/ 27 April 2023

Checked out Cyril and the art of the about-turn

During a media briefing last week, Mbalula warned Ramaphosa to lead more effectively or the ruling party would “deal with him”. He said Ramaphosa could not allow anarchy in his cabinet — a suggestion that the ANC is growing tired of the president’s inaction.
During a media briefing last week, ANC secretary general Fikile Mbalula warned President Ramaphosa to lead more effectively or the ruling party would “deal with him”.

In a public relations nightmare, the ANC and the office of the presidency went into damage control mode this week after President Cyril Ramaphosa and governing party secretary general Fikile Mbalula misled the country by stating that South Africa would withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC)

Sources inside the ANC say Justice Minister Ronald Lamola was one of the first party leaders to sound the alarm after Ramaphosa created a diplomatic tremor at a joint press briefing during a state visit by Finland’s president, Sauli Väinämö Niinistö, at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, on Tuesday. 

While addressing the media, Ramaphosa was asked whether the country would withdraw from the Rome Statute — the treaty that established the International Criminal Court. He responded the governing party had decided it was “prudent” that South Africa should pull out of the ICC largely because of the manner in which the ICC “has been seen to be dealing with these types of problems”. 

Ramaphosa was referring to the recent warrant of arrest issued by the ICC against Russian president — and South African ally — Vladimir Putin

While withdrawing from the ICC formed part of discussions at the ANC’s recent national executive committee (NEC) meeting, the party had decided against it, resolving that the government should explore its options, a party insider said. 

This led to the two offices — the presidency and the ANC’s secretary general’s office — having back-to-back meetings to devise a media strategy to counter Ramaphosa’s statement when the story hit local and international media.   

Backtracking from a statement by Mbalula, the ANC said the withdrawal was raised as a last resort that would “arise if the options outlined above do not yield the desired results of fairness and consistency in the administration of international law”.

“In outlining this broad context of discussion, an unintended impression may have been created that a categorical decision for an immediate withdrawal had been taken. This is not so. We reiterate that the resolution of the conference remains our policy position until such a point where its implementation does not yield the required result.” 

This was in contrast to Mbalula’s earlier statement that South Africa would not remain a scapegoat for big powers by carrying the responsibility of detaining prominent leaders.

“At the press conference, the secretary general provided a reflection on the NEC discussion to the extent that a withdrawal from the ICC was also raised,” the party said. 

South Africa’s stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created tension with some in the West. Toying with a withdrawal from the Rome Statute places it at an even further distance from its Western trade allies. 

Ramaphosa’s gaffe appears to be another indication that the head of state is quietly quitting.  

The order and the rogues

Last week, Ramaphosa accepted the reversal of three nominees for the Order of Ikhamanga — those of adventure sportsperson Mike Horn, playwright Duma ka Ndlovu and veteran broadcaster Freek Robinson — after objections from the ANC Veterans League, among others.

The three were among 25 people whose nominations by the National Orders Advisory Council were withdrawn due to controversy.

Horn, a mountaineer, was a member of the apartheid-era military’s notorious 101 Battalion, which was involved in a number of massacres during Namibia’s war of independence.

Earlier this year he made headlines internationally with his unrepentant attitude about his role in apartheid atrocities in the neighbouring state, whose president, Hage Geingob, paid a state visit to South Africa last week.

A source close to the process said while the faux pas around Horn was not discussed in the main meeting in which a full ministerial contingent was present, “the two [Ramaphosa and Geingob] may have discussed it in their private meeting”.

“Nothing was said in the bilateral meeting of the two delegations.”

The ANC veterans opposed the award to Ka Ndlovu, who was implicated in state capture in testimony before the Zondo commission, saying he could not receive it until he had been cleared.

It is understood Robinson’s nomination was withdrawn as the result of a “silent campaign” over his treatment of women at SABC, in addition to his role in defending the apartheid state in his television work.

State of disaster

Electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa recently made a presentation to the NEC which showed Ramaphosa had no legal right to instruct the government to issue a national state of disaster. The government withdrew the decision this month after it was taken to court. 

In his presentation, which the Mail & Guardian has seen, Ramokgopa said as the legal team prepared to defend the state of disaster in court, they asked for information on what had been taken into account to establish that existing legation was insufficient to meet the challenge of load-shedding, and specifically, its impact on the people and the economy. 

Ramokgopa said internal emails and documents made it clear the classification was made without assessing whether existing legislation was sufficient. 

“In terms of the court rules, these documents would have to be shared with the other side. The moment this happened, the government would not only have no basis for defending the state of disaster but it was feared a court may make a decision that ties hands in the long term for any classification of the electricity crisis as such,” he said.

“To make matters worse, after the state of disaster was declared, all measures taken, save for one, were taken in terms of existing legislation and not the disaster regulations,” the presentation stated. 

The M&G understands Ramaphosa made the decision to issue a state of disaster without legal advice, having been advised against it. He is said to have felt pressure to declare the state of disaster after the NEC lekgotla. 

The previous state of disaster, during the pandemic, resulted in millions lost due to corruption. Several ANC leaders were caught with their hands in the cookie jar, resulting in former health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize and Ramaphosa’s spokesperson Khusela Diko losing their jobs.

G7 – or not

Ramaphosa’s blunders extended to the summit of G7 countries, which together account for more than half of global economic output, when Japan chose to snub South Africa, taking Pretoria by surprise.

The presidency had already issued invitations to journalists to join Ramaphosa on the tour when it discovered that Japan had issued an invitation to African Union chair Azali Assoumani to represent Africa.

Ramaphosa and South Africa have frequently represented Africa’s interest at the summit. 

SABC board foot dragging

Ramaphosa has allowed the SABC to go without clear direction by refusing to sign off on its new board. After a six-month delay, he finally did it last week. The SABC has been on the brink of collapse, struggling financially and organisationally for years, and reliant on government bailouts. 

Last year, BusinessDay reported the public broadcaster had reported a net loss of R201 million for the 2021‑22 financial year, down from R530 million the previous year. It expects to break even in the 2022‑23 financial year but auditor general Tsakani Maluleke is uncertain it can continue as a going concern. 

Eskom U-turn

Another blunder by the Ramaphosa administration saw Enoch Godongwana withdrawing the controversial gazette granting Eskom a partial exemption from the Public Finance Management Act.

Under it, Eskom would not have to disclose irregular, wasteful and fruitless expenditure in its annual financial statements — although the utility would still have to do so in its annual report.

The gazette has been withdrawn, pending detailed consultations with the auditor general, as well as Eskom’s auditors, Godongwana said.

Sputla and the reshuffle

The president announced the creation of a new minister during his State of the Nation address in February — to the surprise of his allies. 

Having received a clear majority at the ANC’s elective conference in December, Ramaphosa was expected by his supporters in the ANC to stamp his authority on the party and government. However, it took him almost two months to reshuffle his cabinet and install a new deputy president to take David Mabuza’s place.  

His indecisiveness has resulted in friction with Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, who is also the ANC chair. Ramaphosa has been delaying giving powers to Ramokgopa to address the electricity crisis. Enterprise Minister Pravin Gordhan and Mantashe are said to be resisting the transfer of powers from their departments. The two have been Ramaphosa’s most powerful allies. 

During a media briefing last week, Mbalula warned Ramaphosa to lead more effectively or the ruling party would “deal with him”. He said Ramaphosa could not allow anarchy in his cabinet — a suggestion that the ANC is growing tired of  the president’s inaction. 

One insider, historically a Ramaphosa ally, said the ANC must explore its options on who would take over, should Ramaphosa fail to execute his duties. Some in Ramaphosa’s camp were aware the president was “losing steam” as party leader. “We are not there yet. There is still a view that we need the president for elections, however, there is this realisation from some of us that we need to start planning for a succession.”  

Eskom tariffs

In January, Ramaphosa assured the nation he had instructed Eskom to suspend the tariff increase approved by the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa) until the load-shedding issue has been resolved.

Nersa granted Eskom an 18.65% hike to help it cover its debt.

Despite this, Nersa announced in March the increase would go ahead. 

Ministerial handbook

In October, a public outcry over amendments to the ministerial handbook signed off by the president forced him to scrap a plan to provide members of his cabinet with unlimited free water and electricity.

The amendment boosted perks for ministers and their deputies by lifting the R5 000 a month ceiling on water and electricity they received free at their official residences. 

It meant that the department of public works would foot their power and water bills in their entirety, along with providing them with free ministerial residences.

At the time, Ramaphosa’s spokesperson said the presidency “acknowledges and appreciates the public sentiments on the matter”. 

“However, the impression created that the amendments were conducted in secrecy, and to avoid public scrutiny, is false.”