/ 18 April 2024

Ramaphosa puts on his boxing gloves

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President Cyril Ramaphosa. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Cyril Ramaphosa seems to have a new lease of life. In just over a month the ANC, which he leads, might well fail to secure a majority for the first time since 1994. But Ramaphosa looks up for the fight. 

Either that or he is demob happy, gleefully looking forward to hanging up his political boots as soon as the campaign is done and dusted and retiring to his beloved buffalo farm. 

Or to gaze wistfully over the Atlantic from the vantage point of his Fresnaye terrace, contemplating a political career that has accomplished so much and yet will still feel somewhat unrequited — a job not quite fully done. 

Whether he truly has the hunger that is necessary to continue to head a government, at a complex and challenging time, was very much in question at this point a year ago. 

Despite having emerged largely intact from the Phala Phala scandal that his enemies manufactured to try to bring him down ahead of the ANC’s national elections conference in December 2022, Ramaphosa was listless and some of his staff, sensing that the end was in sight, started to abandon ship or sharpen their CVs ahead of a post-Ramaphosa presidency chapter in their respective professional careers. 

Rumours of Ramaphosa’s impending resignation never quite went away post-Phala Phala. In recent weeks a new version has emerged that would have us believe that he will retire on 30 May,or as soon as possible after voting has been completed. 

I don’t buy it. It wouldn’t be the first time in political history, that a head of state has been galvanised by foreign policy and the high-octane allure of international politics. 

First, as summer moved into autumn last year, the bizarre episode with the Lady R. The dramatic still-unproved allegations by the American ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety irked Ramaphosa and put wind into his sails.

Second, the Brics summit in mid-year. Ramaphosa presided over an historic expansion of the grouping, signalling a substantive move in geo-political relations and a further step in the fundamental shift in power from Global North to Global South. 

Then came 7/10 and Gaza. Support for the Palestinians lies deep in the ANC’s DNA and here was a chance to not only take action on the world stage but to rekindle the ANC’s internationalist normative core. 

South Africa’s application to the International Court of Justice brought Ramaphosa a sense of moral clarity that is so often absent from the muddy and murky terrain of domestic politics. 

As I say, this has happened before. Tony Blair is a good example. He came to power in the UK in 1997 with an inward focus on domestic policy and reform of the Labour Party. By his own admission, Blair had little interest in or knowledge of foreign affairs. 

But, within a year or two, the conflict in Kosovo provided him with not only a steep learning curve but an opportunity to take the sort of cut-and-dried action that is usually impossible when, say, seeking to navigate a new path through education or housing policy. 

Compared with walking through domestic policy treacle, international affairs can be thrilling and liberating. You get to chair high-level security council meetings, with generals and screens showing real-time military action that you have ordered. You get to bomb things and make big decisions. 

John Kampfner’s excellent book Blair’s Wars recounts this transformation in his political interests and character. 

Ramaphosa has not yet bombed anywhere. But he does enjoy rubbing shoulders with other world leaders, whether Brics or the G20, which South Africa will host next year. 

This might be a mirage. The more important question is whether it will make any difference to the ANC’s fortunes in next month’s election. As ever, the ANC is leaving it late — their campaign has yet to gather momentum or zest — but that is normal. It only tends to get moving in the last three weeks before a poll. 

Hence, rumours of the ANC’s demise — like its leader’s — might be greatly exaggerated. A clutch of opinion polls have got a lot of people very excited by the idea that the ANC might fall closer to 40% or even go below it. 

I don’t buy them either.

Methodological impurity is one problem; a long-standing tendency of such polls to serially under-estimate ANC support is another. Some contain deliberate bias in their set-up, presumably to trigger certain reactions in the political game. 

The investor world is, consequently, all a-flutter. They are not used to such uncertainty in the country’s electoral landscape. They, like corporate South Africa, are trying desperately to figure out what is the best possible outcome — or the least bad one. 

Many yearn for a “grand coalition” between the ANC and the Democratic Alliance (DA), which would offer the greatest stability, with the “adults in the room” in charge of government, and the miscreants and militants pushed away from power.  

Which is why donors on both sides, and especially the DA’s, are insisting that this option be kept on the table. The fear is that if the ANC vote collapses below 45% then it might be pushed into the dark, low-road scenario of an alliance with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) — a fear that is fertilised by recent events in city halls such as Ekurhuleni, where the ANC and EFF have ganged up to bring in an ANC mayor, much to the disgruntlement of the DA. 

The point is that to get this high-road scenario of a grand ANC-DA coalition you have to flirt with an ANC-EFF deal,  a starkly different scenario. 

Think of it like this: if the ANC goes below 45%, it will be like a car entering a roundabout. The first exit is marked “EFF”, the second “DA”. Which will it take? 

Answering this question will be traumatic for the ANC, which will be in deep shock. Deputy President Paul Mashatile and his chums will be pushing Ramaphosa out of the door, while Ramaphosa’s inner circle will, not for the first time, be trying to pull him back in, pleading with him for “one more country duty”. 

They, and a majority of the ANC’s top seven, will want Ramaphosa, not the inexperienced and untested Mashatile, to lead the ANC’s negotiations. 

Sorting this out, in a fevered atmosphere, and an intense struggle for power in which the fragmented “radical economic transformation” faction will be quickly re-grouping, sensing a chance to reclaim a lost foothold, will take a few weeks. The country will be on a knife edge; the uncertainty will require calm heads — on all sides. 

But it is unlikely to come to this. My base case remains unmoved — the ANC will get between 45% and 49%. Far more comfortable coalition options will be available and Ramaphosa will probably remain in office. Not a great deal will change in government. 

The unwelcome arrival of the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party on the scene has complicated matters, admittedly. But again, not to the extent that some polls and some commentators are suggesting. 

Jacob Zuma, as incorrigible and indefatigably malign and menacing a presence as ever, has loyal supporters but many of those attending his Trumpian rallies are probably not registered to vote. 

However, if the MK party was to get 15% in KwaZulu-Natal, it would not only further complicate an already complicated province, with votes taken from ANC, the Inkatha Freedom Party and the EFF, and with no majority, but could have a bearing on the national outcome because it would translate into 2% to 3%, the difference, say, between the ANC winning 48% and 45%. 

Zuma is a spanner in the works. Not a big spanner, but a spanner nonetheless. The ANC will have to keep an eye on him and adjust its campaign accordingly. 

Regardless of his plans, the ANC will need Ramaphosa to put his back into the final weeks of the campaign if he is to convince voters that he remains the measured hand on the tiller that South Africa needs if it is to navigate choppy socio-economic seas — or, put another way, the least bad option available, as many people who have gone through the “roundabout” exercise have also concluded. 

Richard Calland is a visiting adjunct professor at the Wits School of Governance, an emeritus associate professor at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.