The year of the buffalo: Zuma, wheel nuts and load shedding

2018-12-14 06:00
President Cyril Ramaphosa.

President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Elmond Jiyane)

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It’s been a heck of a long year for President Cyril Ramaphosa. This time last year, in early December 2017, he was in the final throes of a slog which began on December 9, 2015, to replace Jacob Zuma as leader of the ANC.

The ANC’s leadership contest at Nasrec was a close run thing, with Ramaphosa prevailing by a wafer-thin margin to succeed Zuma. His leadership unit however was stacked with members of the other team and the odds to right the good ship SAS South Africa did not seem good.

Ramaphosa took over a flailing ANC, a failing state and a floundering economy.

Three key moments – some obscure – stand out as pivotal inflection points in his year.

1. Zuma’s rambling interview with the SABC

During the afternoon of February 14, 2018 Zuma granted an exclusive interview to the SABC at the president’s official residence Mahlamba Ndlopfu, situated in the ministerial estate of Bryntirion on Meintjeskop in Pretoria. Except it wasn’t much of an “interview” as Zuma delivered a monologue which carried on for more than an hour.

“There’s nothing that I’ve done wrong. What is the problem? I don’t understand. I have a problem with your approach and your decisions. I don’t think it is fair,” was his message to the ANC’s executive committee, he told the public (state?) broadcaster

The interview was one long justification of his leadership and a drawn out yawn which basically consisted of politically paraphrasing Shaggy’s song, “It wasn’t me”. Zuma again showed why he is the master of playing the victim and blamed the ANC for turning against him even though he couldn’t understand why. “No one has told me what I did wrong,” he protested.

It was clear he was mortally wounded and that it was a question of time before he would resign. In the weeks book-ended by Nasrec and Valentine’s Day, Ramaphosa managed to cobble together a coalition inside the party’s executive committee which eventually moved the ANC to a position where it was agreed that Zuma, who only months before held absolute power, should go.

Ramaphosa’s surrogates took part in weeks of shuttle diplomacy, using Cabinet meetings, ANC meetings and informal gatherings to make the case for change at the top. It was the undisputed high water mark of Ramaphosa’s year because it showed glimpses of his qualities as a dealmaker that propelled him to the frontline during the constitutional negotiations in the 1990s.

When Ramaphosa succeeded Zuma as party leader on December 18, 2017, he took the reins of a deeply divided party – and nowhere were those divisions as evident as among the top six leadership where he had to contend with people deeply implicated in corruption and dispensing patronage. But his ouster of Zuma on February 14, 2018 showed that he had the skill and nous to corral in former opponents in order to get his way.

Ramaphosa’s term as head of state has seen progress in turning around the ship of state. The commissions of inquiry into state capture and tax administration – the Zondo and Nugent commissions – have prised open the dark recesses of state capture and grand corruption and helped South Africa understand the Zuma project of capture and neglect.

He rid the South African Revenue Service of Tom Moyane, he gave effect to a court order and removed Shaun Abrahams as national director of public prosecutions and launched interventions into state-owned enterprises, including Eskom, the South African Airways, Transnet and Denel. And he attempted to change the economic narrative by showing intent with government’s jobs and international investor’s conference.

2. Capture? 'We thought it was a wheel nut that came loose'

On May 24, 2018 Ramaphosa hosted members of the South African National Editors’ Forum at Tuynhuys, the presidential office abutting the National Assembly in Cape Town. He had been president for more than three months and the pressure was showing on his face.

During the engagement Ramaphosa admitted he “could have done things differently” during his tenure as Zuma’s deputy in party and state. He then, unconvincingly, tried to explain state capture from his vantage point. When reports of state capture started to emerge he thought “it was just that”, presumably meaning that he thought they were isolated incidents of criminality and not part of a pattern.

Cyril Ramaphosa and Khusela Diko

President Cyril Ramaphosa during an engagement with editors in May. State capture? "We thought a wheel nut had come off," he said. Next to him is his spokesperson, Khusela Diko. 

And when Eskom started breaking down and reports of capture started to emerge from the country’s most important parastatal Rampahosa, then deputy president, thought “a wheel nut came loose”. He told editors that it was only with the publication of the Gupta Leaks in middle of 2017 that he became convinced “that the wheels had come off… completely”.

By the time the tranche of emails from the Gupta Leaks were being published the media had been reporting about state capture for years, the public protector had released her report into state capture and Zuma and the rent-seekers had managed to overrun National Treasury, the last bulwark against grand corruption under the corrupted previous government.

He said: “Many of you (in the media) had already raised a number of issues on a piecemeal basis... that happening, and that is happening... then we had this and that... but when you finally prised open the whole thing, it became patently clear that we were dealing with a much bigger problem than we had ever imagined… These things happened in a sequential way; the signs came one after the other, and then it became a deluge.”

Except, the gradual capture of the state by factional interests, including the Guptas, was reported on in almost real-time by the media and investigated by the public protector. The ANC and its leadership, which included Ramaphosa, defended Zuma for years. It is true that there were pockets of resistance, such as at Treasury, but the party’s leadership was missing in action.

The effects of the Zuma project is now hampering Ramaphosa in a big way. He is starting his presidency with enormous handicaps: whereas Zuma had the advantage (which he squandered) of inheriting a functioning state and dynamic economy, Ramaphosa has enormous work to do just to get back to even par.

South Africans are only beginning to get to grips with the extent of the rot in government and state, and with the fiscus in the dire shape it’s in (budget deficits, escalating foreign debt, plunging revenue) there is no room for mistakes.

The “wheel nut” that was state capture has led to parastatals now threatening the economy, while we still haven’t seen anyone – no one – being charged and prosecuted for capture. Given the volumes and volumes of forensic reports, investigations and news reporting on the Guptas and their associates it is an indictment of Ramaphosa’s government that not only is justice not being done, but nobody is seeing justice anywhere.

And the Guptas? They remain safely ensconced abroad.

3. '@Eskom_SA has implemented loadshedding from 12:00 PM today until 22:00…'

Early on Sunday morning, November 18, 2018, one of South Africa’s greatest frustrations, load shedding, made an unexpected and unwelcome return. Eskom’s early-morning tweet signalled that state capture, corruption and neglect had now entered South Africa’s homes.

One of Ramaphosa’s first acts as ANC president was to engineer the appointment of a new board of directors for Eskom in January, replacing placeholder executives with the respected and competent duo of Jabu Mabuza (chairperson) and Phakamani Hadebe (chief executive) to start with the salvage operation.

Eskom had become the poster boy for state capture. The company was a main target for the Gupta group of rent-seekers and was exposed to capture by Malusi Gigaba and Lynne Brown, who both served as ministers of public enterprises under the Zuma/Gupta government. Its balance sheet was raided and its infrastructure left to rot.

With load shedding now again a part of everyday life it is clear that the extensive damage down to Eskom can quite conceivably lead to the collapse of the institution in front of our eyes. The Ramaphosa government has since intervened, but only after it caved to union demands for a wage increase that the company cannot afford – it sits with debt of R419-billion.

Even though Ramaphosa has started to stabilise state-owned enterprises, the current state of affairs at Eskom, SAA and the SABC is wholly unsustainable. Spiralling debt, poor performance, creaking infrastructure, demanding trading conditions, disastrous leadership have all combined to seriously threaten the fiscus. And given the profligacy of the Zupta years there is no cash in the kitty to bail out failing SOEs.

Treasury, in both its February and October analyses of the state of government finances, has given a stark reality check: SOEs pose a clear and present danger to South Africa…and there is no money. Ramaphosa is going to have to make the tough decisions now and restructure non-performing entities. He has shied away from doing anything which might aid the political headwinds created by the nearing election, but that means he is acting in the best interests of the party, not the country.

South Africa has had nine years of a party hack leading the country. It now deserves a statesman putting the country’s needs before that of the party. Because if there’s anything that the lost decade under Zuma has shown, it is that the needs of the country more often than not does not correspond with the needs of the party.

Read more on:    eskom  |  cyril rama­phosa  |  jacob zuma  |  loadshedding  |  state capture

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