Ramaphosa faces formidable odds

The president has delivered his State of the Nation address, promising more of his ‘New Dawn’. But his work is being consistently undermined by an ANC with possibly three factions at war with each other, writes Natasha Marrian

President Cyril Ramaphosa rose to deliver his inaugural State of the Nation Address in the sixth administration on Thursday with a target on his back.

This is clear, given the constant tug-of-war he faces in making key decisions, such as who gets to be in the Cabinet, as the remnants of the faction aligned to former president Jacob Zuma battle to reclaim ground lost to them at the ANC’s Nasrec conference in 2017.

It was never going to be easy terrain to navigate — it’s muddy and toxic, with ANC veterans going as far as describing this pushback from the corruption and state capture grouping as a “counter-revolution”.

Veterans Wally Serote, Snuki Zikalala, Aziz Pahad, Thami Ntenteni and Fazel Randera penned a discussion document — the first in a series — in which they illustrate how the capture of the South African Revenue Service (Sars) by former commissioner Tom Moyane is an example of “counter-revolution”, where there are forces “conspiring to defeat the democratic revolution which emerged victorious in 1994”.

The constant threat of his “removal by the ANC’s national general council” has been muttered since Ramaphosa’s election at Nasrec. This is the one body in the party that could feasibly remove him between elective conferences.

The noise about this threat rises and falls, with the latest coming from the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal, as reported in The Sunday Times at the weekend. The rumblings coincide with the arrest of Ethekwini mayor Zandile Gumede and her subsequent removal from her post in the form of a leave of absence.

The general council threat coincides neatly with law enforcement agencies closing in on Zuma’s allies, and those implicated in state capture and corruption.

Then there is the constant pushback from ANC secretary general Ace Magashule against Ramaphosa’s reform agenda. This has taken the form of Magashule apparently trying to hijack party lists of MPs to Cabinet and the nomination of parliamentary portfolio committee chairs.

The result of this tug-of-war has forced Ramaphosa to compromise at every turn. But insiders say that, thus far, these compromises have not been fatal or even damaging to his agenda.

Magashule, too, has had to compromise.

While tainted individuals have made it as chairpersons of key committees, including Faith Muthambi, Mosebenzi Zwane, Supra Mahumapelo and Tina Joemat-Pettersson, the ANC caucus political committee — which drives the overall political direction of the caucus — is packed with Ramaphosa’s strongest lieutenants.

It is chaired by deputy president David Mabuza, who essentially broke away from the Zuma grouping when his province threw its weight behind a “unity” slate at Nasrec and bolstered Ramaphosa’s campaign against Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

To further complicate matters, Mabuza and ANC treasurer Paul Mashatile are being whispered about as a “third faction” in the ANC, but the pair have thus far been adept at keeping in line with Ramaphosa’s vision.

The tripartite alliance, too, has been tough terrain to navigate, with the call for the Reserve Bank to pursue “quantitative easing” at the last lekgotla coming from Ramaphosa’s key ally in the South African Communist Party, Solly Mapaila. This message was then twisted and used by Magashule, in a move that caused jitters in the market and the rand to tumble.

Another frontier Ramaphosa is having to navigate is the onslaught by public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, as she pushes ahead with her investigation into claims by the Democratic Alliance that he lied to Parliament about a donation from the disgraced services company Bosasa.

Ramaphosa’s opponents see this as an opportunity to weaken him, but Mkhwebane’s incompetence and alleged bias has been a stark feature of the court judgments against her. The ANC has already agreed to the establishment of a committee to look into her fitness to hold office — but will have to tread carefully to shrug off perceptions that Mkhwebane is being targeted because of her dogged probe into its president.

Friday marks Ramaphosa’s deadline to respond to Mkhwebane’s notice that he has been implicated in her investigation. The probe by Mkhwebane is being used as a rod to whip Ramaphosa by his opponents in the ANC, as well as opposition parties such as the DA and the Economic Freedom Fighters.

The question for South Africans is whether Ramaphosa, who is navigating these shark-infested waters, can deliver on the promises he makes in his third State of the Nation Address and drive the implementation that he has emphasised.

Here, it is worth looking at his accomplishments since taking his oath of office in February last year, and the promises contained in his first two State of the Nation speeches.

He promised to turn around key institutions such as Sars and the National Prosecuting Authority(NPA), which were delivered, and he has held key summits as he promised he would.

In his second address, he promised a special directorate in the NPA to deal with state capture and corruption. This has also been delivered.

His progress in the drive for investment has been slow but steady, but the state of the economy and the clear and present danger posed by Eskom to the national fiscus continue to pose the largest risks to his legacy.

It is in these two areas upon which he will be judged. He met Eskom last week and the chief executives of state-owned enterprises the week before. The real work begins with the implementation plans outlined in his State of the Nation address.

The ANC’s holding on to Gauteng and the elections victory, albeit with a slimmer margin, has also shored up his political muscle, with reforms taking shape in key provinces such as the Northern Cape, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng as provincial leaders embark on a charm offensive to win back voters long disillusioned by the ANC.

In the end, Ramaphosa has been tasked with rebuilding a country and its institutions against formidable political and economic odds.

It is going to be a long, hard slog. The key question he faces is how long will he continue to play the negotiator against his political opponents?

Eventually, doing so will culminate in paralysis — it is at this point that he will have to set his instincts for consensus and negotiation aside and make hard decisions, which could lead to the fraught political environment coming to a head.

It is clear that his address last night was not a victory speech, but the genesis of a journey for economic and political reform. It’s a journey that is lined with many potholes.

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Natasha Marrian
Natasha Marrian
Marrian has built a reputation as an astute political journalist, investigative reporter and commentator. Until recently she led the political team at Business Day where she also produced a widely read column that provided insight into the political spectacle of the week.

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