Silent Cyril up against the ropes

No recall: Jacob Zuma’s allies are angry with Cyril Ramaphosa for not holding the president’s hand when ANC members said he should resign. (Leon Sadiki/City Press)

No recall: Jacob Zuma’s allies are angry with Cyril Ramaphosa for not holding the president’s hand when ANC members said he should resign. (Leon Sadiki/City Press)

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa looks set to have his presidential ambitions shot down by President Jacob Zuma’s backers in government and the ANC after failing to support his boss last weekend.

After a motion for Zuma to step down was tabled – and defeated – at the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) meeting, the embattled president’s supporters this week attacked Ramaphosa for not defending Zuma.

The motion was put forward by Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom and was supported by several other NEC members, including Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor, Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi and Deputy Health Minister Joe Phaahla.

They cited former public protector Thuli Madonsela’s State of Capture report, which implicated Zuma and his cronies in irregular activity, and the Constitutional Court ruling that found Zuma had failed to uphold the Constitution, as reasons for their motion.

Although the NEC ultimately rejected the motion, Zuma’s supporters believe that Ramaphosa, as the party’s second-most-senior leader, could have prevented the drama, which saw ministers hurling insults at each other.

The NEC meeting became so heated that Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa and Deputy Agriculture Minister Bheki Cele reportedly almost exchanged blows.

The Zuma faction is also unhappy that Ramaphosa did not take the opportunity to distance himself from labour federation Cosatu’s call for him to succeed Zuma as the next ANC president.

“Cyril couldn’t defend JZ when all that JZ needed was Cyril,” said an ANC leader sympathetic to Zuma.

“JZ needed Cyril the most and he was nowhere to be found. At least now we know we can’t count on him. He should have defended JZ as a matter of principle. But he kept quiet throughout. So he is not with us and we can’t rely on him.”

He said Zuma’s supporters believed that Ramaphosa had failed to show leadership when his boss was under fire. “He [Zuma] survived without the deputy president. The DP [Ramaphosa] was wishing to cash in on the crisis. It didn’t work. We thought he was going to clarify his nomination by Cosatu. He didn’t,” said the ANC leader.

He argued that even if Ramaphosa did not want to defend Zuma, he should at least have attempted to forge unity between the opposing ANC factions. “You rather be defeated, but at least you tried. You rather say it, even if you don’t mean it, but at least you are seen to be saying it.”

He said that Ramaphosa’s silence is now backfiring on him. “He worsened the perception that he was not supporting Zuma at the weekend,” said the ANC leader.

He said Zuma needed someone who would “defend him after 2019”.This alludes to the fact that the president’s backers would prefer to have a leader installed who would pardon Zuma should corruption charges against him be pursued.

On Saturday, when the surprise motion was tabled, the anti-Zuma faction is believed to have had the upper hand because many of Zuma’s supporters were not present. But they had regrouped by Sunday and successfully defended him.

Even Zuma’s former wife, outgoing African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who initially sent an apology for not attending, managed to make the Sunday session.

Zuma supporters have vowed to work hard to ensure Ramaphosa does not replace him. Although declining to discuss the NEC meeting, ANC Youth League leader Collen Maine said the league was resolute in its support for Dlamini-Zuma.

“Our view is that we support the call of the women’s league, as a matter of principle, that there must be a woman president. We will not change at any point – the unity of the ANC does not suggest that we must stage-manage that process.”

He dismissed the argument by alliance leaders that the deputy president of the ANC should automatically succeed the president when the latter’s term ends.

“What those [who endorse Ramaphosa because of the ANC tradition of the deputy succeeding the president] forget is that the ANC constitution says that any member of the ANC has a right to elect and be elected, so there is no tradition.

“If that were the case, we should not have had a contest at Polokwane.  So that thing is not there, the tradition. Branches can exercise their constitutional rights,” said Maine.

Hanekom’s motion enjoyed the support of only two provinces – Gauteng and the Western Cape.

Although the Zuma supporters say the defeat of the motion indicated that he enjoyed support, the president’s opponents are just happy that they managed to table it.

“It’s a strategy and tactic,” said an anti-Zuma NEC member. “The bell has rung. The balance of forces will continue shifting. The aim was not to remove him. That’s why it was not a motion for recall. It was also not a motion of no confidence. It was a motion for discussion, with him to consider resigning as an option.”

The NEC member said the motion had been a strategic move to deliver the message to Zuma “that one way that this [the crisis in the country] can be sorted out is for him, on his own, to consider resigning without being asked to do so”.

The president should view the weekend’s developments as a timely warning, the source said.

“It was a warning shot. The main strategy was to deliver the message to say: ‘By the way, you are no longer in charge in terms of numbers. If you want to prove that you are in charge, you must agree that we vote. If you don’t agree, you must concede that you are a minority and you have a fear of the outcome,’ ” said the NEC member.

Approached for comment, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe said no concerns about Ramaphosa had been raised in the meeting.

“They didn’t say anything in the meeting about that. How can they now want to chirp their mouths to you but they didn’t raise it in the meeting? And members didn’t debate in that meeting. We reached a consensus,” Mantashe said.

ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa refused to comment on the matter, saying he was not the spokesperson for individual NEC members.

Matuma Letsoalo

Matuma Letsoalo

Matuma Letsoalo is the political editor of the Mail & Guardian. He joined the newspaper in 2003 and has won numerous awards since then, including the regional award for Vodacom Journalist of the Year in the economics and finance category in 2015, SA Journalist of the Year in 2011, the Mondi Shanduka SA Story of the Year award in 2008 and CNN African Journalist of the Year – MKO Abiola Print Journalism in 2004.
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