ANC’s appetite for reform is waning

William Saunderson-Meyer says President Ramaphosa remains fearful of triggering a party revolt


Jacob Zuma was jailed. The insurrection that was meant to demonstrate the former president’s popularity among the masses, lasted barely a week. Two subsequent populist mobilisations, via social media, fizzled out before they started.

The verdict is that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s “good” African National Congress has won. The baddies gambled and lost, which means that the reformists' hand has been immeasurably strengthened.

Yet it doesn’t seem like that. Instead, it is the Zuma forces that are emboldened and the president who is tentative. Rather than driving home his advantage, the president is signalling compromise.

Take the government’s post-unrest actions. In a week, Police Minister Bheki Cele’s beach, booze and ciggie patrols put more people in custody — and in coffins — than the SA Police Service has managed in the month since the upheavals.  

At the time of the insurrection, Ramaphosa said that the ANC had strong evidence that fingered a dozen senior party members as the chief instigators. As yet, none has been arrested.

Similarly, the Zuma family’s role in fomenting violence is recorded on their social media feeds. None has been arrested.

There is an explanation for pervasive miasma of presidential passivity. The insurrection showed, again, how precarious Ramaphosa believes his position within the party to be. Hence his reluctance to carry out desperately needed changes.

Most disturbingly, this perpetual pandering to the party means we have a government that lacks the confidence to deploy the forces of law and order. What is the point of Ramaphosa’s “long game”, which still draws considerable support — most recently from Financial Mail Deputy Editor Natasha Marrian, who lauds Ramaphosa's “shrewd” strategy and counsels us not to be fooled by any appearance of “weakness and indecisiveness” — when it means a president who would rather let the country burn than risk alienating a criminal faction?

Then there is the matter of the people tasked with implementing reform. With his victory, there were expectations that Ramaphosa would stamp his authority by announcing a new cabinet that would break from the mediocrity and taint of the past.

Instead, the cabinet reshuffle was exactly that. Nothing more than rearranging in his fist the same grubby, dog-eared face cards. No crisp new pack. No significant discards. Not a trump card to be found.

So strongly does Ramaphosa still fear triggering a party revolt that not only does he keep the inept and corruption-tainted but he dared not slash the size of his bloated cabinet. In fact, he tossed in an extra deputy minister or two, taking their numbers to 37.

Admittedly, changes were made in the security cluster, with the Defence Minister who had quibbled with Ramaphosa about the semantics of whether it was an “insurrection” as opposed to a “counter-revolution”, being shifted to a top parliamentary post, as well as incorporating the intelligence function in the Presidency. But Cele was left in place, despite it being the SA Police Service, not the military, which had failed most spectacularly in handling the public violence.

Even allowing for the paucity of talent available within the parliamentary ANC, that makes for an unimpressive performance by the “victor”.

But it’s on the issue of cadre deployment that the weakness of Ramaphosa’s position vis-a-vis Zuma is most evident. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Ramaphosa was at his most impassioned at the Zondo Commission when he came to the defence of cadre deployment. He practically begged the Acting Chief Justice not to rule against the practice. It was the only way, he said, that a government could reliably ensure that its policies were not being sabotaged by political opponents within the public service.

This was quite different from the tenor, just months earlier, of Ramaphosa’s weekly letter to the nation.

The public service, wrote Ramaphosa in March, does not belong to any party. “Nor should it be the domain of any particular interest group. It should not be a law unto itself. [It belongs] to the people of South Africa. It must serve them and them alone.”

The present public service, although it has pockets of excellence, has “serious challenges with regards to skills, competence and professionalism”. This has resulted in a government service riddled with “nepotism, political interference in the work of departments, a lack of accountability, mismanagement and corruption”.

To change this, wrote Ramaphosa, the public service would be “depoliticised and government departments insulated from politics”. His administration would implement the professionalisation plan that was last year approved by the Cabinet. Applicants would have to sit an entrance exam and those who were short-listed for senior posts would face “integrity tests”.

Ramaphosa knows that cadre deployment and a professional public service are mutually exclusive. He has an intimate understanding of how it was used during the Zuma years to capture the state and then loot it, since he was its major facilitator, as chair of the ANC’s cadre deployment committee for more than seven of the nine Zuma years.

It is Ramaphosa who is ultimately responsible for every cretinous cadre deployed to the various ministries and SOEs, which looks more like collaboration than plucky resistance from within the heart of the beast. But we may never know for sure — the ANC “cannot find” any minutes that detail his chairmanship and how he parachuted heroes, not scoundrels, into top jobs, including the judiciary.

The commitment to creating a functioning, depoliticised, public service, that Ramaphosa outlined in his March missive was, nevertheless, in all likelihood genuine. He knew that if such reforms were to be implemented, they would very quickly remove from the levers of power the soldiers of state capture.

But that’s intolerable to many in the ANC, not only the Zuma faction. While they might accede to the worst excesses of corruption being curbed, those who want it to stop entirely are a minority. The motto is, “we didn’t join the struggle to be poor”.

Similarly intolerable to a lot of the ANC rank-and-file is the incarceration of Zuma and his top lieutenants, if ever brought to book for their roles in the R1trn looting of the state. There's a lot of pressure on the president to find a solution that, in effect, draws a line under what happened.

Again, that’s not surprising because there are so many in the party that are implicated in thieving. (Had Ramaphosa conducted a cabinet cull using the proposed public service “integrity test”, he would have a virtually fresh deck to work with.)

The insurrection was a reminder of the conditional nature of Ramaphosa control of the party, as well as the tenuous nature of his administration’s control of the country. It was a warning shot across his bows and clearly has dented his confidence.

Ramaphosa seems inclined to accept the message. We have a president poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.