Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s silence after his defiant stance against President Jacob Zuma’s midnight Cabinet reshuffle might mean he has dug his own political grave.
The reshuffle saw the removal of finance minister Pravin Gordhan and several other ministers and deputy ministers. Many political observers believed Ramaphosa’s rare display of defiance would mark the beginning of his ascent to the ANC’s top seat in December and the country in 2019.
Now some in the tripartite alliance between the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and union federation Cosatu say Ramaphosa may have missed a golden opportunity to distinguish himself as an alternative leader, capable of taking the ANC out of the mess it finds itself in.
His position would have been strengthened if other defiant leaders inside the ANC had not bowed to calls for unity.
It’s known that the unionist-turned-businessman does not have a strong constituency in the ANC. But the increasing number of ANC members who are gatvol with Zuma’s antics could work to his advantage. Some members would be happy to support a leader who is prepared to return the party to its founding principles and values as espoused by Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, among others.
Ramaphosa was certainly on the right track to do so when he told everyone who cared to listen that he did not agree with Zuma’s decision to remove Gordhan. Unless he breaks his silence it is hard to see how Ramaphosa can portray himself as an alternative leader.
Two weeks ago, while addressing journalists during the launch of new strategic plan on HIV and TB in Bloemfontein, Ramaphosa said: “I told the president that I would not agree with him on his reasoning to remove the minister of finance. And I told him that this I would articulate publicly. I’ve made my views known and there are quite a number of other colleagues and comrades who are unhappy about this situation.”
His unhappiness was echoed by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe and treasurer general Zweli Mkhize, who lamented Zuma’s lack of consultation before the reshuffle. Cosatu and the SACP also expressed unhappiness with Zuma and publicly called for him to step down.
The unprecedented revolt by Ramaphosa, Mantashe and Mkhize was supported by other senior ANC leaders, including its chief whip Jackson Mthembu.
Some in the ANC believe that if Ramaphosa stood firm on the principled stance he took against Zuma, this could influence the outcome of the upcoming motion of no confidence in Parliament, because many ANC MPs were prepared to follow in Ramaphosa’s footsteps and act in the interests of South Africans, instead of the party.
Even to some of his supporters, Ramaphosa’s latest silence now seems to indicate he does not to have the same influence that Zuma has. If Ramaphosa is unable to lead an internal revolt against the president, it will probably cast a shadow of doubt on his suitability as a presidential candidate.
Zuma has made it clear that he did not want Ramaphosa to be his successor.
The issue of succession was never going to be easy for Ramaphosa. His hiatus from the party’s leadership since 1997 turned him into an outsider, leaving him with a limited foundation in the organisation. After Ramaphosa resigned as ANC secretary general to focus on his business endeavours, his private sector gains masked the wounds of being overlooked as Mandela’s preferred candidate for deputy president; Thabo Mbeki was selected instead.
Deciding to give leadership another try in 2012, he was catapulted to power in Mangaung after Kgalema Motlanthe, then deputy president, contested against Zuma for the presidential position and lost.
Five years after this unexpected rise, Ramaphosa has not built a solid constituency of his own. Those who have considered supporting him have lamented his silence on pertinent issues and questioned his strength against the “premier league” faction, which possesses pulling power in the branches and is lobbying for Zuma’s former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, as its presidential candidate.
Ramaphosa needs the support of leaders such as Mantashe and Mkhize as insiders who could push his messages against Zuma out to the branches. But these leaders have now been cowed, accepting calls for unity by the ANC’s national working committee, and the deputy president has been left stranded.
Political analyst Ralph Mathekga believes even those with the capacity to propel Ramaphosa upward would now be cautious as they question his strength to lead a movement against Zuma.
“Anyone who can bring together branches within the ANC, those other insiders, they have their own objectives. I don’t think they will give their support to a man who looks like he has a very weak campaign,” Mathekga said.