Roaring Ramaphosa jumps on the back of three growling tigers

2019-02-08 00:10
CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - FEBRUARY 07: Soldiers performing the 21 Gun Salute during the arrival of President Cyril Ramaphosa at the State of the Nation Address 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa. This was President Cyril Ramaphosas first time delivering the address. (Photo by Gallo Images/ Ziyaad Douglas)

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - FEBRUARY 07: Soldiers performing the 21 Gun Salute during the arrival of President Cyril Ramaphosa at the State of the Nation Address 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa. This was President Cyril Ramaphosas first time delivering the address. (Photo by Gallo Images/ Ziyaad Douglas)

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President Cyril Ramaphosa has challenged factions of his own party with his three biggest announcements in his State of the Nation Address.

In a speech light years removed from that what was dished up to weary South Africans during Jacob Zuma’s lost decade, Ramaphosa made three significant announcements that signal his intent to put distance between himself and the government of his predecessor.

The establishment of a "Scorpions-like unit inside the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the unbundling of Eskom and the reorganisation of the country’s intelligence services will rattle the networks of patronage and rent-seeking that have proliferated and metastasised under Zuma’s leadership.

Make no mistake, Ramaphosa has mounted three aggressive and muscular tigers. All at the same time. While trying to run a government.

All three decisions are contentious issues inside the governing party and broad alliance and there’s no doubt there will be some serious opposition to it.

The break-up of Eskom has been forced by the dire situation the stripped and corrupted parastatal finds itself in. In 2008, the year in which the Directorate of Special Operations (the Scorpions) was dismantled by a rabid ANC, Eskom had zero debt. It was one of the leading utilities of its type in the world and provided cheap and affordable electricity. Today its debt levels are so high that if it capsized it would take the whole country with it.

The announcement that it will be broken up into three separate business units – generation, distribution and transmission – will be challenged by unions and parties like the EFF. But Ramaphosa will also face internal opposition, with fears that the whole or part of Eskom might be privatised (and with it the loss of patronage networks) driving enmity towards the president.

For many, privatisation is not an option, not even with a failing company like Eskom. But Ramaphosa, if he is to save the organisation and modernise electricity supply, will have to push on with restructuring and the eventual introduction of private equity into the system.

There are real concerns about the rogue state of the country’s intelligence services. Ever since it became embroiled in the feud between Zuma and Thabo Mbeki, the spooks have trained their listening devices on factional politics, spending time and resources in fighting internal ANC battles. Ramaphosa acknowledged as much when he said that intelligence must not be allowed to serve specific party-political interests.

Ramaphosa's announcement that the spy service will return to its previous configuration of an internal and external service (domestic and foreign) and that it will implement the recommendations of the review panel led by Sydney Mufamadi will also have caused some consternation.

The spy agency under David Mahlobo, a former intelligence minister and one of Zuma's right-hand men, became a crucial tool for the former president to stay one step ahead of his political opponents. The spy agency also seemed to be largely exempt from scrutiny and oversight, with a Zuma-compliant Parliament doing its utmost to protect the then president.

The secret slush funds, the unauthorised operations and the black sites could now be a thing of the past and with it a very powerful tool in the hands of the unscrupulous and unrepentant.

But of all three announcements the return of a specialist unit with investigative and prosecutorial powers inside the NPA carry the most symbolic weight. Ramaphosa’s announcement gives new national director of public prosecutions Shamila Batohi some serious firepower with which to draw and quarter the corrupt and the captured.

When the Scorpions was blown up by the ANC in 2008 in order to protect Zuma, the country lost the ability to ruthlessly root out corruption. The Directorate of Special Operations – the Scorpions’ formal name – was a prosecutor-led investigations unit that combined the skills of forensic and investigators with that of criminal lawyers. It notched up major successes before it became a threat to Zuma’s freedom and was unceremoniously culled and nominally replaced by the Hawks.

Ramaphosa’s announcement though is an admission that the Scorpions' demise was a mistake and that there is no confidence in the politically compromised Hawks. But as with Eskom and the spy service, there will be major opposition inside the ANC to the establishment of anything akin to the Scorpions.

For one, if Batohi even remotely complies with her legal and constitutional mandate the unit will be safer from political interference and manipulation than the Hawks and police. And an independent-minded NPA coupled with the abilities of a “Scorpions” type unit will be a considerable challenge for the rent-seeking networks that still exists in the ANC and government.

EFF leader Julius Malema has often been a good gauge or bellwether for the temperature inside the ANC. After Ramaphosa's speech and on the cobblestones of Stalplein, the square in front of the National Assembly, Malema railed against both the Eskom and NPA announcements. “We’ll meet him in the streets,” Malema told an interviewer about Ramaphosa's plans for Eskom. And the new NPA unit will be manipulated for political ends, just like the Scorpions, he added elsewhere.

Ramaphosa will have to gird his loins. These three tigers might just gobble him up if he isn't careful.

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