IT IS becoming increasingly clear that President Cyril Ramaphosa's political homoerotic fixation with Russian leader Vladimir Putin is not sustainable. However, the motivations for the creeping pragmatism and reasonableness within the ANC and the government about South Africa's relationship with Moscow are not so obvious to everyone.
As strange as it may sound, the reconsideration of South Africa's so-called non-alignment and the apparent attempt in the past week to seek closer ties with the US can be attributed to opinions from within the ANC's decision-making structures rather than pressure from the so-called West.
Therefore, if you focus only on the financial aspects of our international trade relations with the West as an explanation for the events of the past week within the ANC and the government, you are misunderstanding the situation. The fact is, there is no consensus within the ANC that Putin should be given the benefit of the doubt vis-à-vis the Americans.
Putin and his oligarch patrons
Weeks ago, when I warned South Africa's Asia and Brics “ambassador at large", Anil Sooklal, that he and international relations minister Naledi Pandor would have to make another difficult change of direction in their Russia policy, he told me in front of a large audience that I was an apologist for colonialism and should rather keep quiet.
But voices in Luthuli House have been making the point for some time now that Ramaphosa and Pandor cannot monopolise South Africa's foreign policy within the Union Buildings. In the most recent meeting of the ANC national working committee (NWC) after the drama over remarks by US ambassador Reuben Brigety, the tone of the conversation was more nuanced than an outright rebuke of the ambassador.
While there were no strong voices in support of Brigety's accusations about arms sales to Russia, the NWC did not take lightly the question of whether we can really afford this recklessness now. Pandor, who is not a member of the NWC or the top seven in Luthuli House, struggled until late this week to grasp the changing mindset of the ANC. But now there are clear indications that strong voices in the party have reservations about the viability of Putin and his oligarch partners' patronage.
Hanekom’s meaningful tweet
Ramaphosa and Pandor are systematically succumbing to the pressure of a contingent of reasonable comrades to conform to a competing opinion that emerges from the political nerve centre of the ANC. It has also become clear that Ramaphosa's obsession with the Russians is damaging his relationship with key players in the empowerment and value-chain framework and the cadre deployment regime.
Derek Hanekom's remark on Twitter, referring to the 109 arrests by Putin's police after nationwide protests on Alexei Navalny's 47th birthday, is significant because it reflects a more general opinion within the ANC. Navalny is Russia's most prominent opposition leader, and he is detained on charges that seemingly have nothing to do with reality.
Hanekom exposes Putin's political regime: “The freedoms and rights for which we fought so hard in South Africa do not exist in Russia." He is clearly not speaking only on his own behalf.
Mashatile positions himself
The interministerial task team responsible for managing Rampahosa's tap-dance with the International Criminal Court's (ICC) insistence on the arrest of Putin is led by Deputy President Paul Mashatile.
It was this task team that informed Ramaphosa this week that the ICC's insistence on arresting Putin as soon as his presidential Ilyushin II-96-300PU (PU stands for command centre) lands in South Africa cannot be ignored.
To the consternation of Sooklal and Pandor, the task team also concluded that the cabinet needs to consider several policy permutations for this political predicament, including the possibility of shifting August's Brics summit to China or India. That is not exactly what Ramaphosa, Pandor or Sooklal wanted to hear.
Despite our awareness that the ANC has become financially dependent on Russian oligarchs, there is also the reality that some prominent elites within the party do not want to share Ramaphosa's sweet nothings with Putin. Mashatile is one of them, but the motivation behind his political nobility is yet to be made public.
Since his appointment on March 7 as South Africa's deputy president, Mashatile has diligently transformed his daily tasks into those of a worthy substitute for Ramaphosa, should the president leave the political stage. The realisation that Mashatile is ready to take over from Ramaphosa any day does not escape anyone within the ANC, especially the president.
And if you want an overview of what is going on in Mashatile's mind, listen to ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula, who is considerably closer to the deputy president than either man is to Ramaphosa. Having taken the temperature in various ANC meetings, Mbalula has made it clear that Luthuli House and the Union Buildings may be heading towards a dispute about Putin's intended visit to the country.
I don't want to overemphasise Mashatile's influence, but context is important, and he clearly differs with Ramaphosa and Pandor about their flirtation with Putin and Russia.
In Ramaphosa's cabinet, Mashatile chairs two committees where significantly more nuanced discussions take place than in the executive authority led by the president. Some of his other obligations are related to trade and industry and South Africa's investment climate. His concerns about trade relations with America and Europe are as great as his awareness of South Africa's alarming negative trade balance with China.
Most in SA condemn the invasion
But the pressure also comes from elsewhere. The results of an opinion poll published by the Brenthurst Foundation at the end of November showed that three-quarters of South Africans view Russia's military invasion of Ukraine as an “act of aggression that should be condemned". More specifically, the data showed that three-quarters of ANC voters expressed a negative opinion of Putin's “special military operation".
The notion that Putin receives the benefit of the doubt from South Africans due to our historical ties with, for example, Cuba, is not confirmed. To tell the truth, a Brenthurst survey on South Africans' support for the Cuban regime could be truly interesting.
From Sandton to Soweto
The 2024 election is still in the distant future but some in the ANC are already questioning whether the party can afford further controversy before voters go to the polls. We already know from experience that internal political fights and controversy can alienate supporters. And regardless of how the ANC and the government handle this situation, they don't appear to be in a good position. The question of whether stumbling from one controversy to the next is the ANC's only modus operandi is just as valid in Sandton as it is on Vilakazi Street in Soweto.
There are numerous highly contentious issues that Luthuli House must address in the coming months. In the lead-up to the election, service delivery violence will undoubtedly be fuelled by party elites with conflicting interests. KwaZulu-Natal is governed by elites who want to pull the rug from under Ramaphosa in a fearless and reckless manner. Panyaza Lesufi's instinct for power politics in Gauteng is causing headaches for the Union Buildings and Luthuli House.
Most provinces where the ANC is in power are caught up in internal fights or open conflict. It is no better in most municipalities.
It is precisely these debilitating instabilities that kept millions of traditional ANC supporters away from the polling stations in 2021. A bloody confrontation with millions of South Africans' employers embedded in the American and European financial markets would be political suicide.
In an attempt to reward understandable bias with simple explanations, we sometimes overlook the complexity of opinions within the ANC. It cannot be denied that the likelihood of sanctions and the various discussions between Ramaphosa, Mashatile and the business sector had a significant influence on the government's shift in direction over the past week. The same applies to the risk report from the Reserve Bank the previous week. But it was the pressure of diverse opinions within the ANC that was decisive.
By the way, I am occasionally astonished when my conversation partners tell me “the majority of South Africans find resonance with authoritarian identities like Putin".
If that is true, it probably applies to South Africans of almost all demographic identities and not just ANC supporters. Or how should I put it, Jacobus Herculaas de la Rey?
♦ VWB ♦
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