When Angela Merkel landed in South Africa late in the evening of February 5, ahead of her meeting with President Cyril Ramaphosa the next day, she indicated that she was tired from the long flight and needed to sleep.
But the German chancellor did not sleep. She got on the phone and stayed on the phone until she was satisfied that she had fashioned an appropriate response to the political crisis that had exploded in Germany while she had flown south over the African continent.
Earlier that day, Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), had ignored long-held party rules to vote with the far-right Alternative for Deutschland to oust the respected provincial premier of Thuringia, Bodo Ramelow of the left-wing Die Linke party.
Given widespread concerns about the rise of the right in Germany against the backdrop of the country’s painful Nazi past, this was nothing short of an earthquake.
Departing from an unwritten convention that German chancellors should not comment on domestic politics when overseas, Merkel began her joint press conference with Ramaphosa the following day by asking him if he would permit her to make a brief comment about events in her country.
Of course, he acquiesced; and then Merkel dropped her own bombshell. The decision of her party was “unforgiveable” — a word that brooks no possible misunderstanding. At a stroke, she hung her anointed successor as leader of the CDU, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer — or AKK, as she is known — out to dry.
AKK was Merkel’s personal favourite to succeed her. But she recognised that AKK had lost control of her own party and was, therefore, no longer fit to lead. Four days later, on Monday February 10, AKK fell on her sword and resigned.
This is leadership. Bold, decisive, brave. Politically risky, but politically necessary, in equal measure.
This is the standard against which Ramaphosa’s performance should be measured as he enters a critical phase in his political career. First, the State of the Nation address (Sona) that he delivered last week; then the budget next week, that must address the fiscal crisis sufficiently effectively to enable Moody’s to conclude that the country has begun to stabilise its finances and should not be downgraded to full junk investment grade status until at least November; and then, finally, the pesky, minefield of the ANC’s mid-term review of policy at its June/July national general council.
Ramaphosa’s Sona address was solid if not spectacular — a clear-minded (if over-long) restatement of strategic intent that balanced expressions of realism and hope.
There was one potential positive game-changer — the announcement that municipalities will be permitted to generate their own energy — which was better than none, but the economy yearns for more drastic, structural change and far less mealy-mouthed equivocation on how much public-owned stakes in the economy should be relinquished in pursuit of private sector investment.
The most important part of the speech was that which dealt with the energy sector, to which all roads lead because South Africa faces an overlapping triple crisis: a fiscal crisis, an energy supply crisis and a climate crisis.
The answer to all three lies with Eskom and the restructuring of the electricity sector. A solution to the enormous Eskom debt must be found; Eskom’s operations must be strengthened sufficiently to halt the power cuts that continue to undermine any economic growth prospects and cool investment interest; and a clearly defined path away from South Africa’s unsustainable dependency on coal must be found, urgently.
So the seven-point statement of strategy on the energy sector was its most significant part: bringing the new Integrated Resource Plan 2019 into effect so as to enable the development of additional grid capacity from renewable energy, natural gas, hydro power, battery storage and, yes, coal; the procurement of emergency power from projects that can deliver into the grid with three to 12 months from approval; the registration of small scale distributed generation for own use of under one megawatt, for which no licence is required; for above that level, own use generation applications will be licensed within 120 days; the opening of bid window 5 of renewable energy independent power production; the negotiation of additional capacity from existing wind and solar plants; and, finally, the decision to put in place measures to enable municipalities in good financial standing to procure their own power from independent power producers.
All good stuff. But, alas, lacking specificity in terms of implementation timeframes and deadlines. And, thus, the perennial concern about implementation.
In fact, never mind implementation — which is where incapacity and corruption in the public service bites — Ramaphosa has a higher level problem: political execution. As I left the National Assembly building after the address I noticed Mineral and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe fielding questions from Business Day journalist Carol Paton. “When exactly,” asked Paton, “will you open window 5 of REIPPP [the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme]?”
Mantashe’s reply plunged a sabre into the heart of Ramaphosa and the credibility of his speech. “I am not fundamentalist about window 5,” he said. At a stroke, Mantashe did what he does best: create uncertainty when policy certainty is the one thing that is most urgently needed.
When he was secretary general of the ANC he ducked and dived to defend Jacob Zuma and the verb “to Mantashe” entered South Africa’s rich political lexicon. Then, it was vaguely amusing because he wielded no executive power. Now, Mantashe is in charge of perhaps South Africa’s most important ministry. But he is also chairperson of the ANC. So it is now clear: Ramaphosa has a Gwede problem.
The president ought to sack Mantashe or reshuffle him into a less strategically vital portfolio. Unfortunately, Ramaphosa fears him or fears, at least, the power he holds. The president’s calculation is probably that he cannot afford to lose the support of his most important ally in the top six of the ANC.
Yet, in Cabinet this is unsustainable. Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan is eager for the obstacles in the energy sector to be unblocked to relieve the pressure on Eskom and to encourage private sector investment that might kick-start growth.
There is growing frustration with Mantashe’s obfuscation and equivocation. A clash is increasingly likely between these political heavyweights, with the trade and industry minister, Ebrahim Patel, and the finance minister, Tito Mboweni, looking on with interests of their own. It will not be pretty. Ramaphosa’s job is to either pre-empt it or to assert his authority over them. The Cabinet needs to execute his policy priorities and align with his strategy. Otherwise, the president is deadwood.
This, then, is Ramaphosa’s most profound political dilemma — a choice between executing his strategy in government or keeping his party onside. He needs to reach deep into his political psyche and locate his inner Merkel — or, at least, his inner Thabo Mbeki. He needs to put aside long-term political ambition and the unattainable aspiration of reuniting his fractured, dysfunctional party and focus on governing.
Better, surely, to have two good years in the Union Buildings, in which tough choices are made to resuscitate the economy and rebuild the democratic state than seven mediocre years constantly trying to manage the risks posed from inside Luthuli House. Eventually, the ANC will be his undoing, as it was Mbeki’s. Mbeki got away with it for almost a decade, basically ignoring his party on the big stuff and finessing the need to consult within the tripartite alliance and honour conference resolutions on the less important things.
But Mbeki had political enforcers of note, such as his minister in the presidency Essop Pahad, and intellectual giants such as Joel Netshitzenze, who led Mbeki’s policy unit in the presidency, to execute his political strategy and repel all opposition inside the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC).
Watching Jackson Mthembu, the minister in the presidency now, lead the ANC’s response in the Sona debate on Tuesday, the lack of serious political and intellectual muscle and heft around Ramaphosa was even more apparent. Ramaphosa needs a Gordhan there to drive alignment across portfolios. Mthembu is an excellent person and a loyal servant of his party and president. But he is no Pahad. And the presidency desperately lacks a Netshitzenze to drive the strategy home and ensure political fidelity in the Cabinet.
Ramaphosa needs to acquire that political muscle. He must transpose the street-wise ruthlessness of his CR17 campaign’s quest for power into the presidency. He must impose himself and his reform agenda, and crush his opponents. Whether he succeeds or not, history will judge him kindly for showing the leadership required. Otherwise, he will fail and be quickly forgotten.
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group