Did Ramaphosa receive the mandate he was looking for?

2019-05-14 08:03
Felix Dlangamandla
ANC secretary general Ace Magashule. Photo: Felix Dlangamandla  ~ Felix Dlangamandla

Who received the mandate in the elections last week? Was it passed to the ANC or to Cyril Ramaphosa, or both? This is not an academic debate with no basis in real life, but influences how things will progress in government in the next five years, writes Ralph Mathekga.

Now that elections have passed, the big question is what now for the humbled African National Congress (ANC). The ANC has been reduced to below 60% and the political fallout began to show even before the elections were officially declared.

ANC members adopted conflicting explanations about their performance in the election. After it became clear that the ANC was headed to settle for 57%, the party's campaign chair Fikile Mbalula fired the first salvo by claiming that had it not been for Cyril Ramaphosa's personal touch, the party would have been deposed.

Mbalula effectively admitted that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma would have pushed the ANC to 41%. This is a bold statement that the party's secretary general Ace Magashule would not let pass without a challenge. He responded that the performance of the ANC in the elections was due to the work of volunteers and structures of the party, instead of an individual. In other words, Magashule was saying that there is no "I" in the ANC, there is only "we".

The issue at hand is that if Ramaphosa is given credit for helping the ANC to hold on to power under circumstances where the party would otherwise lose, then he should be allowed more space to implement his agenda, often referred to as a reform agenda. I will come back to define this agenda in the near future. For now, however, we can all stop pretending that we do not know what the supposed Ramaphosa agenda entails. By selling the ANC to disgruntled voters, President Ramaphosa is understood to have earned the right to implement his economic reforms so that South Africa can be set on a positive path of development and economic prosperity.

The very idea that there is something out there called Ramaphosa's agenda implies that we are referring to an agenda that is different from that of the ANC. If Ramaphosa's agenda were similar to that of the ANC, there would be no need to refer to it in a way that tells it apart from another agenda, namely the ANC agenda. 

Mbalula and Magashule's conflict is useful in explaining the two worlds that exist alongside each other in the ANC. From Mbalula's point of view, Ramaphosa deserves to exercise a strong hand in making decisions in government and treading the way forward for the country. Mbalula wants the ANC to defer to Ramaphosa, whilst Magashule maintains that victory belongs to the collective ANC.

For Magashule, elections were won through the manifesto of the ANC, coupled with the collective efforts by structures of the party including a tireless army of volunteers. Magashule's reading of things demands that the ANC agenda – which is reflected in the party's manifesto – should prevail over any agenda since it is the manifesto that also brought the ANC electoral victory.

To use a phrase loved by our politicians, "I can say it without fear of contradiction" that there are competing agendas within the ANC, reflecting competing interpretations about how the ANC managed to evade humiliation at the polls last week.

This is not an academic debate within the ANC with no basis in real life, it rather influences how things will progress in government in the next five years.

At the centre of the conflict is the contest by groups within the ANC to seize the electoral mandate attained in the elections last week. There will be accusations that some within the ANC have hijacked the mandate of the ANC to pursue a nefarious agenda. 

The question that I cannot fully answer is who actually received the mandate in the elections last week. Was the political mandate to govern passed to the ANC or was it passed to Ramaphosa, or both?

For Magashule, the mandate was passed to the ANC as it has always been the case. This is correct in the sense that people directly vote for the party, and not for the president. However, we cannot ignore the fact that if the president did not play a role in how people vote there would be no purpose in using the face of the president to campaign for the party. Otherwise, a campaign poster would have faces of all members of the party like cans of Coca-Cola with all names all over.

Mbalula has a point when he says that the ANC also benefited from Ramaphosa's integrity, whether perceived or real. This means that the bigger part of the mandate received by the ANC in the election belongs to Ramaphosa as the face of the party. Both Magashule and Mbalula are therefore correct to a certain extent.

Magashule is correct that the people voted for the ANC because the party was contesting the elections, not Ramaphosa as an individual. Mbalula is correct in the sense that had it not been for Ramaphosa as the face of the campaign, fewer people would have bothered to find the ANC on the ballot paper.

If ANC members cannot agree about what caused their party to perform the way it did in the election, how can the party then agree on policy responses. Those who believe Ramaphosa is the superstar of the elections also believe that he should be allowed to save the ANC from itself and change things for the better through reforms. Those who argue that the ANC performed well not because of the Ramaphosa factor believe that not much has to be changed about the direction of the ANC in government, the party has to maintain course!

The conflict between these two approaches in the ANC will shape policy implementation in government. There are no easy victories in this scenario.

- Ralph Mathekga is a political analyst and author of When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa's Turn.

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