Guest Column

Beware the blank cheque

2019-01-24 15:40
For the foreseeable future, South Africa needs the experience, level-headedness and economic acumen of Cyril Ramaphosa.

For the foreseeable future, South Africa needs the experience, level-headedness and economic acumen of Cyril Ramaphosa.

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Ultimately, support for President Ramaphosa requires a giant leap of faith. The ANC is unlikely to come clean on any of these issues simply because they can't – certainly not in the very short term, writes Daniel Silke.

To support Cyril or not, that is the question. Or so it seems for many analysts, editors and commentators who are weighing up a possible endorsement of the ANC in the forthcoming election.

Of course, whether analysts should really throw their weight so transparently behind a political party (or head-of-state) at election time is the stuff of debate – but clearly, keeping truly objective for all of us "talking heads" and scribes is increasingly difficult – whether in this country, or in Trumps's America or Brexit Britain, for that matter.

The argument for supporting Cyril is now well-worn. Unless he gets a strong mandate, he will be unable to institute the reforms that these commentators seem assured he will undertake. Therefore, let's give him support and let him revive the fortunes of the country. 

READ: SA, Zuma and our missed opportunities

It's a pretty convincing argument. The president is attractive in both demeanour and dialogue. He invokes a neo-Mandela aura that seemingly seeks rapprochement and realism over radicalism. He speaks out against corruption, is more likely to consult the business community and has avoided (thus far) being implicated in corruption. What's there not to like?

But a fair analysis of Cyril Ramaphosa really should be an analysis of the ANC and its policy proposals. After all, Ramaphosa remains a sum of the parts of the ANC – and those parts remain in deep difficulty.

Firstly, there is insufficient evidence to suggest that the Jacob Zuma coat-tails are mortally wounded within the ANC as a party and within the NEC itself. Yes, there has been oblique criticism of the Zuma years from Ramaphosa, but the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal continue to revere the former president and there is precious little that Ramaphosa can do about this.

Indeed, a decade of Zuma's rule also has resulted in a decade of Zuma appointments as part of the broader cadre-deployment policy of the ANC. Attempts to flush out the "bad eggs" here are a long-term project fraught with internal difficulties in each and every state-linked entity.

And, the fine balancing act that Ramaphosa has to walk looks set to remain even post-election. Whilst a good mandate will undeniably strengthen his hand, the ANC remains a broad church including those who sanction patronage and crony-capitalism. The jury sure is still out on whether Ramaphosa will successfully be able to relegate this grouping to lesser positions or reduce their influence not only in Cabinet, but in the benches of Parliament, state legislatures, council chambers – and more importantly, key decision-making bodies like the NEC itself.

South Africa may never be a country in which its citizens can relax about its elected officials, but what would help is a line-of-succession within the ANC that instils confidence rather than deep apprehension for the future.

Secondly, there is a minor matter of corruption and graft which – seemingly – is overlooked by many. Whilst one can unreservedly commend Ramaphosa on his public stance on stopping the rot, it's simply not enough to rely upon commissions of inquiry to clean the air.

READ: Want to support Ramaphosa's reform agenda? Vote DA

South Africa's real problem has been the hollowing out of its prosecutorial and policing institutions for well over a decade and the very inability of the NPA to adequately bring charges against a host of suspects (across both the public and private sector) casts doubt on whether real consequences will be felt by those fingered.

Recent remarks from Ramaphosa suggesting that the Bosasa scandal was "far worse than expected" offers little encouragement since many of the allegations have been in the public domain for years following courageous exposes from the likes of News24 editor, Adriaan Basson.

Similarly, Ramaphosa's view that listening to Angelo Agrizzi's evidence is "cathartic" is peculiar to say the least. What is really "cathartic" is bringing those who have committed criminal offences to book.

Commissions of inquiry should not be seen as circumventing the real hard work which comprises solid evidence-based prosecutions. Government should not be allowed to get away with this type of possible obfuscation of what really needs to be done. Whether Ramaphosa has the political courage to tackle some of his most senior ministers and public representatives on this remains to be seen.

Finally, it's all about policy. The ANC goes into an election having presented a manifesto that is exceptionally short on new thinking. The unanswered questions remain – and they are massive unanswered questions.

Just how much of the taxpayers, money will be used to bail out Eskom and other SOEs so miserably mismanaged? How will racking up more debt-to-GDP undermine the country's credit ratings this year? Is there any possible way of greater private sector involvement in SOEs to rid them of gross politically induced malpractice? 

Other policy conundrums are very real. What is the real policy on the independence of the South African Reserve Bank? Speaking with a forked tongue on this matter may do enough to confuse the electorate, but it negatively impacts investor sentiment both globally and at home. And, finally, what about expropriation without compensation? With no real clarity on this matter, voters are expected to provide a blank cheque on what could be the most fundamental issue shaping our future.

Ultimately, support for Ramaphosa requires a giant leap of faith. The ANC is unlikely to come clean on any of these issues simply because they can't – certainly not in the very short term.

The governing party remain locked into a policy-rut that still requires years of fine-tuning, achieving new intellectual input and fresh public representative talent as well as the adherence to performance-driven results over time. This means that the fruits of real change may only be assessed over a much longer period of real delivery.

And all these issues are so big, so important, that they simply cannot be fopped off with an assurance that after the election "alles sal regkom".

READ: Why voting for Ramaphosa is about reality - not ideology

South Africa's electorate require real, unambiguous answers rather than be told that these concerns are simply "bangmaakstories" and that sanity will prevail following a strong Ramaphosa mandate.

Supporting Cyril therefore requires an assumption that all these issues will be favourably resolved. Yet, the politics of the ANC teaches us that the complexities of the liberation movement are not about to end.

The deep fissures on ideology and policy remain as entrenched as before. The fumigation of cronyism is a long-term project. And, a return to real nation-building has not even started.

Analysts should therefore be wary of writing Ramaphosa a blank cheque before they have real and verifiable input (rather than wishful thinking) of the way forward.

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