt and criminal elements of the Zuma regime try to resist at every point. Supra Mahumapelo, really a mere tin-pot dictator, felt sufficiently confident of himself to take back his resignation, go on leave and try to put his equally compromised deputy in his place. Clearly, he felt he, a mere provincial Premier, could take on the President and win.

At the same time we can see Ace Magashule, the equally compromised ANC Secretary-General, trying his best to block Ramaphosa, openly attacking the budget just announced by his own party, and trying his best to manage things in the North West so as to assist Mahumapelo.

In KwaZulu-Natal Ramaphosa faces desperate trouble-making by Jacob Zuma, still furious at losing at Nasrec and bitterly determined to use the Zulu ethnic card to create every possible difficulty for Ramaphosa. The Zuma faction is trying hard to take over the whole of KZN and is clearly willing to use assassination and any other means to get its way. Zuma has absolutely no consideration for the welfare of the country over which he presided and is clearly willing to use anything to hand to defeat Ramaphosa so that he, Zuma, can stay out of jail. The Zuma forces speak quite openly of their aim to force Ramaphosa out of the presidency in defiance of the Constitution. Suddenly, too, there is talk of the KZN ANC seceding from the rest of the country to set up a quasi-autonomous state under the rule of the Zuma faction.

Throughout the country corrupt placemen and patronage players are supporting these moves in their desperation to hang on to their rackets and crooked deals which have so prospered under Zuma. No doubt all these efforts are being cheered on from India and Dubai by the Guptas who would like nothing better than to be allowed to descend once again on South Africa to pick its bones in league, once again, with Magashule and Mahumapelo.

Against this, what has Ramaphosa got going for him ? Not a lot. He comes from a minority ethnic group, has no effective base, and won the Presidency by a tiny margin. He has the Constitution on his side – but how many divisions does the Constitutional Court have? Not one. Apart from that, who can he call on? The answer is the old UDF elite, of which Ramaphosa was a prominent member.

The UDF was a true and multi-racial national movement which did more to reverse apartheid than the ANC ever could. Yet just as it triumphed the old, sclerotic ANC-in-exile descended back on the country and took over the leadership. This was a disaster. For thirty years the exile movement had been wholly dependent on the Soviet bloc, had adopted the entire SACP platform and, above all, had adopted all the worst habits of that movement – ideological rigidity, authoritarianism and paranoia.

All these traits have been in evidence throughout the last twenty-four years and they have deformed the South Africa that was so hopefully re-born in 1994. Only now, with Ramaphosa’s election, can we again glimpse the far more attractive face of the UDF – a movement of all the people, inclusive and with a premium on internal democracy.

And Ramaphosa has immediately rallied the old UDF stalwarts – Pravin Gordhan, Trevor Manuel (who was on the UDF Executive), Mcebisi Jonas (who founded the UDF in the Eastern Cape), Popo Molefe, a UDF founder and soon, one hopes, Terror Lekota, the UDF publicity secretary. What these men have in common is simply a commitment to the common good. None of them has ever been tarnished by corruption.

What happens if these men fail? The country founders, perhaps slips into anarchy, perhaps splits up into its subordinate units. Should this happen this would be seen to completely vindicate the predictions of the old white Right. And let us be frank, the ANC has been on a looting spree for these last two decades and even those who were not looting have been conducting a sort of permanent party with endless perks, foreign travel, celebrations of every kind, expensive whiskeys, big cars, bodyguards and all the rest of Big Man behaviour. Even now this has not stopped. But if it all goes on much longer, the country is lost.

So, whether we like it or not, Cyril Ramaphosa and his old UDF comrades are our thin red line, our last line of defence against a national collapse. I write this in no partisan sense – it is decades since I supported the ANC – but this is a time to put partisanship aside. This poses the question of what the Opposition should be doing. The answer is, exactly the opposite to what it is doing now. For not only has the DA failed to rise to the moment – and it is our version of that “Speak for England!” moment – but it has failed even to understand the situation it is in.

The DA’s initial response to Ramaphosa’s victory was to attempt to suggest that he was just a continuation of Zuma, that nothing important had changed. This was not only extremely stupid but it wholly mistook the national mood of relief, even euphoria. Maimane has attempted to carry on in this style – and has been made a complete fool of by Ramaphosa. When Maimane angrily declaimed that he would see Ramaphosa at the hustings in 2019, Ramaphosa genially suggested that they would meet often before that on the floor of the House.

Similarly, when Maimane tried to boast of initiatives taken by DA councils, Ramaphosa happily agreed that these were good initiatives, pointed out that ANC councils were doing the same and invited Maimane to come on a countrywide tour with him. In general Ramaphosa has treated Maimane as if he were an errant younger brother kicking against the traces and has happily indulged him, as an elder brother should. The effect has been devastating. Maimane urgently needs some new advisers and speech writers. Currently he is being completely out-classed. But there’s a question beyond that. Maimane left the ANC when Zuma took over. Now that Zuma’s gone it’s not really clear what he stands for. His rhetoric and thinking is unmistakably ANC.

Perhaps the lowest point of all was reached on May 8. Ramaphosa had been having a desperately trying week, his back to the wall, when he came to the House to talk about the minimum wage. He was in the middle of talking about the rather academic subject of the Brazilian experience of the minimum wage when he snapped, goaded beyond toleration by the continual barracking and heckling of the DA Chief Whip, John Steenhuisen – whom he roundly told to “shut up”. Steenhuisen, much umbraged about thus being put down, issued the following ridiculous statement:

“It starts with the Opposition being told to shut up, it will soon move to the media and pretty soon all will be “shut up”. We must always speak up and speak out, it’s how democracy is sustained.”

Steenhuisen is not a bad parliamentarian but this was juvenile, an attempt to somehow wrap himself in the flag of democratic resistance to oppression. But the truth was that Steenhuisen had not been speaking up or speaking out, he had simply been endlessly chirping in an effort to disrupt Ramaphosa’s speech – to prevent him from speaking up and speaking out. To then suggest that Ramamphosa was intent on shutting down the media or preventing free speech was simply balderdash. Nothing in Ramaphosa’s record at any stage suggests that he has this in mind.

That said, Ramaphosa himself hardly seems to understand the situation he is in. We are now so close to a debt trap that the best argument for not closing down SAA completely is that it might start a run on Eskom and all the other SOEs. We are right on the edge. Yet what does Ramaphosa do? Hold a ludicrous conference about expropriation without compensation, pure poison to the banks and investors he needs to keep on side. And he has proposed setting up a state bank which will, apparently, make soft loans at low interest with minimum security to black businesses. How on earth is the state supposed to capitalise this bank? How can it possibly compete with all the private banks? Surely it will, all over again, be the story of SAA vs Comair/BA or SABC vs ENCA? And, after all, the only other state bank is the Land Bank and the state has had to recapitalize that because its initial managers stole all the money. Why shouldn’t that happen again?

What the DA needs to do is not to make the ludicrous claim that Ramaphosa and Zuma are much the same but to point out these stark realities. There are so many signs that the political elite simply doesn’t realise that it is on the Titanic headed for an iceberg. We have yet another inflation-plus public service pay deal, which cannot possibly be afforded. The Minister of Health, at a time when the public health service is collapsing across the country, thinks the urgent thing is to hobble the private health sector with more regulations – and continues to envisage a vast expansion of the broken public health sector through NHI. Such policies are simply delusional. And of course the ANC is still stuck in a rut over a race while the real issues are about economics, not race.

In other words, DA strategy has to recognise that the present government is the best available; it has to be the real beacon of national intelligence, pointing out the things the ANC still cannot see; and it has to prepare itself for the possibility of a coalition with the Ramaphosa section of the ANC when the iceberg hits the ship. What it cannot afford to do is to keep pretending that Ramaphosa is Zuma and indulging in the usual low-level partisan games with its eyes set only on the 2019 election. What would think of Greenwood and the Labour Party if all they had worried about was the election due in 1940 when Hitler’s existential threat was only 22 miles away?

The stakes could hardly be higher. The DA has to realise that it will be a disaster for everyone if majority rule in South Africa collapses into shambles. Which of us can want such a result? For ourselves or the country? But if it doesn’t want that the DA must tell the truth now, however unpopular. It has to point out the folly of the public service pay deal, of the state bank, of NHI and all the rest. The last thing it should be doing is playing schoolyard games, barracking and heckling Ramaphosa, snapping at his heels like one of the Queen’s wretched corgis. This is mere frivolity, juvenalia, when what is needed is something altogether more measured and statesmanlike.

Arthur Greenwood was not an impressive man. But Churchill later appointed him to the war cabinet and Greenwood played a crucial role in defeating those who wanted to sue for peace with Hitler in June 1940. Greenwood’s later career was a flop. But thanks to Leo Amery he remains in heroic memory because at one decisive moment he rose to the occasion. This is something the DA needs to ponder long and hard.

R.W. Johnson