The timidity of SA's 'last hope'

William Saunderson-Meyer says Ramaphosa's lack of courage has re-opened the door to the Zuptas


President Cyril Ramaphosa was this week lavishly praised by both a British peer and a Chinese diplomat. 

Ramaphosa is the “last hope of this country”, Lin Songtian, the Chinese ambassador to South Africa, said in a Reuters interview. In similarly flattering vein, Lord Peter Hain said that the international community was baffled by the “vilification” of Ramaphosa and Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan.

“It bewilders international investors that the 'good guys' are being attacked ... and the 'bad guys' swagger around at will,” Hain told Fin24. If the president had to “watch his back” instead of focusing on solving the country's “massive challenges”, the distraction would ultimately damage SA.

Although our embattled leader is no doubt grateful for any help he can get, from whatever quarter, being the object of foreign veneration is not an unadulterated good. When the leader of a country starts getting, from abroad, compliments and expressions of support against rival factions — especially from a Chinese diplomat schooled to be studiously evenhanded in public — it’s a sure indication that they think he is deep in the political crap.

And however well intentioned these kind words might be, they can hinder as much as help. After all, why would anyone endorse a rival nation’s president or prime minister, except to benefit themselves or their own country? 

For example, President Donald Trump’s tweeted enthusiasm for Boris Johnson might have pleased some Tories, but come a general election, the rest of the electorate will view it suspiciously, a sign of the British prime minister being the US leader’s puppet. In SA, among the radicals of the Economic Freedom Fighters and the African National Congress' left wing, the words of a British lord — albeit he is a Labourite and a former South African-born anti-apartheid activist — will be used as evidence of the hold White Monopoly Capital and its neocolonial masters have over our billionaire president.

Hain was quick to blame all SA’s woes on Ramaphosa's internal opponents, whom he does not name but are clearly the clique rallied around former president Jacob Zuma. “What astonishes me about the faction that tries to drag Ramaphosa back and tries to get the opportunity to climb on the gravy train again is that they seem to have no regard at all for the plight of the country,” said Hain.

“SA faces a competitive threat, yet this faction behaves as if there is not a competitive world out there. They do not realise that every move they make is treated with dismay by the markets and by the business community … It is shameless. They are only interested in themselves.”

Hain’s exoneration of Ramaphosa is ludicrously generous and also misguided. At this moment, what is most holding back SA is not the danger posed by the Zuma-ites, but the inexplicable timidity of the president. 

Unemployment has just hit 29% for the past quarter, with youth unemployment almost double that. Some 49,000 jobs were lost in the formal sector and the same number again in private households, perhaps as the national minimum wage chews its way through already depleted pockets.

Yet Ramaphosa’s choice as Labour Minister, Thulas Nxesi, continues to insist that well-paid work remains the primary goal. Interviewed by the Mail&Guardian in the shadow cast by those gruesome unemployment figures, Nxesi says: “There are some who argue that an any jobs (approach) – which yields more jobs – is better than the decent jobs we are striving for … As South Africans, we are not going back to those dark days – certainly not under the watch of this government.”

Such a purist, ideological approach may find favour with old Struggle stalwarts like Hain. Less so with the infinitely pragmatic Chinese. Explaining the absence in SA of the kind of major infrastructure projects that the Chinese have implemented elsewhere in Africa, Lin was forthright. “Why? Because we don’t only need the concept of a project” and the projects suggested by SA authorities “lacked feasibility studies capable of reassuring the Chinese government and banks of their profitability and sustainability.”

Lin was similarly unambiguous about Eskom, just one of the many imploding state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that is straining the economy. “Eskom is a debt trap. China gave them some loans before. And now they become very cautious ... Eskom is not an issue of money. It’s [an] issue of operation mechanisms, management, capacity…”

Even if we lay the blame for all Eskom's woes at the foot of the Zuma faction — ignoring the implicit culpability of Ramaphosa and Gordhan, who for all of the ruinous Zuma years were at the centre of ANC power  — it doesn’t explain why one of the obvious causes of fiscal strain, gross levels of overmanning in the SOEs and government, is not being tackled.

Eskom is estimated to be 66% overstaffed and has about 27,500 employees who should be let go. But the unions have flatly rejected any retrenchments and Ramaphosa has meekly accepted that.

Similarly, the public service is overstaffed, but Ramaphosa’s government last year gave its 2.7m employees above-inflation salary increases of 6%-7%. Last week, National Treasury’s Director-General, Dondo Mogajane, told City Press, “National Treasury’s box is empty” and the best way to plug the gaping hole in the fiscus may be for all state employees to take a 10% cut in salaries and wages.

Of course, that’s simply not going to happen. It’s inconceivable that Ramaphosa, who has just backed off 30,000 voluntary retrenchments of public servants because of union opposition, will now dare to cut pay.  

It is probably true, as Hain and Lin assert, that Ramaphosa is the only person left in the ANC government who could save SA.

Unfortunately, he also appears to lack the courage to do so.

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