Measuring success and progress in politics is a precarious exercise because there is rarely consensus about the yardstick that should be applied. Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency is a case in point; so much depends on your expectations and probably also your worldview.
Speaking to a roomful of investment bankers and asset managers in London recently, many of whom were remarkably well informed about the detail of South African policy and politics, this became very obvious when it was suggested to me that Ramaphosa had “failed to pick even the low-hanging fruit”.
I was surprised. My analysis is very different: he has picked all that I consider to be the low-hanging fruit, by which I mean the stuff over which he has full control and can do relatively swiftly and without undue political hindrance.
Exhibit A: The removal of the most corrupt ministers from the Cabinet in February (Lynne Brown, Mosebenzi Zwane, Des van Rooyen, David Mahlobo, Bongani Bongo and Faith Muthambi).
Exhibit B: Led by Ramaphosa’s chief enforcer, Pravin Gordhan, the systematic cleaning up of state-owned enterprises that has led to the expunging from positions of many other agents of state capture (Siyabonga Gama, Transnet; Anoj Singh, Eskom; Tom Moyane, South African Revenue Service; Shaun Abrahams, National Prosecuting Authority; Berning Ntlemeza, Hawks; Dudu Myeni, SAA; Lucky Montana, Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa; and Dan Matjila, Public Investment Corporation, among others).
And, in acknowledging that the auditor general needs sharper “teeth” to combat continuing financial mismanagement in government departments and at state-owned enterprises, the president has signed the Public Audit Amendment Act, which gives the auditor general broader powers to hold officials directly accountable and to refer serial offenders to the relevant law enforcement agencies.
There is further evidence of this, but you get my point: South Africa and its government are surely in a far better position than they were at the beginning of the year.
It may be a messy, bloody, room-by-room clearance operation in which there is ongoing resistance but, one by one, the crooks are being excised from the body politic.
Jacob Zuma is no longer in office; he and his son Duduzane face corruption charges. And their principal benefactors, the Guptas, are fugitives from (South African) justice.
But, to my interlocutor in London, this was very far from the low-hanging fruit he had in mind. His expectation was that Ramaphosa would have already introduced several game-changing “structural reforms” to boost the economy.
So, when it comes to assessing the low-hanging fruit, I suppose it depends which orchard you are in.
Has Ramaphosa offered a compelling vision for the future around which South Africans can unite? On this, he still has some way to go.
As he carefully and patiently executes his primary modus operandi — putting in place processes that engage the main necessary protagonists (think of both the jobs and investment summits, as well as the many commissions of inquiry he has appointed over the past nine months) — one is still entitled to wonder: Where does he really stand on the most difficult political and policy issues?
At some point he will need to provide convincing, focused and resolute leadership on a range of issues: the privatisation and unbundling of state-owned assets; committing fully to renewable energy while driving the transition from a coal-based energy mix to a low-carbon economy, and persuading the National Union of Mineworkers that this can be successfully managed; facing down the teachers’ unions to finally allow an ANC government to grasp the public education nettle; and pressing the private sector to employ more young people.
I appreciate that this may sound like a Thatcherite charter (I can hear the sound of Patrick Bond flexing his fingers as he opens his long-suffering laptop). But, thanks to the reckless governance of the Zuma years, the country is on a fiscal cliff edge. Necessity must now be the mother of all invention, as the saying goes. Or, as South Africa’s sixth finance minister in five years, Tito Mboweni, likes to say: “No holy cows!”
But the political constraints Ramaphosa faces cannot be ignored. Since February, he has had to drive with at least one eye on the rear-view mirror, watching his own party like a hawk. The ANC is so divided and the nationalist faction so bruised by the defeat of Zuma that, at least in the sub-factions, many are bent on revenge regardless of the destructive consequences for governance or even the ANC itself.
Talking to senior Cabinet ministers, one is left with the impression that the toughest, most politically delicate decisions are being left until after the elections next year; that much of the planning is about doing the preparations so that big changes can be quickly launched as soon as Ramaphosa has secured a strong, fresh mandate for himself.
What that means is that many investors and other decision-makers are also waiting to see whether that mandate will be secured.
As every day passes, next year’s elections take on even greater significance. Apart from what it means for Ramaphosa’s future as president, and the choices he and the country must face, it is also an election that will not only have huge importance for all the opposition parties but will also serve as a referendum on what sort of politics South Africans want for the next generation.
Will South Africa take the road that is increasingly more travelled globally, of populism and a weakening of the centre? This is not just about the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF)and its increasingly erratic and demagogic leader Julius Malema (though the VBS scandal has clearly disorientated them and seriously dented the EFF’s image as a corruption-busting party of the non-establishment dispossessed), but also about how far South Africa’s major political parties are able to resist being pulled from the centre ground.
Already there are worrying signs: the Democratic Alliance and some ANC leaders have signalled a nasty, nationalist shift against immigrants, mimicking the ugly discourse in so many other places around the world.
Elections 2019 will be a test of South Africa’s value system. The outcome is far from certain and the data from opinion polls and by-elections is inconsistent and often contradictory. No clear pattern has emerged.
But my reading of the available evidence is that KwaZulu-Natal continues to be a problem for the ANC and Ramaphosa; that division and distrust in the ANC in that province, along with the “Zuma factor” and the phoenixlike rise from the ashes of the Inkatha Freedom Party, could cost the ANC as much as 3% of its national vote, taking it below 60% for the first time and potentially diminishing Ramaphosa’s authority.
But there is also evidence that the ANC will gain in other provinces,not least in the Western Cape, where Ramaphosa is investing energy and real interest, sensing blood as the DA’s core (the coloured working class) base loosens, a trend that Patricia de Lille will clearly do her utmost to encourage as she seeks revenge.
For every percentage point it loses in the Western Cape, the DA will probably gain in Gauteng. It will probably end up more or less where it was in 2014, with the support of less than one in four voters (23%). The glass ceiling on DA growth will press yet more heavily on its head and Mmusi Maimane may not survive. It is a big election for him, too.
It is the EFF for whom the stakes are highest. Even if it doubles its share of the vote to 12%, it will be irrelevant unless the ANC loses its majority. Although coalition arrangements are a part of the electoral landscape in the provincial and municipal spheres, at national level, given this scenario, the EFF will evaporate as a serious political force.
The EFF leaders know this and are showing increasing signs of desperation — and weakness — as they display more and more of their neofascist slip.
A year ago, South Africa faced a crucial election — for the leadership of the ANC. As a result of Ramaphosa’s hard-won victory, the country has made substantial progress since. But the positive effect on the economy and on the lives of most South Africans has yet to follow, adding to the febrile nature of the political environment and making even greater demands on Ramaphosa.
My gut prediction is that despite all the apparent fluidity and confusing data, the post-election picture that will emerge will look notably similar to the current balance of power — in other words, the ANC will be returned to power with a decisive 60%+ margin, having as usual marshalled its troops to run a strong campaign in the final stretch; the DA will remain more or less where it is (and with the possibility of forming a “grand coalition” with the ANC in a hung Gauteng legislature); and South Africans will largely reject Malema’s violence and demagoguery, leaving the EFF very lucky to get into double figures.
Richard Calland is associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town