/ 4 March 2021

Will Cyril Ramaphosa have one or two terms?

Graphic Tl Calland Cyrilterm Twitter (1)
(John McCann/M&G)

Will Cyril Ramaphosa be a one- or two-term president? That is the red-hot political question that will hang over the next 22 months. In December 2022, at the ANC’s next five-yearly national elective conference, Ramaphosa’s fate will be sealed and the question answered definitively, with huge consequences.

Either he will be re-elected as president of the ANC or he will be opposed and lose. If it is the latter, then his time will soon be up as president of South Africa, perhaps even before the end of his current term, if his successor is in a rush and of a vengeful mood.

Starting with the State of the Nation address (Sona) early last month, there are several milestones that will mark the journey towards Ramaphosa’s — and South Africa’s — next date with destiny.

This is not hyperbole. For progressive democrats, Ramaphosa’s survival is essential, not because he is the perfect leader, but because there is not one single plausible scenario in which he is replaced by anyone better suited to lead South Africa from its interlocking economic, fiscal, governance and social crisis.

His is a steady hand on the tiller in the most turbulent of waters — arguably too steady, in that this epoch cries out for a strategic giant, capable of transcending the hurly-burly of partisan political life to offer a unifying and compelling vision for a very different post-pandemic future.

That is not Ramaphosa. And it can be argued in the other direction: that this is no time for flashy expansiveness, but rather for careful, shrewd management of a crisis situation. 

Moreover, it is not as if he faces any major challenge to his hold on power — at least not from any other party, such is the parlous state of the opposition. No, the threat to his rule comes from within the ANC.  

Sona was underwhelming. Deliberately so, according to Minister for Trade and Industry Ebrahim Patel’s speech in the debate that followed, in that, according to Patel, the strategic vision was set out in the economic recovery plan announced last spring.

Instead, Sona was all about the nuts and bolts of the implementation of that plan. Patel’s argument is well made, as was his vigorous defence of the solid progress that is being made with his industrial sector development strategies.  

Forgive me for being old school, but it should be for the lieutenants and sergeant majors to deal with the nuts and bolts, not the general. Ramaphosa’s own reply at the end of the Sona debate was a much better piece of statecraft and speech-writing, but too little too late. It could not paper over the failure of his presidency to get big things done this past year — such as the energy sector reform package, held up by a disobedient minister for energy.

The next milestone, the budget speech, contained at least two major hostages to political fortune. For the first time since the admirably effective establishment of a welfare state in the 1990s, the social wage will not keep up with inflation.

The social security grants that have cushioned poverty, mitigated social disintegration, and served as a bulwark to the ANC’s electoral success over five national elections since, will have diminished purchasing power.

The negative effect of this may not have been fully absorbed by indigent voters by the time of the municipal elections later this year, nor will it make much difference to the balance of power in the ANC, given that Ramaphosa’s enemies in the “radical economic transformation” (RET) brigade care little for the needs of the poor. But by 2024 it could well have loosened the loyalty of much of the ANC’s base, perhaps providing the Economic Freedom Fighters with one last shot at serious electoral advance.

Second, the fiscal consolidation required to reduce mounting debt, which Finance Minister Tito Mboweni pursues with such thick-skinned resolve, still depends almost entirely on delivering on the massive reduction in the public sector wage bill first announced in his February 2020 budget speech.

This is also politically awkward — but potentially in a much shorter time frame. As the public sector unions justifiably argue, it is not that the state needs fewer employees — in fact, there is a need for more police officers and nurses — but that it needs a cull of highly paid, but unproductive, middle managers.

These people, however, are often the very same people who run ANC branches, decide on branch delegations to conference and who then constitute those delegations. About 70% of voting delegates at ANC elective conferences work for the public service. Hurting their interests at a time when Ramaphosa needs to retain their support is risky.  

The political aftershocks of an austerity budget could yet reverberate around the halls of the ANC’s national general council (NGC) in mid-year, assuming that the pandemic relents sufficiently to allow such a gathering

If by then Ace Magashule is still secretary general of the ANC, then the risk calculus in relation to Ramaphosa’s longevity in office should be adjusted, such is the power that the secretary general holds over the internal machinations of the organisation, especially branch numbers and, therefore, the size of their delegations.

The extent to which the criminal justice system is able to do Ramaphosa’s dirty work for him, given the ineptitude of the ANC and its cack-handed inability to enforce its own “step aside” resolution, could be decisive to his future. This itself is a risk, as the acquittal of ANC MP, Bongani Bongo — a fully paid-up member of the RET brigade — shows.

In 2016, the ANC suffered its first significant electoral bloody nose, losing its majority in three former strongholds — Tshwane, Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay. This was the moment the ANC recognised that Zuma had gone from being an electoral asset to a liability; it was another milestone in his own demise.

It’s possible that something similar could happen to Ramaphosa, but unlikely. The opposition parties have made an absolute pig’s ear of building sustainable coalitions in all three metros, and so may well have missed an extraordinary opportunity to make their case for government.

If anything, voters are more likely to return to the capacious political bosom of the ANC. Even if they don’t and instead stay away, the evidence of multiple by-elections late last year suggests that the opposition are unlikely to benefit greatly from ANC weakness and division.

Neither have they presented irresistible visions for a brave new world. On the contrary, the Democratic Alliance’s John Steenhuisen and the EFF’s Julius Malema whine and whinge with equally shrill impotence in a dismal race to the bottom.

Which is why a frequent refrain among progressive democrats is that, although it is now well understood that the ANC is broken and far beyond redemptive repair, South Africa still needs the reasonable, sane part of the ANC to prevail; to ensure that, as Thabo Mbeki was so fond of saying, “the centre holds”.

This takes us back to Ramaphosa and his prospects for a second term. The low-road scenario to political hell has been described with such apocalyptic zeal by the pyretic scribes of certain online journals; let me end with a rather less exciting alternative scenario.

The Ramaphosa administration continues to fudge the big policy decisions and so the structural economic constraints remain. 

Despite this, there is steady implementation of the recovery plan as a better-than-expected vaccine roll-out eases the misery of the pandemic, a politically workable, if fiscally precarious, deal with the public sector unions is reached. Internal ANC opposition to an International Monetary Fund loan is overcome. The economy avoids a sovereign debt crisis and a subsequent tailspin.

The Zondo commission wraps up its work with surprising alacrity and a powerful report lands, with precise findings and recommendations that push the RET brigade further on to the back foot. The pace of state capture arrests picks up again, removing key opponents of Ramaphosa and his reform programme, and their money men, from the battlefield.

The NGC passes without much excitement, as Ramaphosa has done just enough on a sufficient number of Nasrec policy resolutions to avoid undue discomfort.

The municipal elections pass off quietly, and with no significant damage to the ANC, which is returned to power in at least one of the metros it lost in 2016. Magashule is forced out, and a more congenial secretary general defends the integrity of ANC branches and minimises the risk of RET manipulated gerrymandering.

Ramaphosa wins again.

Don’t forget, Deputy President David Mabuza stands quietly in the wings, ready to pounce, as eager to prevent Magashule prospering as Ramaphosa. Only if Ramaphosa looks weakened and wounded, and the RET brigade is gaining momentum, will he step in to protect his inheritance. But that part of the story is best saved for another day.