/ 8 February 2019

Forget Sona, the main act is May

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address will have to be repeated a few months later if he wins the May elections.
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address will have to be repeated a few months later if he wins the May elections. (David Harrison/M&G)

I hope everyone is ignoring President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address (Sona). Of course, Sona is important, but because of the way our electoral and government system works, every five years one comes along that is, at best, a mere dress rehearsal, at worst a misdirection. Sona 2019 is one of those.

Every election year the president of the republic opens Parliament, accounts for the government’s performance over the past year and sets out the plans for the coming year. Then he announces an election date that leads to the dissolution of Parliament and the whole thing must be done all over again when the new, post-election legislature is reopened by (usually the same) president a few weeks later.

So spare a thought for the gaggle of fashionistas who spend a fortune on garments to walk the parliamentary red carpet every February, because this year they’ll have to repeat the trick a few months later, and I don’t think you’re allowed to pitch up in the same get-up twice. Or better still, maybe spare a thought for the rest of us, who watch the weird spectacle.

Whatever. The point is that you can ignore Thursday’s event. Rather, look to May. There is a lot that we will know then that we don’t know now: about Ramaphosa, about the ANC, about the opposition and about what South African voters are willing to forgive, or overlook.

Beginning of the end of Zuma fans

The May election will be the true litmus test of the president’s strength vis-á-vis his detractors in the party. Until at least the next elective conference of the party in 2022, Ramaphosa’s position in the ANC will remain iffy at best. He cannot retrospectively increase his Nasrec margin of victory against Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (NDZ). He remains the ANC president elected by a majority of 129 votes until the next conference.

If anything, there are ways in which things can go the other way for him. For one, his razor-thin victory looks more vulnerable now that one of his enemies, North West provincial ANC chair Supra Mahumapelo, has bloodied the ANC’s nose in court and won his position back. The North West provincial structures were still not disbanded in December 2017, but the province lost hundreds of potential voting delegates because of disqualification by the national leadership. In fact, more than 400 (potential) NDZ votes were discarded at that conference, from North West, Free State and KwaZulu-Natal. The restoration of the North West’s structures leads to a round-two court challenge, in which Mahumapelo and his allies seek retroactively to alter the balance of numbers at Nasrec and question the legitimacy of Ramaphosa’s conquest of the ANC presidency. That complex political play is rendered easier by softened electoral support for the party.

Despite their own role in damaging the ANC’s fortunes with the electorate in the past 10 years, Mahumapelo and the broader faction he represents will have no compunction about laying the blame for a bad election at Ramaphosa’s door. Weak electoral support in May means Ramaphosa has little chance of surviving beyond the national general council (NGC) — the party’s midterm conference — in June 2020.

It really is no exaggeration to state that, by the time he gives his second Sona in late May or early June, Ramaphosa may already be a lame-duck president.

His only potential salvation is the South African people, and whether they truly believe in his “new dawn” and are willing to trust him — if not the ANC — one more time. There is an entire country beyond the stultifying, decaying walls of the ANC.

If that country stands with Ramaphosa in May, he may very well be rendered untouchable. No post facto gerrymandering of a long-gone conference would threaten him. The party’s national executive committee — already gravitating towards him in the way that all NECs tend to support the incumbent — and the new ANC parliamentary caucus would fall in line behind him. And it would be much harder to convince a broader ANC gathering, such as the NGC, that the president must go.

So, even if you could somehow invalidate the outcomes of Nasrec and somehow engineer a new leadership contest at the NGC (who would even oppose him?), you would not convince the ANC to ditch a leader who had boosted the party’s electoral fortunes only a year before. If the country endorses Ramaphosa, it could well be the beginning of the end of the Zuma resistance that still exists in the ANC.

The EFF power play

It would be no great thing for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) either. That party lost its most potent organiser last Valentine’s Day when Jacob Zuma stepped down from the presidency. The party had used Zuma’s injurious presence in our politics as its stepping stone, tormenting him at every Sona, and managing — quite incredibly, if you know anything about the EFF leadership’s brazen corruption — to pose as anti-graft campaigners. One dalliance with dirty Bosasa cash notwithstanding, Ramaphosa’s ascendancy has robbed the party of that avenue of attack.

The changed reality in the ANC hastens the EFF’s own moment of reckoning: a party that was founded to all intents and purposes as an external faction of the ANC now has to decide whether it continues along a route that will prove less lucrative in a truly post-Zuma ANC, or if it does what its leaders had always intended for it: to be a bargaining chip to negotiate a favourable return into the fold of the grand old party. Already there is talk of Julius Malema’s intent to use a good electoral showing to bargain for the position of deputy president (of the republic!) and returning the EFF to the ruling party.

The EFF has always been about Malema’s personal ambitions and his falling-out with Zuma, more than any desire to lead an alternative political centre that exists outside of state power and patronage. If Ramaphosa manages to revive the ANC’s sagging electoral performance in May, he frees himself not only from the Zuma counterassault, but also from the clutches of whatever Faustian pact the EFF has in store for him post-election. Ramaphosa, it should be remembered, was the ANC leader who swung the axe against Malema as chairperson of the ANC’s disciplinary appeals committee, leading to the formation of the EFF in 2013. Short of the remote possibility of losing the election, by far the worst outcome for him in May would be to lead a government that needed the support of the EFF in any way, shape or form.

The Democratic Alliance implosion

And then there is the official opposition, in many ways in a far more alarming position than either the ANC or the EFF. How Mmusi Maimane must wish Dlamini-Zuma had won at Nasrec back in December 2017, and the Guptas were still in town and prospering, the investor community scurrying for cover, and the DA’s white electoral base tearing its hair out in frustration and disgust.

Instead, diplomats are telling the rather hapless leader of the opposition that business would like to back Ramaphosa to succeed, and there is polling evidence that even white voters look upon the president with something approximating fondness. In contrast, Maimane does not instil much confidence. Since taking over he has failed to put his stamp on his party or its message. If anything, it doesn’t have a coherent message.

Maimane appears to be a policy and ideology empty vessel. He cannot shake accusations, justified or not, that he is not in charge, and is merely a proxy for regressive power cliques who still control the party from behind the scenes. August 6 2016 (the day the ANC lost control of Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay in municipal elections) seems like a long time ago. Like Ramaphosa, he faces a backlash should electoral support soften (or even remain stagnant) in May. Unlike Ramaphosa, it doesn’t appear as if he has a single card to play. Not even a Thuma Mina-style theme song to rally support with.

Thursday is a sideshow, a fringe performance before the blockbuster act for which we pay the good money. Look to May. In May we could very well change the landscape.

Vukani Mde is a founder and partner at LEFTHOOK, a Johannesburg-based research and strategy consultancy