What did Ramaphosa actually tell us?

Jeremy Gordin assesses the President's recent testimony to the Zondo commission

This morning, my wife and I discovered that someone or some people had broken into our property, apparently during the early hours of Tuesday morning.

What “they” stole was minor – two empty gas cannisters off the stoep and two kiddies’ bicycles from the “outbuildings”. The house itself was not breached.

Particularly in a Seffrican context, then, this was not “a big deal”. Still, as many readers will know, people coming onto one’s property is invasive, unnerving, and disconcerting. One is also left – I believe I’m correct in thinking – with a feeling of cognitive dissonance, roughly defined as the “psychological stress” caused when two actions or ideas are not consistent with each other.

By which I mean: life must go on – you have breakfast, go for a walk or food shopping – but something, or rather someone, has pierced what you thought of as your secure mode of existence.

Now, there are of course many other experiences of cognitive dissonance, of disturbing “contradictory information”, that impinge on what you know or perceive. Consider, for example, the opening statement by President Cyril Ramaphosa to the Zondo Commission, on Wednesday, 11 August, which you can read here, and some of the testimony he gave today, Thursday.

In general, Ramaphosa’s testimony has been hailed by the media and talking heads as a wonderful (perhaps even glorious) phenomenon. The reason for this, as far as I can tell, is that at least Ramaphosa showed up on the day (as sports commentators sometimes say): the present head of state actually testified before the commission. I presume the contradistinction being underlined by those who celebrated this is that while Jacob Zuma didn’t want to appear before the commission, Ramaphosa has. So, viva Cyril! ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Even political commentator Prince Mashele, who turned out to be flatly dismissive of Ramaphosa’s testimony, initially agreed that it was a positive thing that he’d shown up [i], especially given that Ramaphosa is, as Mashele put it, an African head of state. I presume the point he was making is that African leaders (all or most of whom Mashele seems to think are corrupt) would be too chicken to do so. So, viva Cyril again!

There has been some push-back. Various commentators have been troubled by the kid-glove treatment Ramaphosa has received, not so much by commission legal head and evidence leader, Paul Pretorius, as by Zondo, and by the general boy’s club atmosphere – the knowing chuckles and grins, and the platitudes.

But, leaving those aside, what did Ramaphosa actually tell us?

First off, he said that, notwithstanding having been deputy president since 2014, he, like Manuel in “Fawlty Towers,” knew nuffin’ – or very little. In fact, had it not been for “the work of journalists, civil society organisations, and institutions such as the Public Protector and Auditor General,” he might have remained in the dark.

But, as he came to learn about the rampant malfeasance, he had, he says, “five options: resign; speak out; acquiesce and abet; keep quiet and remain silent; or remain and resist, hoping that we [sic] could turn things around”.

How about calling a major press conference, i.e., speaking out loudly, and resigning publicly at the same time? Well, this was obviously not a viable avenue for Cyril the strategist, the player of the “long game”. He decided rather to remain in office and resist. How did he resist? He went on to run a presidential campaign and become ANC (and then state) president.

The thing is, though, he squeaked through to the presidency by 179 votes only – suggesting that if he was indeed doing any “resisting,” there were plenty of ANC members who clearly didn’t want him to be doing so. His claim, therefore, delivered during Thursday’s testimony, that there were (and still are) many other people in government who also wanted to resist the forces of evil, seems not entirely accurate.

He also resisted, he tells us, by saying that he would resign from the deputy-presidency if then-president Jacob Zuma went ahead with replacing Nhlanhla Nene as Minister of Finance with “weekend special” Des van Rooyen – at which point, he says, then ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe and deputy SG Jesse Duarte joined forces with him and prevailed upon Zuma to appoint Pravin Gordhan.

Ramaphosa does not tell us, however, why it was this particular issue, rather than many others, that made him “resist” overtly. There were many people, it occurs to me, captains of industry and their ilk, for whom Van Rooyen was seriously bad news. Did they play no role? Did Ramaphosa’s source of wealth – big business and the markets – not play any role in his anguish? Just asking.

Ramaphosa then lists the steps his administration has taken to combat corruption and state capture. These include the appointment of a new National Director of Public Prosecutions through “a public and transparent process”. Whether this transparency significantly ramped up NPA prosecutions of corruption, or what it has to do with increasing and improving prosecution rates, I’m not certain [ii].

Ramaphosa also recognised on day one of his testimony that the Intelligence Services were in dire need of attention and mentioned that the recommendations of the “High Level Review Panel” chaired by Dr Sydney Mufamadi were at an “advanced stage”.

Then on Thursday, Ramaphosa spoke further about the State Security Agency (SSA). Pretorius revealed that an inquiry called Operation Veza into Zuma’s “private intelligence armed unit” was, in March this year, allegedly gagged (again) by the former State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo and retired head of domestic intelligence Mahlodi Sam Muofhe – and that the relevant documents relating to the issue are still being kept from the NPA’s investigative directorate.

“It happened as (did) many other wrong things, inexplicable things,” replied Ramaphosa, with his sort-of giggle. “Our task now as we move forward is to deal with all the things that went wrong. We must admit [the SSA] was an agency compromised and operating under the milieu of state capture,” he said.

Ramaphosa could also have said that this is why Dlodlo was recently moved from being State Security Minister to Minister of Public Service and Administration and why State Security has been placed in the Presidency.

But here’s where, for me, the cognitive dissonance comes in.

Ramaphosa’s cabinet reshuffle [iii] happened after the July “insurrection” in which 337 (that’s three hundred-and-thirty-seven) people (that’s human beings) died and after billions of rands worth of damage and destruction were done [iv].

Here’s a person – Ramaphosa – who for years didn’t (by his own admission) know what was going on around him (notwithstanding being deputy-president); who has retained most of the same cast of characters who were around in the days of Zuma; who says he’ll take care of dumping the bad guys as soon the Zondo commission issues its report [v]; and who, when all hell broke loose in KZN (and Gauteng), when the country was literally burning (at least in parts), clearly didn’t know what was happening (and perhaps still doesn’t).

Here’s a person who apparently cannot see that corruption – of wanting to utilize the system to make money, as do so many others – as well as incompetence, and mouth-watering arrogance – are a deadly virus from which most of those in his political party suffer badly. And there’s no known inoculation against the virus, other than perhaps jail.

As one wit remarked, “To have a proper and effective cabinet reshuffle, Ramaphosa would have to replace the whole cabinet, including himself. It’s pointless having four flat tyres on a vehicle and simply changing them around; that won’t help”.

Nor can Ramaphosa apparently see that it’s most of his party’s policies that have created the fertile ground for corruption and malfeasance. 

Sometimes, said Ramaphosa at one point during his testimony, a problem is that South Africans expect that a magic wand can be waved, and all will be okay.

Ja-nee, magical thinking, cognitive dissonance ... take your pick.


[i] Mashele didn’t have much choice, it seems, because Sally Burdett’s opening question was along the lines of “Wasn’t it great that Ramaphosa appeared before the Zondo commission?” But, given the rest of what Mashele had to say, who’d like to bet that we won’t be seeing Mashele on eNCA any time soon?

[ii] Ramaphosa also mentioned The Nugent Commission of Inquiry to investigate governance failures at SARS – which was, in my view, hugely effective. This was because Judge Nugent cut to the chase and didn’t mess about when it came to excising all the cancerous growths he came across.

[iii] In which, among other appointments, Ramaphosa bizarrely made Thandi “schweinsteiger” Modise the Minister of Defence and has apparently suggested that the former minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, be a candidate for Speaker of the National Assembly – a job for which Mapisa-Nqakula is clearly temperamentally unsuited, not to mention all the other reasons why she should not be Speaker (See here). 

[iv] As Pretorius remarked to the president, “it would be unfortunate if those activities [gagging of investigations in the SSA] had a role in the events of July. It’s not an unreasonable proposition, is it?”

[v] Ramaphosa said on Thursday he was waiting for the Zondo report before he would drop implicated individuals from top positions in the state, despite being in possession of evidence against them. Zondo responded that, since most of his findings (due out in September) would doubtless be (legally) reviewed (challenged), Ramaphosa might have to wait a long, long time.