/ 9 August 2023

Ramaphosa: Dodging the bullets of Phala Phala and Putin

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Russian President Vladimir Putin greets South African President Cyril Ramaphosa during their bilateral meeting on July 29, 2023, in Saint Petersburg, Russia. File photo/Getty

President Cyril Ramaphosa has been navigating turbulent waters for the past year but always seems to come through in the clear. Lately, he has dodged past the rugged rocks of Phala Phala and narrowly missed the cataclysmic vortex of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. 

A look at the words associated with Ramaphosa’s name in July’s news shows how he has managed to steer his way through with artful diplomacy. This has given him an opportunity to show some leadership in the country and on the global stage.

“Cleared” is the word most closely associated with Ramaphosa (after “Cyril”) in my online database of top daily news articles in July from IOL, News24 and TimesLive. This word aptly describes his escape from trouble in both the Phala Phala and Putin struggles. In the news, it is used primarily about acting public protector Kholeka Gcaleka’s report on Phala Phala, released on 30 June, which declared him off the hook for wrongdoing related to that scandal. “Phala Phala” is also closely associated with Ramaphosa’s name in the news.

As expected, the acting public protector’s report was rubbished by opposition parties but also drew flak from rebel ANC national executive committee member Andile Lungisa, who said that even his eight-year-old son “won’t approve it”

Julius Malema had much harsher words for Ramaphosa in his speech at the EFF tenth anniversary celebration, saying, “When we take over next year, we are arresting Ramaphosa. He is going to jail. He stole money in SA. He hasn’t been arrested. Ramaphosa is not above the law. Ramaphosa must go to jail.” 

This comment made “jail” a strong association with Ramaphosa in July’s news. These words make it seem that the EFF is not quite cosying up to the ANC as a potential coalition partner just yet.

As a digression, it’s interesting that Malema wants Ramaphosa to go to jail but not Putin or Jacob Zuma. He is making clear where his loyalties lie.

So, Ramaphosa has cleared the rocks of Phala Phala — for now. Still, the acting public protector’s report is widely viewed as a whitewash and the African Transformation Movement has set the wheels in motion for a legal review of it. This means there will continue to be question marks over his integrity relating to this scandal for some time.

Ramaphosa’s escape from the Putin vortex has been much more nail-biting, leaving South Africans on tenterhooks for the past few months. No fewer than five of the 12 words showing the strongest association with Ramaphosa in July’s news revolve around his diplomatic dance with the Russian strongman. 

Top of these is “affidavit”, referring to an initially confidential statement Ramaphosa made to the Gauteng high court. He said that arresting Putin when he arrived in South Africa for the Brics summit would be tantamount to declaring war against Russia

“Arresting” is another close association with Ramaphosa because of this impasse. The court has since ruled that the affidavit should be made public. Ramaphosa apparently believed a threat by former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev that the country would use its “assets [and] all our missiles” against any country that arrested Putin. This has been taken as a threat of nuclear war. 

Putin’s name had a close association with Ramaphosa’s in the news, thanks to the diplomacy between the two that has unfolded over the past month. It would have been fascinating to listen in on their phone call on Saturday 15 July, just after which it was announced that Putin was no longer coming to the Brics summit by “mutual agreement”.

Less than two weeks after all this happened, Ramaphosa was in St Petersburg for the Russia-Africa summit and was singing Russia’s praises, saying, “As South Africa, we remember with deep gratitude how the support of the people and the government of the then-Soviet Union sustained our struggle for liberation. Today our bilateral relationship remains strong.” “Russian” and “Russia” were close associations with Ramaphosa’s name in July’s news.

And so Ramaphosa has diplomatically avoided both the threat of war with Russia, however real that threat ever was, and the ire of the International Criminal Court, and possible isolation from the West for failing to arrest Putin, should he have stepped on our shores. He was even able to concede to the Democratic Alliance that the government would arrest Putin if he ever dared to come here

Another gigantic threat was dodged. But, again, where does this leave the president’s integrity? Ramaphosa has an opportunity afforded by the Brics summit and South Africa’s role in this bloc to increase the pressure on Russia to show respect for human rights and end the war on Ukraine. How will he use it?

Ramaphosa is also amassing political capital in the ANC, giving him more freedom to guide the party to the stances he chooses. Two events from the past month in which the word “support” was associated with Ramaphosa’s name illustrate this. 

First, ANC secretary general Fikile Mbalula publicly supported Ramaphosa in a disagreement with Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe over green energy. In June, Mantashe refused Ramaphosa’s instruction to sign a memorandum of understanding for a $1 billion agreement funded by the Netherlands and Denmark to help us transition to green hydrogen energy

In response, Mbalula said he and Luthuli House, the ANC’s administrative centre, would back any steps Ramaphosa opted to take against Mantashe, saying, “If a minister does not comply, does not do what is expected, the president must act. He has all our support.” This statement also made “Luthuli House” one of the strongest associations with Ramaphosa’s name in July.

Second, the ANC Women’s League elected a Ramaphosa supporter, Sisisi Tolashe, to replace Bathabile Dlamini, one of the last holdouts of the radical economic transformation faction, as their president. As TimesLive put it even before the election, “So far, the faction has been getting bloody noses from those who support Ramaphosa.

All this support, on the back of his wins in the December ANC elective conference and being cleared by the acting public protector, means that Ramaphosa is arguably in the strongest position since his presidency began. 

As Paul Hoffman has argued, this could enable him to push through much-needed reforms in the ANC and take a bolder stance in his diplomacy with Russia. Our president has the opportunity to recover some integrity. The question is, will he take it?

Ian Siebörger is a senior lecturer in the department of linguistics and applied language studies in the faculty of humanities at Rhodes University. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.