Is Cyril Ramaphosa winning or losing? This is the burning question of the day. And because it is generally a time of great anxiety and growing uncertainty, here and throughout the world, the fear that he might be losing is adding further angst to an already febrile atmosphere.
We need him to win. Ramaphosa, imperfect though he no doubt is, is the best bet available — a gifted political leader with the experience and agility that are the minimum requirements needed to succeed.
This is the rebuttable proposition that animates South Africa’s daily political fare and which provokes invective and concurrence, as well as apprehension, in equal measure, among the chattering classes.
The only opinion that should matter was recently issued by the electorate: a clear vote of confidence in Ramaphosa’s leadership — given that the election pivoted on the question of whether a splenetic ANC could be trusted with five more years of government despite the degradation of former president Jacob Zuma years.
Thus, the starting point for any assessment of Ramaphosa’s prospects is to note a certain political reality: that he is probably as powerful now as he has ever been and as powerful as he ever will be.
But, as Marx poignantly pointed out, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
Ramaphosa inherited the most awful bequeathal from his predecessor. Key state institutions broken by the ravages of state capture — including, it turns out, a rogue public protector; a fiscal crunch, with reckless, populist promises — such as free tertiary education for all and a deeply divided and ill-disciplined ruling party with a gangster secretary general.
This is the political economy of the Ramaphosa era: the biggest issue that the president and his administration face is the state of the economy. But, much of the political and institutional context is toxic, to put it mildly.
In the past year he has begun to rebuild state institutions — with remarkable speed and effect, whether it be the quartet of commissions of inquiry, the appointment of an independent national director of public prosecutions or a competent South African Revenue Service commissioner — a necessary though not sufficient platform for reform and revival.
Now, Ramaphosa has to turn the economy around. If he does, he will bring society with him, and his political woes and fiendish foes will fade into the background.
If he fails, however, his enemies will seize upon his failure and the political current against which he must swim will get stronger, prompting a downwards spiral.
This is all that really matters. Ramaphosa has to succeed in resuscitating the economy.
Everything else is detail, ornamental to the big picture and merely footnotes in the modern history of South Africa.
This anxiety about the president’s prospects of success may explain some of the expressions of disappointment at his State of the Nation address, much of which failed to appreciate that a “good” Sona should be an act of statecraft and strategic intent rather than a tedious checklist of “action plans”.
It is understandable that, as one friendly (to Ramaphosa) member of the investment bank community said to me afterwards, you have to have something to “hang your hat on”. And, for some people’s taste, there was not enough of a perch. It was deemed to be too vague or dreamy.
But, as ANC veteran MP Yunus Carrim pointed out in his majestic contribution to the parliamentary debate that followed, Sona was criticised for being “long on vision and low on details” but better that, he rightly argued, than the opposite.
Much of the criticism focused on the “dream passage” towards the end of the speech. As Carrim argued, the dream term was used to convey a much-needed sense of hope, which is especially important for the first Sona of a new administration at a time of national angst.
He is quite right. The details will come, in the various budget votes in the coming weeks, and in the medium term strategic framework, and then, added Carrim — less convincingly — “through our effective oversight of the executive”.
Regrettably, at that point we stumble once again over the detritus of the Zuma era. Some of the most malignant members of the state capture network not only wriggled their way back into Parliament but now find themselves appointed to chair parliamentary committees.
This is inexcusable. No “political management” imperative can provide justification: to ask a Mosebenzi Zwane or a Faith Muthambi or a Bongani Bongo to honour the constitutional obligation to hold the executive to account is akin to expecting a two-year-old to not wee on the carpet if you mindlessly remove their nappy.
These people have already pissed on the Constitution when they were in the executive. They should be no-where near any position of public office, let alone chairing a parliamentary committee.
It reflects extremely poorly on Ramaphosa because, as president of the ANC, he must take responsibility for everything that happens in its name.
And so it undermines confidence that the president is sufficiently in control and distracts from his attempt to set a new strategic course. And raises a serious doubt as to whether he can get the parliamentary caucus to do what they need to do in terms of their constitutional obligation to investigate and then remove public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane from office — essential if she is not to dog him for the next four years.
Nonetheless, Sona has certainly got people talking — not least the idea of new, smart cities. On one reading, it appeared a random thought, unconnected to a specific strategy. On another, more considered view, it suggests a new boldness and a new willingness to transform the economy with a fresh paradigmatic outlook — such as that proposed by Neil Coleman, the co-director of the Institute for Economic Justice, among others.
So it was good to hear Ramaphosa speak of the climate emergency early on his speech, signalling that he is aware of South Africa’s responsibilities as a good global citizen. But he failed to take the next logical step, which is, in short, that South Africa needs to get out of coal and fossil fuels generally — and fast — and to leverage this imperative to tilt public and private investment decisively towards renewable energy and thus a different development pathway.
Ramaphosa’s “new deal” needs to be a fully-fledged “green new deal”.
This is the policy debate that South Africa should be having, not fretting about whether ANC secretary general Ace Magashule was once again trying to deliberately derail Ramaphosa’s inward investment strategy by issuing a statement calling for what he called “quantity easing”.
How, for example, can one have a serious, reasoned debate about the extent to which monetary policy and inflation targeting would need to be eased to allow for the sort of stimulus and transition-bridging public investment that a fresh macroeconomic approach might require when the saboteurs are deliberately muddying the water with feckless talk of messing with the mandate of the South African Reserve Bank, as well as pointless “nationalisation”?
In Thabo Mbeki’s time, only three people were allowed to speak publicly about such matters: the president, the minister of finance and the governor of the Reserve Bank. Now, economic policy is a plaything in the factional warfare in the ANC, making Ramaphosa’s mission impossible even harder.
So already there are some insiders who in the words of one, fear that Ramaphosa may already have “lost the moment”. A tad too soon for such a conclusion. But he dare not dally. For he is winning, but only just; and in his own way — putting in the pieces of the jigsaw one at a time, trusting in process rather than outright confrontation.
In this respect, Frene Ginwala and Kgalema Motlanthe may just be about to embark on their most important task of all their years of noble, long service to the ANC: investigating their beloved party’s secretary general.
Ramaphosa can rely on them to do what needs to be done. The tactics being displayed by Ramaphosa’s enemies suggest that they, too, are anxious, if not desperate. It suggests that they are losing and that they know it.
But the road is bendy and with many a pothole along the way. Surviving the fightback may only be possible if Ramaphosa succeeds on the even tougher battlefield of turning the economy around.
On both fronts, he must take the sort of risks he generally prefers to avoid. It may not be possible to build a consensus about what to do. Ramaphosa may have to risk defeat in three years’ time (at the next ANC national elective conference), so as to give his country three good years now rather than survive longer and consign us all to five or more mediocre years of continuing decline.
Like flies around a summer’s braai, the Magashules and Mkhwebanes will be swatted away, one by one. But they are nothing compared with the mountain Ramaphosa must climb on the economy.
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and partner in the political risk consultancy, The Paternoster Group