The small mistakes that could destroy Ramaphosa politically

President Cyril Ramaphosa during the announcement of the new Cabinet in Pretoria on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. (Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)
President Cyril Ramaphosa during the announcement of the new Cabinet in Pretoria on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. (Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

Mkhwebane's questionable legal competency aside, Ramaphosa is making mistakes that, cumulatively, have the potential to destroy him politically. He should lead by example in his own rhetoric, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.

President Cyril Ramaphosa stands a good chance to succeed in his pending review application to set aside Busisiwe Mkhwebane's inexplicable findings related to the CR17 campaign.

The Public Protector was excited when she saw large sums of money flowing into Ramaphosa's ANC presidential bid. This raised suspicion of wrong doing. She turned suspicion into a fact by suggesting Ramaphosa personally benefitted from the money donated through a trust of which he, based on what we know so far, was neither a trustee nor a registered personal beneficiary.

Her report is flawed because she failed to understand a simple fact that the CR17 campaign was a party-political campaign. Ramaphosa was campaigning to be president of the ANC, not the country.

Theoretically, you could be president of a governing party and choose not to stand for election in the first sitting of the National Assembly as president of the republic. It's a nuance Mkhwebane missed in what seemed to be a haste to find fault in Ramaphosa.

Even on the allegation that Ramaphosa lied to Parliament, Mkhwebane somehow squeezed a guilty verdict even though her own report doesn't support it. She, however, makes an important point that the president should have requested time to answer the question posed by the DA's Mmusi Maimane about the R500 000 Gavin Watson donated to CR17, instead of voluntarily providing a wrong answer when he was under no immediate obligation to. This observation should have concluded Mkhwebane's report on the complaint that Ramaphosa misled Parliament.

With regard to her concerns about the grey area of intra-party campaigning and the potentially corrupt impact it might have on public representatives, including the president, she could have requested the Speaker of the National Assembly to note her concerns and urge Parliament to use its own mechanisms to find measures to close the gap.

She could have made it a matter of principle. She chose to personalise it because she happened to have had access to the money flow of the CR17 campaign while she was investigating whether or not the president misled Parliament on the R500 000 donation.

Had she raised it as a matter of principle that potentially affects all parties and drew Parliament's attention to it, she would have been applauded by many South Africans who are concerned about the corrosive influence of money in politics. In fact, it was out of similar concern that Parliament passed legislation to ensure disclosure of party funding. There would have been nothing wrong of her to ask Parliament to investigate ways to deal with intra-party campaign funding especially concerning members of the national executive.

Mkhwebane's questionable legal competency aside, Ramaphosa is also making mistakes that, cumulatively, have the potential to destroy him politically. The unwarranted haste with which he answered the question on the R500 000 donation is one of them.

Before the elections, he made the mistake of announcing he was going to address the nation at night. The announcement came as if he had something important to say in his capacity as head of state. The public broadcaster treated the address exactly like that. He proceeded to address the nation in his capacity as president of the ANC.

In a Parliament question and answer session, he entertained opposition party members who asked him about ANC politics. He should learn from Thabo Mbeki who could not be drawn into party political issues in Parliament because in Parliament he appeared as president of the country, not the ANC.

Ramaphosa repeated the error when he called an evening press conference to respond to the Mkhwebane report. In answering a question from a journalist, he said the ANC would discuss the issue of funding of intra-party campaigning. Strictly speaking he could have avoided saying anything about the ANC. It's important that he must separate party and state. However tempting, he should not use a Presidency platform to address ANC issues.

It would be a good idea for him to join ANC secretary general Ace Magashule when he addresses the media usually after the party's national executive committee (NEC) meetings. Not only will such a move foster policy coherence from Luthuli House, it will also help Ramaphosa deal with party political issues which he should not address through the Presidency of the country.

Ramaphosa must distinguish himself from Jacob Zuma who used the Presidency's communication facilities to respond to issues that were personal and had nothing to do with the work of his office. Most recently, Ramaphosa made another mistake in Parliament that escaped public scrutiny.

While responding to the Presidency's budget vote debate last week, Ramaphosa made an ill-advised comment about the SA Reserve Bank's decision to cut interest rates by 25 basis points. "Good news such as the reduction of the repo rate by the central bank this afternoon is what we can build on and we hope much more will happen from the central bank," he said.

The problem with this comment is that it raises political (presidential) expectations of the central bank to cut interest rates in future and could easily be misunderstood as an attempt to interfere with its independence. Ramaphosa and Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago have correctly undertaken to preserve the bank's independence as enshrined in the Constitution. They have objected to what Kganyago describes as "political noise" that sought to undermine the bank.

But the president should lead by example in his own rhetoric. In this case, leading by example would have been to say nothing of the bank's decision. He must not raise any expectations, however highly unlikely, that by expecting the bank to reduce the repo rate, he will condemn a hike. These kinds of mistakes pose a danger to Ramaphosa's presidency. He must display better statesmanship.

- Mkhabela is a regular columnist for News24.

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