A WIN is a win as the old saying goes. And for Cyril Ramaphosa, his nail-biting 51% success over Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is just that – a win.
Victory as it might be, it has been spoilt by virtue of the close result and also the strong showing by key NDZ supporters in the ANC’s top 6.
Clearly, Ramaphosa would have wanted his slate elected. It would have given him greater leverage to begin the unenviable task of restoring legitimacy to a party wracked by internal factions and creeping ethical deficiencies.
But, it was simply not to be. Instead, Ramaphosa scraped home but with the likes of Mpumalanga premier David Mabuza as his deputy and NDZ supporter and controversial Free State premier Ace Magashule as secretary general. The Ramaphosa camp saw their preferred candidates, Lindiwe Sisulu and Senzo Mchunu, rejected by a majority of delegates.
Ramaphosa therefore takes the headline job as ANC president but it’s ultimately a weak victory with an unsatisfactory mandate. While attempting to break from the broader Jacob Zuma coat-tails but putting forward a slate not tainted by association, Ramaphosa has largely failed to score anywhere near a knock-out win.
Yes, he holds the advantage of the presidency. But Ramaphosa will have to constantly look over his shoulder at both Mabuza and Magashule, who represent a different faction – and more importantly, an alternative policy orientation.
When it comes to issues surrounding a reboot in economic policy, there will be the NDZ faction calling for more populist tweaks. When it comes to rooting out corruption, the NDZ camp might lobby for a much more lenient approach.
When it comes to dealing with Jacob Zuma and the Guptas, Ramaphosa might find he just cannot act exactly as he might have wished. When it comes to restoring integrity to the ANC organisational structures, he might find Magashule’s historical approach contradicts with everything he stands for.
Ramaphosa in a quandary
This leaves Cyril Ramaphosa in a quandary. He needs to weave his way through a complex web of alternative views and big personalities with competing agendas. He needs to develop an authority that can move beyond the narrow confines of the ANC’s rumbustious internal processes and endear himself to the hearts and minds of the average South African.
Ramaphosa needs to resist any attempt to undermine his own authority as factional power-plays continue to unfold. And – perhaps more importantly – he has to win over kingmaker Mabuza as a key ally in meaningful policy change, or face gridlock and inertia as his opponents look for a gap to unseat or embarrass him.
The close vote and mixed result from both slates indicates no one faction has a critical mass to exert authority. This portends a continued bout of factionalism as the party prepares for the critical 2019 general election.
Ramaphosa’s key task will be to restore a more positive sentiment around economic performance, delivery and policy.
The toughest part will be to balance radical demands and rhetoric with a more market/investor approach. He will have to do more than sound convincing and will need to take some of the more populist elements within the NDZ campaign along with him.
Just how he manages the balancing act – to appease both domestic and foreign investors – and simultaneously inject a degree of radical economic transformation into the equation will be watched closely.
Ramaphosa has the keys to the office. But he has yet to wield the power. His best hope is a national executive committee (NEC) that might be more orientated towards his vision. Should he achieve a majority of his slate there, he may be able to push through a modicum of policy reforms necessary to rebuild damaged sentiment. All eyes will therefore be on the composition of the NEC to provide direction.
In the interim, the headlines across the world will herald Ramaphosa as a new beginning for embattled South Africa. It is entirely possible that a leader as talented, worldly and experienced as him will manage to grasp the nettle.
It is – after Monday night – equally possible that the entrenched divisions in his own party tie his hands at almost every opportunity. South Africa simply cannot afford another period of policy gridlock; after all, that’s where we have just come from.
The potential for positive change is there – but it’s no easy ride for the new ANC president.* Sign up to Fin24's top news in your inbox: SUBSCRIBE TO FIN24 NEWSLETTER