NOW that the storm over Phala Phala has subsided and Vladimir Putin has succumbed to pressure not to attend next month's Brics summit, it is time to take stock of Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa's political mandate in the run-up to the 2024 election.
How secure is he as president of the ANC and of South Africa now that his offer to resign last December — after former chief justice Sandile Ngcobo's Phala Phala report — is long forgotten?
The election is the next challenge for his presidency, but it will probably not be the impossible mountain for the ANC to climb that opposition parties predict.
In ANC circles, reference is often made to a survey which suggests the party's support may drop to just above 40%. How and by whom the study was conducted is not common knowledge. But so far, no other independent research has come close to the same conclusion.
The 47% turnout in 2019's local elections will not be repeated and it is unlikely that turnout in a national and provincial election will drop below 60%. In 2019, the turnout in these elections was 66.05%.
A higher turnout next year should benefit the ANC and means the party will comfortably win 50% of the votes cast.
KZN and Gauteng are headaches
The provincial elections are more problematic.
Luthuli House knows that relative majorities are a real possibility for the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng and that opposition parties may even succeed in taking over these provinces with coalition agreements.
In KZN, a lot of water has to pass under the bridge before the IFP once again becomes the dominant party it was in 1994 when Frank Mdlalose was premier.
Yet this “last outpost", which is saturated with political warlords, is Ramaphosa's biggest headache. If the ANC loses this provincial election, the result will not be easily accepted.
The ANC also expects problems in Gauteng, where it is common knowledge that Ramaphosa dislikes Panyaza Lesufi, the premier. Despite this, the president has not yet found an opportunity to do something about the headaches Lesufi gives him.
The fear that the ANC may cede Gauteng to an opposition coalition is justified and now is simply not a good time to act against the populist Lesufi. But finance minister Enoch Godongwana and parliament's standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) are keeping an eye on his ambition to use public money to garner support for his provincial regime.
The ANC no longer has the deep pockets of old to finance elections. Rumours of R1bn per election generously provided by jurisdictions such as the United Arab Emirates were probably exaggerated, but possibly not far off the mark either.
Bejani Chauke is the president's personal fundraiser — in the Arab world, in particular — but his tainted exposure to Phala Phala, and his opportunistic attempts to become treasurer-general of the ANC in 2021 by means of questionable funding, have extinguished his flame in the party.
More recently, he flew to Russia at the state's expense on the pretext that he would facilitate the peacebroking visit by Ramaphosa and African leaders, but the protest in ANC inner circles was so loud that the president removed him from the limelight in St Petersburg.
Otherwise, Ramaphosa's leadership of the ANC is being consolidated and the footprint of his challengers and enemies within the party is shrinking. For the purposes of the 2024 election, this is good news for the party.
For Ramaphosa, who has made unity his mantra, there are finally signs that he has established a more uniform idea about what is good and right for the ANC — excluding KZN.
Ramaphosa and the African leaders' visit to Russia and Ukraine has a lot to do with the president's more established position in local politics. While opposition parties and some media dismissed the visit as a failure, strong think-tanks within the ANC believe Ramaphosa confronted Putin directly and that the African leaders took positions that commanded respect.
All the cadres, comrades and ministers who crossed the Atlantic in the past month to convince US politicians of South Africa's non-alignment and argue that the African Growth and Opportunity Act agreement is in the interests of both countries, did so with the approval of the majority in the national working committee (NWC) and national executive committee (NEC) of the ANC.
Ramaphosa and his cabinet completely overestimated the supposed support for Putin within the ANC and among the majority of South Africans.
The many black CEOs of financial institutions and service companies who have raised their voices about the damage South Africa's foreign policy is causing the economy have done much to turn the ideological tide against Ramaphosa and Naledi Pandor, minister of international relations.
If it weren't for the fact that the Russian oligarchs will have to fund next year's election, the ANC would long ago have instructed Ramaphosa to withdraw Putin's invitation to the Brics summit.
Now that Putin has succumbed to the pressure Ramaphosa exerted on him during several personal conversations, the president's position is even stronger.
The fact that Putin never planned to come here is unimportant in this context. It is more important that Ramaphosa was never able to garner enough support within the ANC for his relationship with Putin, and that his party now credits him for his pragmatism in his discussions with the Russian strongman.
Mantashe and Mashatile
As for Ramaphosa's opponents and enemies within the ANC, Gwede Mantashe still chairs the party but the political tide in the corridors of the ANC's decision-making structures has turned against him.
Six months ago, he still posed a significant threat to Ramaphosa's political survival, but he has now read the writing on the wall in the NEC and NWC, where resistance against Ramaphosa has largely trickled away.
Recently, Mantashe did not turn up at the signing of a European agreement for a green hydrogen fund in defiance of an instruction from Ramaphosa. He did not take into account the annoyance this would provoke in almost all structures of the ANC.
Also contrary to Mantashe's interests, Ramaphosa's minister of electricity, Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, has established his position on Eskom specifically, but also on the broader energy issue.
Until a few weeks ago, Deputy President Paul Mashatile was also in a position to challenge Ramaphosa's authority from time to time. However, a week is a long time in politics and the media attention News24 has paid him since then has the “darling of Alexandra" on the back foot. The feeling in some ANC circles is that he is mortally wounded, but a lot of water must still pass under the bridge before he finally loses his political self-confidence.
Mashatile's bigger problem is that he has a significant political footprint only in Gauteng and his awkward political personality excludes him from being used in national politics. Outside Gauteng, his personality will not attract votes for the ANC, and in KwaZulu-Natal he is a burden rather than an asset. The same is true in Mpumalanga, North West and the Free State.
He drew 50.06% of the votes cast for the position of deputy party leader at the ANC's 2022 leadership conference, and that tells the story of a political identity that crept in through the back door.
At the same conference, Mantashe achieved a relative majority (47.29%) and is clearly no longer the strongman of Luthuli House he once was. The fact that he and Mashatile only casually greet each other when the opportunity arises means Ramaphosa's position is secure for the moment.
It is unlikely that Mantashe and Mashatile have enough in common to perform a political bone marrow test on Ramaphosa's limp spine.
Mbalula and the political vultures
In Luthuli House, where the secretary-general, Fikile Mbalula, has always had a more comfortable relationship with Ramokgopa than with Mantashe, the mineral resources and energy minister's interests in the coal industry are met by frontal winds.
Shortly after his election as secretary-general, Mbalula irritated Ramaphosa with some inappropriate statements. Among other things, he publicly let the ANC president know very prematurely that he would announce the planned changes to his cabinet within two weeks. Since then, he has been instructed to put a guard in front of his mouth and his press releases are pre-approved.
Mbalula was a useless minister but he is showing his mettle in the less challenging role of party apparatchik.
In the Free State he took the fight to Ace Magashule, and due to the fact that the EFF has lost interest in the former secretary general, Magashule and Carl Niehaus are no more than political vultures in no man's land.
“Mr Fearfokol" is now working full-time to strengthen Ramaphosa's hand in Luthuli House.
To cut a long story short: the president looks a lot less worn-out and weary these days, and with good reason.
Prepare yourself for another five years of ANC government with Matamela at the helm after 2024.
♦ VWB ♦
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