Skip to main content

Cyril Ramaphosa’s Leadership: Many Challenges, ‘No Easy Ride’

The election of Cyril Ramaphosa as ANC president marked a significant, albeit indecisive break with the Jacob Zuma era. He narrowly defeated Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and found himself in a divided leadership, with those who were or remain loyal to Zuma

Cyril Ramaphosa, credit: Daily Maverick (South Africa)

The narrow margin that saw Cyril Ramaphosa elected ANC president, surrounded by many who were hostile to his candidature, meant his leadership was never going to be easy. The divisions and battles fought in the courts and through more violent means make it seem that the ANC may find it hard to pull together in the 2019 elections.

While Ramaphosa managed to attain the state presidency fairly speedily and also, to effect some significant changes through state power, he has continued to face high levels of discord at the provincial and local levels of the ANC and in some provincial and local governments, like the North-West province, until the removal of Supra Mahumaphelo.  There are potential problems in the Free State with election of an ANC leadership that represents no rupture with the Ace Magashule era.  KZN remains in a state of political conflict with continued divisions and assassinations.  Despite the desertion of former Premier of Mpumalanga, now Deputy President of the ANC and the country, DD Mabuza from the “Premier League” (previously comprising an alliance between the Premiers of Free State, Mpumalanga and North-West), it is unclear what remains of the Premier League ethos and the accompanying graft and assassinations in that province.

Ramaphosa’s divided ANC base constrains him, but he has recognised that it did not necessarily impose limitations on the exercise of state power at a national level on a day-to-day basis.  Consequently, he has used his power and even his imminent power, before becoming state president in February, to good effect in starting to clean up state owned enterprises and cajoling many dysfunctional state entities and services to swing their support, behind the drive to restore regularised functioning.  Whether or not they had wanted him to be president, many ANC leaders and state officials recognised that the future would be with Ramaphosa.  Consequently, they appear to have complied with the injunction to jettison many irregular practices and return to legality. 

At the same time in making cabinet appointments, it appears that the weight of or consciousness of his opponents within the ANC has been brought to bear in the choices he has made.  Some are quite incompetent individuals or some who may face corruption or charges related to state capture have been retained or been elevated to high positions in the state.  In some cases, the appointments may undermine the efforts of the Ramaphosa-led state to distinguish his government from that of Zuma by providing clean and effective governance.

Even then, regularisation has operated with varying levels of success in state departments, while State Owned Enterprises confront very difficult problems, especially that of liquidity, as a result of the squandering of resources in the Zuma period.  Heavy losses had been sustained, but members of government, notably Minister of Public Enterprises, Pravin Gordhan, are making clear efforts to clean up boards and ensure regularised functioning.

It is important that the Ramaphosa-led government is open with the public about the aftermath of the Zuma era, the financial constraints it faces and what effect this has on state performance, especially in areas of service that are vital to citizens, especially poor people. This means that where meeting of social needs is not possible now, the president and government needs to take the public into their confidence and explain what is holding things back.  People may be unhappy, but they will be less restive if there has been meaningful communication.

Despite what has been said about state power at the national level, the changes have been uneven, partly because of institutional cultures remaining unchanged and partly because of callous behaviour and funding cuts. In Home Affairs, for example, obtaining an ID is vital for those who need social grants, or seek a job or wish to open a bank account and to enter countless other transactions.  Yet, the service provided varies greatly, with some offices still insisting that people should be there from 5 am, when they open at 8 am, and then often waiting till 2.30 pm when the service closes.  (This is information provided on an office in a province, outside of Gauteng, where I live).  The experience in places like Randburg may have remained relatively unchanged, but in some of the smaller towns, it appears that there has been some cutback on the equipment used and this also slows down processes.  The costs entailed for individuals travelling from small villages to come to a city to renew or obtain a document is often very great in relation to their meagre income and then they are often turned away and have to return again, with an unknown likelihood of success.

The national policing and prosecuting forces have not yet demonstrated a thorough break with the period of Zuma.  The NPA made some efforts to pursue prosecutions against Free State and Gupta officials, only to have three cases thrown out of court, apparently through the ineptitude of the prosecution.  Also, the Gupta brothers and Duduzane Zuma were allowed to travel freely out of the country, where they have remained, despite there being prima facie cases against them.  At least one Gupta brother had more than one South African passport, provided on a basis that may have been irregular.  This had been obtained during the earlier tenure of Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba, a cabinet position to which he has returned.

At the same time as these prosecutions are failing, three former SARS officials forced out by Tom Moyane for allegedly being members of the now discredited “rogue unit” currently face charges that seem to have little substance, but the case is continuing, with no sign of withdrawal.

While the steps taken to restore legality has won some respect, this does not represent transformation of people’s lives and there continues to be high levels of poverty, unemployment, inequality, and after 24 years of democracy many do not have access to property, basic sanitation, clean water, decent housing and are harassed or evicted when they occupy makeshift shelters. 

While it may be that much of this has been exacerbated by Zuma and his allies creaming off state resources, it is Ramaphosa and his government who have to face up to the demonstrators who-out of frustration or in some cases, hooliganism- are burning public resources, torching trucks transporting goods on the national highways, when faced by a government that does not have a swift remedy for their needs.

It cannot reasonably be expected that the new administration can swiftly remedy the range of ills experienced by the poorer sections of the population.  It inherited a massive debt and withdrawal of investment and the country’s investment status was reduced to junk by most rating agencies.

Much of the efforts of Ramaphosa and his team have understandably been devoted to building the confidence of local and international investors with some degree of success, although it has not led to a flood of investment that is dearly needed in order to create jobs and to secure funds needed to meet urgent social needs.  The restive conditions in many parts of the country has led to considerable destruction, sometimes of properties or transport vehicles of businesses.  This hampers achievement of the climate of stability that investment needs.

At the same time, if the Ramaphosa-led administration is unable to meet people’s needs, there needs to be communication of what it can and cannot do in the short and long -run, a frank admission of what the constraints are.  But there needs to be clarity over what people can reasonably expect now.  Even if this disappoints many, openness and invitation for citizens to contribute ideas on how to speed up processes, is one way of winning public support.

Just as Ramaphosa has sought to rely on national state institutions to bring his opponents in the provinces to book, in terms of the force of the law, the Secretary General, Ace Magashule and to some extent his deputy Jessie Duarte have used their ANC national positions to endorse or sanction processes that have undermined Ramaphosa in KZN and it seems, also, in other provinces.  What they have done has not always been direct incitement against Ramaphosa, rather than sanctioning processes that support his opponents in the provinces.  But in at least one case in KZN Magashule went further and sought to console Zuma supporters -at the end of January- by referring to the return to the ANC that they know at a future conference. “Stay focused, it is just a matter of five years. It’s a matter of five years. Conference happens after five years. Mayibuya i-ANC esiyaziyo (when the ANC that we know returns). It’s a matter of five years comrades. So let’s work hard.” (http://www.sabcnews.com/sabcnews/l-kzn-anc-members-lash-magashule-dividingparty/).

When Zuma has appeared in court he has sought to mobilise support by depicting himself as being victimised and asking what he has done that is wrong.  Zuma’s claim that he is being victimised found resonance with a section of the KZN ANC conference that was recently disbanded, where ANC National Chair, Gwede Mantashe was shouted down.  It is claimed that attempts to mend rifts between factions in the KZN ANC through having an agreed slate of candidates, was allegedly torpedoed by Zuma

The array of forces aligned with Zuma has not openly included the disbanded KZN Provincial Executive Committee, but it has been backed by the discredited MKVA, disgraced former cabinet ministers and a range of forces outside of the ANC like the previous or now reconstituted National Interfaith Leadership Council,  a mainstay of Zuma support in earlier periods, and the Gupta funded BLF.

Apart from building on grievances -outside- in order to rally support around himself as an alternative pole within the ANC to that of Ramaphosa, Zuma has attended a range of ANC national activities, something not done by any previous retired presidents.  It is claimed that he says nothing and just observes.  It is said that members of the NEC see this as intimidatory, to simply have him there watching what they say and do.

Possibly to quell this potential zone of opposition Ramaphosa relented on the earlier decision not to oppose the DA/EFF court action and has agreed that the state continue to meet Zuma’s legal expenses in his various corruption and other cases.  This is a costly decision.  It may have been taken to limit Zuma’s resistance to the current leadership, but it remains funding that will be demanded for some time and that could instead be used to meet pressing social needs.  It may be that this follows legal advice, but it will be a further financial burden to the current leadership.

There is vagueness on allocation of land, on meeting basic needs more generally as a result of gestures, for example the periodic handing over of long awaited homes.  Many people are unaware of the state of the fiscus and there needs to be communication with those who are affected.  When time is made to address investors, locally and internationally, it is clear that this is seen as a priority, which it is.  It is however important that similar time is allocated to address local people on an ongoing basis, to assure citizens that they are being heard, even if there needs cannot be immediately met. People need clarity as to what will be remedied in the short and the long term.

Ramaphosa cannot afford to focus on ANC internal battles alone. South African citizens, from a range of sectors, rose to demand Zuma’s departure.  They need to see some material evidence of that victory.

[This part of a series of articles on Nelson Mandela’s leadership continues next week, in celebration of the centennial of his birth.]

[Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a visiting professor and strategic advisor to the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg and emeritus professor at UNISA.  He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities.  His prison memoir  Inside Apartheid’s prison was reissued with a new introduction in 2017. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner .]