Power in the age of Cyril the Silent


Power in the age of Cyril the Silent

If we assume the ANC will still be in control of South Africa after the election, the big issue will be whether President Cyril Ramaphosa will have a strong enough power base to make the right decisions for the good of the country, writes PIET CROUCAMP.


IN a conversation with economist JP Landman during Vrye Weekblad's literary festival in Cullinan, a member of the audience asked, “What is Cyril Ramaphosa's position within the ANC, and is he strong enough to make good decisions in the interest of the country?" The assumption is that the ANC will win the May 29 elections with enough of a majority to form a coalition government and the National Assembly will re-elect Ramaphosa as president.

At first glance, Landman's answer sounds right: Ramaphosa is in a strong position within his party, or probably much stronger than in December 2017 when he took over from Jacob Zuma as president of the ANC and in 2018 as president of South Africa.

But since then 1.4 million more people have become unemployed, the economy refuses to grow and inflation is north of the Reserve Bank's expectations. Under Ramaphosa, South Africa has reached new lows on the Corruption Perceptions Index (83rd out of 180 countries). In 2019, the national debt burden as a percentage of GDP was 56% but it is now 75.5%.

Crime, especially violent crime, is growing exponentially. In the year Ramaphosa became president, just over 21,000 people were murdered (34 people per 100,000), but by 2023 there were 27,274 murders (46 per 100,000). Of the nearly 80 people who are killed every day, eight to 10 of their next of kin can expect justice. As for the rest, the murderer walks smugly away from his misconduct. The fact is, South Africans are experiencing the unthinkable and are significantly worse off with Ramaphosa at the helm than they were under the corrupt Zuma.

More importantly, during Ramaphosa's first national and provincial elections as party leader in 2019, the ANC's support dropped from 62.15% to 57.5%. In the National Assembly alone, 19 ANC members lost their seats. In the 2021 local government elections, the ANC's national support fell below 50% (46%) for the first time. And if the opinion polls of the past few months become a reality, the ANC's support will drop to less than 50% in a national and provincial election for the first time. Another 30 sad-angry ANC members will be unable to return to the legislature.

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In June, the National Assembly will probably elect Ramaphosa again as president, but there can be no doubt that the knives that are already out for him within the ANC will be drawn over the devil's whetstone.

It is these realities that made me casually note during the Cullinan conversation that for the first time in 112 years, the ANC does not have a natural successor to a sitting president. Paul Mashatile is not considered a logical choice in the “smoke and mirrors" politics of the ANC. In December 2022, Ramaphosa won the political battle for the presidency of the ANC against Zweli Mkhize with a relatively small majority (56.62%), and the withdrawn and corrupt Mkhize was anything but a worthy political opponent.

Is the delusion over Ramaphosa's support base within the governing party not perhaps a political parallax error? In KwaZulu-Natal, resentment against Ramaphosa prevails among a majority. In Mpumalanga, mistrust towards the Buffalo is rooted in the ANC's provincial executive committee. Luthuli House is not a safe haven for Ramaphosa's political interests. The question of whether he can really be so sure that he will complete the last 18 months of his term as party  president is not without cause. The reason for Ramaphosa's feigned sense of power is that there is no natural successor for him in the ANC.

This brings us back to the question of whether the ANC president is prepared to use his dubious position of power within the party to make unpopular or difficult decisions. The short answer is that while he rarely makes difficult decisions, he has done so. As Landman pointed out, the private sector's new space in the energy sector was thanks to Ramaphosa's direct entry into the conversation between the private sector,  then Eskom boss André de Ruyter and the energy minister.

This was the one time that Ramaphosa forced party chairman Gwede Mantashe's hand, after which he announced on June 10 2021 that Schedule 2 of the Electricity Regulation Act would be amended to increase the licensing threshold of built-in generation projects from 1MW to 100MW. The cap was subsequently removed entirely. This enabled trade and industry to build and use their own generating capacity, and they seized the chance. So far, about 6,000MW, or three Koebergs, has been added to the network. It means electricity only when the sun is shining and the wind blowing, but without it there would have been significantly more load-shedding.

Landman's argument — that the involvement of private interests in the economy builds momentum in areas where the state does not rise to the occasion — is nowhere clearer than in organised agriculture. And perhaps minister Thoko Didiza's role in this reality can also be recognised. While Ramaphosa sometimes refers to “expropriation without compensation" when trying to make political capital out of land reform, it is clear that he and the ANC accept that the relevant concept is “zero compensation" and that the constitution and Article 25 are the source documents against which the Expropriation Bill currently on the president's desk will be measured. Articles 25(2) and (3) of the constitution make it clear that expropriation with compensation is the constitutional norm.

Actually, it was the chief economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa (Agbiz), Wandile Sihlobo, who convinced Ramaphosa to acknowledge in his State of the Nation address on February 8 what organised agriculture has been saying for some time: there has been greater progress with land reform than Luthuli House lets on in its political refrain that only 8%-10% of agricultural land has been returned to black South Africans since the end of statutory apartheid in 1994. However, in his enthusiasm, the president misread the facts and added agricultural land currently in state ownership to that which had already been transferred from white agriculture to black farmers. But among reasonable voices in agricultural circles, the fear of arbitrary land expropriation has been largely addressed.

Although Ramaphosa is clearly not prepared to start a drastic clean-up operation in his cabinet or the corridors of the ANC, it is also the case that he will not interfere politically if the Investigating Directorate's Andrea Johnson and the National Prosecuting Authority's Shamila Batohi are willing to take the political risks and do their job. Sometimes doing nothing is the bravest act of an ANC politician. There are signs that the Investigating Directorate has taken on a life of its own, albeit thanks to Ramaphosa's silence rather than his active condonation of the cleansing process.

There are still examples where the president's silence has had drastic consequences for “renewal". By the time the speaker of Parliament, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, heard of her upcoming arrest in the first week of April, Ramaphosa was one of the first voices within the ANC to say, seemingly disinterestedly, that the law must take its course. Luthuli House and the national executive committee, as well as the working committee of the ANC, followed and now there can be no doubt that Mapisa-Nqakula stands in the deep,dark reality of Johnson's sights and cannot rely on protection from her comrades. These events are in line with Ramaphosa's philosophy that the state machinery must be freed from state capture and corruption and empowered to fulfil its constitutional role. He can get rid of ministers and prominent ANC members without taking the political risks of getting involved himself.

With luck and grace, as an after-effect of Ramaphosa's quiet endeavour to uproot state capture, we may in time also see our first post-apartheid cabinet minister behind bars. It's a dash to the chequered flag between former minister of state security Bongani Bongo and former minister of defence Mapisa-Nqakula. Bongo was arrested on November  21 2019 in Cape Town on charges of corruption. Ramaphosa had already dismissed him as minister on February 28 2018. Bongo was accused of offering bribes to the senior parliamentary legal adviser charged with investigating state capture at Eskom, Ntuthuzelo Vanara.

In an affidavit to then speaker Baleka Mbete, Vanara writes that Bongo claims he was sent by the acting Eskom chairperson, Zethembe Khoza, with a “blank cheque" to halt the parliamentary committee's investigation. But on February 26 2021, the then judge president of the Western Cape High Court, John Hlophe, stopped Bongo's prosecution. The NPA appealed and this month Bongo was informed by the Supreme Court of Appeal that he will be retried. Hlophe has since been relieved of his duties. The case of Bongo is another example of “renewal" in the presence of a silent president.

The real question, however, is whether these cosmetic yet incremental steps are indications of a political leader having a power base from which he can deal a final blow to endemic crime, systemic corruption and ever-present state capture. Can Ramaphosa finally save South Africa from the ANC? And will Ramaphosa survive the ANC, unlike Thabo Mbeki and Zuma, who were prematurely removed from the party by the national executive committee? As things stand now, it does not appear the ANC will survive its leadership and presidents.

The salvation of Ramaphosa, the ANC and probably also South Africa lies in economic growth. But he is clearly still a supporter of the empowerment regime that gives cadres and tenderpreneurs free access to the supply chains of the economy. There is no way corruption can be stopped if black empowerment is not drastically redefined to fit in with an economic growth regime rather than a redistributive regime. “Renewal" is essentially dependent on economic growth. Moreover, there is no reason why black empowerment cannot emanate from risk and competition.

Mantashe is destroying the mining industry. And although he certainly no longer has the popular support within the ANC of a decade ago, Ramaphosa does not dare to fire him. He may be able to move him to a portfolio where he is less harmful but there is little doubt among mining bosses that Ramaphosa is not brave enough for this necessary step. Mantashe is on record as refusing to change portfolios. He is challenging the authority of his president and the president would rather watch the mining industry being destroyed than take the policy risks that could prematurely end his own political life.

Mining has been nearly ruined by corruption in its supply chains and is a good example of capital flight in an inelastic policy regime. Most mining bosses realise that Mantashe must be removed from the industry as quickly as possible. We can assume Ramaphosa is stronger than during his first term as president, but is he strong enough to stop his energy and mineral resources minister's deindustrialisation of the mining industry in its tracks? Apart from Victor Vekselberg, almost no mining boss trusts Mantashe's understanding of the industry. And without trust, mining houses will always prefer to invest their profits elsewhere on the continent.

Minerals Council of South Africa statistics show that mining's net fixed investment has been almost zero since 2021. It is difficult to quantify the lack of interest in the mining industry, but the Fraser Institute's Mining Investment Attractiveness Index ranked South Africa 57th out of 62 global mining jurisdictions in 2022. Feel free to spread that on the bread of Mantashe, corruption and elite empowerment.

Someone else promoting the state capture project under Ramaphosa is the minister of higher education, science and innovation, Blade Nzimande. The relationship between the South African Communist Party, Cosatu and the ANC is mostly maintained through patronage and receives little attention between elections. If the allegations in the tapes obtained by the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) are true, the SACP is probably financially dependent on Nzimande's presence in the executive. But this minister is also keeping the state capture project within his department on oxygen, undermining the wishes of Mbeki; his is a case of Ramaphosa's pragmatism towards corruption during his leadership. Maybe he's waiting for Johnson to do her job. The investigators at Outa assure me the Hawks and the Special Investigating unit are on the trail.

Finally, as deputy president of the ANC, Mashatile is also the chairman of its cadre deployment committee. The coverage on News24 about Mashatile's family ties to tenderpreneurs is still fresh and we are pretty sure Ramaphosa's adjutant is one of the main characters in the ANC's “renewal" farce. The deputy president is the patron of the corrupt cadres who stain the supply and value chains of the economy, and because his family are prominent tenderpreneurs, he has no interest in stopping the rot.

Add the political power of Mashatile to that of Mantashe, and keep an eye on Siboniso Duma in KZN. Don't look at Mbeki's level of resentment and think again about the unforgiving Mkhize. And tell Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa he has to watch his back.

A luta continua!

♦ VWB ♦

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