What should be made of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s remarkable “Dear Comrade” letter? Can it be, as the letter’s heading suggested, a “turning point”?
It is tempting, as well as easy, to dismiss it as hollow words. Too little, too late. Cynicism is as justified as it is understandable.
Nonetheless, there are a number of extraordinary, noteworthy aspects to last Sunday’s missive. First of all, it was undeniably candid: “We must acknowledge that our movement, the African National Congress, has been and remains deeply implicated in South Africa’s corruption problem …The ANC may not stand alone in the dock, but it does stand as Accused No 1. This is the stark reality that we must now confront.”
Not since Kgalema Motlanthe got up at the ANC’s 2002 national conference in Stellenbosch and in his secretary general’s report calmly dissected its deep organisational weaknesses has there been such an authentic public acknowledgement of ANC failings.
A great deal of water has flowed under the bridge since then. In 2002 the ANC was in the throes of a clunky transition from liberation movement to modern political party. It never made it to its destination.
In the intervening years it has become something else that defies easy definition, but whose organisational culture is now defined largely by what might euphemistically be called the “transactional”.
It got captured along the way by an assorted collection of rogues, leeches and full-on gangsters — more than one of whom turned their provinces into personal fiefdoms in which no major business transaction takes place without first passing through the backroom of some shady café on the edge of the town, where the respective premiers would preside over the division of the spoils, while simultaneously gerrymandering the ANC’s internal electoral college so as to buy themselves king-making power in party elections — a game-changing power grab in which the four original “premier league” provinces had by 2017 acquired 53% of the delegates to the ANC’s five-year national elective conference.
So now, the ANC is not the place you come to pursue a career in public service or to persuade others of the righteousness of your ideological calling and to win power to execute policy, but the place you come to make money, and to win power to make even more money.
Crispian Olver described it in valuably granular detail in his superb book, How To Steal a City: The Battle for Nelson Mandela Bay — an especially poignant as well as apt example, since it is now the “New Dawn” (that is, the Ramaphosa-aligned) brigade who are in the ascendancy in the Eastern Cape, apparently no less prone to graft than the Zuma-aligned faction that preceded them.
In other words, the ANC’s corruption problem is not factional, it is endemic and chronic.
Ramaphosa may now have reached a similar conclusion. Deeply implicated, as Ramaphosa wrote on Sunday, the ANC is beyond redemption.
Thinking and acting, as Ramaphosa has been until now, on the basis that it is possible to reunite the ANC and make the right choices for the country in government, was an exercise in self-delusion.
Perhaps this penny has now dropped. Because the second aspect of Ramaphosa’s letter that is most interesting from a leadership perspective is that for once he really went out on a limb.
It was immediately clear from ANC spokesperson Mabe Pule’s incoherent reaction soon afterwards that Pule knew nothing of the letter; it had not gone through ANC’s top six or national working committee.
No consensus-building process; no compromises; and no mealy-mouthed hedging of political bets. A strong, clear and defiant message — to his party, and to the country.
The leadership culture of the ANC is always a self-consciously “collective” decision-making one. But Ramaphosa wields significant power as ANC president — it is just that he has thus far either not been willing to use it or has underestimated it, cowed, perhaps, by the fundamentally ambiguous nature of the electoral outcome of the ANC’s national elective conference in December 2017 — that delivered Ramaphosa, his deputy DD Mabuza and secretary general Ace Magashule on the same day.
A deathmatch between Cyril and Ace is now necessary as well as inevitable. They can’t both survive. One must fail and fall. If Ace is still secretary general this time next year then it will mean that Cyril’s days are numbered.
If Cyril is to survive and make it through to a second term, Ace must fall and fall soon.
Meanwhile, Mabuza sits quietly in the wings, waiting, waiting, waiting, as always, for his moment. Clearly, he imagines himself as the last man standing — like Octavius in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. But this tragedy is not the ANC’s: the fact that the ruling party is so “captured” and contaminated is the nation’s burden.
The political failure is that no opposition party has yet been able to exploit this, prompting a sense of impunity in the ANC. Hence, Ramaphosa and the committed reformists in his cabinet have to rely on the pressure that can be applied through the media, the courts and progressive civil society activism — such as the group of six organisations that met the ANC top six through Zoom on Monday to discuss their own August 7 public statement demanding action following the devastating revelations about Covid-19 tender corruption.
Drawing from its old-school co-option playbook, the alliance of six organisations convened by the South African Council of Churches but including the Ahmed Kathrada, Desmond Tutu and Mandela Foundations as well as the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac) and the Foundation for Human Rights, was duly summoned by Magashule to “engage” with Luthuli House on Monday 17 August.
What the six organisations want is action by the government. The implication of Ramaphosa’s Sunday’s letter is that the president is now prepared to do everything within his power in government to destroy corruption, regardless of the attitude of the ANC.
So this weekend’s national executive committee (NEC) meeting will be a classic — potentially, a real showdown.
A turning point? Don’t hold your breath. But certainly an important moment in Ramaphosa’s presidency and a test of his power.
Clearly, Magashule’s strategy is to try to show that nearly everyone in the ANC is implicated one way or another — how else to explain his move to press hard now for compliance with the last NEC’s decision at the beginning of the month that an audited list of ANC members facing corruption and other serious criminal charges be prepared?
He must be banking on persuading the NEC that to move strongly on corruption would take the whole ANC down — an argument that prevailed at the time of the arms deal at the end of the 1990s. The difference now is that the looting of public coffers is benefiting individuals in the ANC, not the party.
Ramaphosa realises that a failure to act will also bring the ANC down, such is the level of anger in society prompted by the Covid procurement looting.
But his opponents have a scorched earth approach, which makes them more dangerous, because they have so little to lose (other than their control over public procurement).
The last NEC also noted that “…those accused of corruption and other serious crimes against the people, including those charged in courts, may be expected to step aside from their positions or responsibilities …”
Clearly, this is being observed in the breach — as Zandile Gumede’s sly swearing in as an MPL in the KwaZulu-Natal legislature last week illustrated. Gumede was arrested for infrastructure fraud more than a year ago and removed as eThekwini mayor.
And when Casac asked the speaker of the KwaZulu-Natal legislature for the formal correspondence related to the process leading to Gumede’s swearing in, the answer was: you must use the formal information request process of the Promotion of Access to Information Act — an outrageous subversion of the purpose of the law and the principle of transparency.
The biggest danger for Ramaphosa is that too many in the NEC make this political calculation: that their own careers would be best protected by continuing to push the dirt under the carpet than by letting it blow out under the door into the street.
In which case, Ramaphosa’s Dear Comrades letter may prove to be one of the longer suicide notes in political history.
Regardless, what Sunday’s letter marked was the moment when Ramaphosa recognised that it is better to fail having taken a stand, than fail and be accused of weakness and vacillation in the face of grand larceny.
Richard Calland is associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of The Paternoster Group, which provides political risk analysis to clients doing business in Africa