/ 9 January 2019

Ramaphosa has walked a difficult tightrope successfully thus far

Cyril Ramaphosa was elected president of the ANC at the party's 54th national convention at Nasrec
Cyril Ramaphosa was elected president of the ANC at the party's 54th national convention at Nasrec, Johannesburg. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa and his team have walked a tightrope since assuming office. And so far so good — they have been able to balance the strains inside the party while cleaning up their act in government.

This, however, may not be a general feeling among South Africans who have lost patience with the political games played within the governing party.

And with good reason.

The president and his team faced three major challenges from the December 2017 elective conference at Nasrec: containing another split of the ANC, reforming the party, and rebuilding the Zupta-compromised institutions of the state.

That some members of the party would go on to create a splinter organisation if the pro-Ramaphosa camp pushed them hard enough could not be ruled out. Given the tense political mood in year after the conference, the ANC has been nothing more than two halves struggling to remain united.

The party seems to have been held together by the mutual fear of what could be a weaker ANC, and or breakaway party, should either camp play its hand too strongly. In fact, there is no doubt that the stalemate of Nasrec did not leave any room for unilateral action by any camp, given the fact that even the top six leaders themselves were drawn from competing camps.

Had there been room for unilateral action, the easiest thing for the new leadership to do would be to assert its authority and courageously act against every leader who had brought the party into disrepute and wait for those leaders to do what they see fit. In that way, those seen to be representing the new dawn could create a credible organisation capable of implementing their reforms. That could be a great response to the need of many ANC voters to see that the party was still worth their trust after the Zuma years.

However, such a move was impossible. Instead, there has been paralysis. In fact, some of the leaders, even within the Ramaphosa camp, had their own integrity questions to answer.

When evaluated on the extent to which the new leadership has maintained relative stability in the party, they have clearly done well against this backdrop. They managed to sway support in KZN towards some middle ground, and they made an intervention in the North West — tactfully working backwards from government to the party. When it came to containing some elements of the alleged fightback plan, there seems to have been some progress but not entirely given the delays in the process of crafting the party list for members of legislative houses ahead of the elections.

These key developments created some sense of slow momentum of change within the party, but the scale is not enough to affirm the claim that there were larger-scale changes in the character of the party as can be judged by its commitment to integrity.

The greatest successes have been at government level. The state capture commission of inquiry has progressed seamlessly, and some of the implicated politicians had to fall on their swords; confidence-inspiring appointments were made in key institutions, and vital changes have been made at a number of state-owned enterprises. As a bonus, the economy started showing signs of recovery when third quarter data came out.

Notwithstanding this slow momentum, a failure to act against some cabinet ministers who cost the state billions of money in mismanagement remained a thorn in the flesh of the new leadership. The non-action against them was part of the political risk management that Ramaphosa clearly thought needed to be done especially given the fact that there were only a few months before their term in office ended.

When it comes to the likelihood of compromised leaders coming back into the new administration given the fact that they feature prominently in the listing process, the selection criteria give the new leadership a stronger hand relative to the purely majoritarian process followed. Only 25% of the democratically elected are in what is regarded as a safe zone in the list among those that will be subject to scrutiny.

It is disappointing that the ANC has opted to be about itself in the order of priorities it has faced, a case can be made that the new leaders have done well in walking the difficult tightrope they have walked. They may have alienated voters who hold a moralistic view of politics but have not acted in a way that makes them guilty of a winner takes all and vindictive politics among their own.

Ongama Mtimka is a researcher, lecturer, and political analyst based at Nelson Mandela University. He writes on his personal capacity.