/ 10 February 2017

Ramaphosa, Zuma cold war hits freezing point

Zipped lips: Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa are said to be embroiled in a cold war
Zipped lips: Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa are said to be embroiled in a cold war

Relations between President Jacob Zuma and his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, have hit rock bottom. A lack of trust and a complete breakdown in communication are signs of all-out political warfare between the two leaders.

Government insiders told the Mail & Guardian this week that the two men were no longer on speaking terms and often communicated through officials in their respective offices.

“It’s cold war. The two men can’t stand each other. In public, they will pretend as if all is well, but that’s not the case. He [Zuma] is treating Ramaphosa the same way he used to treat [former deputy president] Kgalema Motlanthe,” said a senior government official, who asked not to be named.

Motlanthe ran against Zuma for the position of ANC president in 2012. Ramaphosa is one of the frontrunners for the ANC hot seat come December’s elective conference, but Zuma is said to prefer his ex-wife and former African Union chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Ramaphosa has apparently lodged an official complaint with the office of International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane — a close Zuma ally — about the “insignificant assignments” given to him by the department.

The deputy president, according to insiders, is also unhappy about the number of international trips he is required to go on for the department, which government officials close to him believe are intended to distract him from his campaign to succeed Zuma as ANC president.

“He has lodged two official complaints with Nkoana-Mashabane’s office already. He is very much aware that the minister gets instructions from the office of the president. By lodging the complaint with the minister’s office, he is indirectly saying to Zuma that he is tired of the tactics to undermine his bid to become the next ANC leader and the country’s president in 2019,” said another senior government official with intimate knowledge of goings-on in the presidency.

The increasing tension became evident in the past few weeks as the two leaders indirectly took swipes at each other in public. Zuma recently criticised Ramaphosa after the deputy president told the radio station Power FM he was available to lead the ANC if party members wanted him to do so. In turn, Ramaphosa has criticised the current state of the governing party under Zuma’s leadership.

The deputy president has on several occasions defended Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, who has been under attack from Zuma supporters who want him replaced by Dlamini-Zuma. Yet, government sources told the M&G that State Security Minister David Mahlobo has warned Zuma against removing Gordhan because this could result in mass resignations from the Cabinet.

“There’s no doubt the president does not want Gordhan as finance minister but he is aware of the risk of removing him,” said the second senior government official.

“When he removed Nhlahla Nene and replaced him with Des van Rooyen, Cyril flew straight from London to tell him [Zuma] if he did not reverse the decision, he would resign. Even now, the president knows that if he removes Gordhan, Ramaphosa would join other Cabinet ministers in resigning from Cabinet. That’s a risk Zuma wouldn’t want to take few months before the crucial ANC national conference. If he were to make any changes in the treasury, he would remove the deputy minister, Mcebisi Jonas.”

Last month, the ANC Youth League launched fresh attacks on Ramaphosa and Gordhan, claiming they were using state-owned entities as cash cows for companies linked to them. Ramaphosa and Gordhan are often portrayed by Zuma supporters as obstacles to the radical economic transformation the president wants to pursue. Both have dismissed the allegations.

Zuma’s State of the Nation address was expected to outline radical plans to create employment opportunities. But anti-Zuma supporters believe that some within the Zuma faction are pushing for “radical economic transformation” in order to target opponents such as Ramaphosa and Gordhan.

“Part of the problem is that people are saying a lot of abstract things,” said an ANC national executive committee (NEC) member.

“We have to start moving from this abstract contract and begin to say: ‘Address people’s concerns, including reducing the level of unemployment.’ … It’s not a new debate. People must distinguish between factional agendas and the reality, such as unemployment, which is sitting at 28%. The pressure among ourselves should be how to address this question. There will be factional issues where people would want to bring the debate on the table that the Guptas are treated badly. That’s a different matter,” the NEC member said.

Ramaphosa spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa denied that there were tensions between Zuma and Ramaphosa and said he was not aware of any complaint to the department of international relations. 

A timeline of increasingly frosty relations

The acrimonious relationship between President Jacob Zuma and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has deteriorated over the past two years, as the president’s term draws to an end and his deputy ratchets up his efforts to replace him.

There have been defining moments of confrontation between the two, with both only referring to the other directly once at the funeral of ANC stalwart Reverend Makhenkesi Stofile in August.

After AngloGold Ashanti chairperson Sipho Pityana called on Zuma to step down, in September Ramaphosa said the Cabinet was “at war with itself”.

The remarks were interpreted as a reference to the Hawks requesting Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan to make a warning statement at their offices, amid stark differences within the ANC and its alliance partners about whether the case against Gordhan was a political witch-hunt.

During a question-and-answer session in Parliament a month later, Zuma was asked by Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane if he agreed with his deputy’s assertion about divisions in the Cabinet. The president shrugged and said dismissively: “Ask Ramaphosa.” Zuma’s failure to address the deputy president as “honourable” was another early indicator that their relationship had broken down.

In January, Ramaphosa indicated for the first time in public (in a radio interview on the station Power FM) that he was available to lead the party if he was nominated for the position of ANC president.

Zuma hit back at Ramaphosa’s comments without mentioning him by name in another interview broadcast on SABC radio stations. The president said people indicating their availability to stand was not how succession debates happened within the party. At the same time, Zuma appeared to endorse Ramaphosa’s main rival for the presidency, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, by saying the country was ready for a female president. — Govan Whittles