Either Cyril Ramaphosa or Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will probably be elected the new leader of the ANC in a few days’ time.
Neither outcome helps the party or the country — at least, not in the short term.
The Ramaphosa camp has been effective at framing this as a battle between good and evil, between constitutionalists and anti-constitutionalists, between those committed to good, effective governance and looters simply aiming to position themselves to snarf the little bit of largesse still left on the state table.
Do not buy this narrative. Political tugs-of-war are never this clear-cut. It would be foolish to imagine the Ramaphosa camp to be wholly virtuous and the Dlamini-Zuma camp to have a monopoly on state capture.
Let’s look at each camp in turn. Ramaphosa has the upper hand in numbers, but what does that mean for the average reader of this column? What does it mean for the average ANC voter and supporter?
At best, we do not know the implications of a Ramaphosa leadership and, at worst, continuities with the state capture project might persist. This means that our greatest hopes under a Ramaphosa presidency are simply a projection of our most urgent prayers for a better life for all.
First, there has been a woefully thin focus on technocratic issues by Ramaphosa, issues that matter most to you and me: how corruption will be eliminated, how the bureaucracy will be repurposed to do its job, how institutions safeguarding democracy will be bolstered, how economic growth conducive to creating decent jobs will be achieved.
The closest we came was a gimmicky little speech focusing on a so-called New Deal for the economy but, if handed in as a final-year economics or political economy assignment, that statement would not get more than a third-class pass. It is a mostly uncontroversial wish list of trite desires with little specificity on how we get to where we need to go.
And, beyond the fatal vagueness, it is also telling that this is the only such speech we have had from someone who desires to be the number one citizen. Where is the vision of South Africa’s place in the world? Where is the bold statement on how we should reduce inequities in the workplace? What about the moral crisis that capital finds itself in, as we learn about the nexus between corrupt politicians and corrupt corporate citizens hitherto regarded by many of us as beyond reproach?
Ramaphosa simply smiles, and speaks in inoffensive dulcet tones and Kumbaya motifs about getting stakeholders into a room — somehow imagining that merely getting, say, McKinsey and Eskom leadership in one space will transform the worst fraudulent tendencies in the state and in the private sector.
Of course, I get that details do not make for sexy and catchy soundbites on the campaign trail. But Ramaphosa isn’t even good on the feel-good stuff.
He doesn’t even, like a Barack Obama type, make you choose to ignore the structural injustices for a few minutes so as drink from a rhetorical fountain of hope. He provides neither grand vision and tantalising hope and yearning nor dull but reassuring technocratic specificity.
In other words, Ramaphosa’s ultimate attraction is that he is not Dlamini-Zuma. That is not a sturdy central premise on which to rest a leadership campaign. Jacob Zuma was chiefly elected because he was not Thabo Mbeki. We know how that movie played out. Unless we can make a solid case for a candidate without merely contrasting them with their rival, we will at best choose the least bad person rather than a candidate clearly fit to lead us out of our choking political morass.
Of course, leadership races are an exercise in comparative analysis, so we cannot bemoan the lack of a perfect candidate and stop there, else we would never choose any leader or party.
My point is simply that, as with Polokwane, we must be careful not to overstate what it means to choose the least bad candidate. Overinvestment in Zuma also resulted in reduced levels of oversight over the Zuma-led ANC right from the morning after Polokwane.
The left will again be disappointed if the lessons of Polokwane do not inform how they respond to a reluctant Ramaphosa victory: with scepticism, caution and vigilance. We simply do not know what he is about.
We do know what Dlamini-Zuma is about. She is a race-baiting candidate more comfortable with scapegoating white people, like her political ally Zuma also tends to do, than with being committed to open debate and dialogue with those who might put tough questions to her about the economy, about the rot in the ANC and about her plans for helping to nurture our democratic institutions.
If a Ramaphosa win spells uncertainty, a Dlamini-Zuma win spells disaster. Just look at the thugs she has in her inner circle, such as Ace Magashule.
If Ramaphosa wins, however, we are back to two centres of power as Zuma’s keepers will immediately demand a final clearance sale of the state. That is why, in the least bad scenario, we are still likely to experience a lot of pain before it gets any better.
Whoever wins this weekend, the country will remain in trouble for a while yet.