South Africans won't allow ANC to remove Ramaphosa – and now we know he knows it

Derek Hanekom.
Derek Hanekom.

In confronting his detractors to try to remove him, President Ramaphosa is betting on the broader South African population to ensure that the cost of removing him will be too high for the ANC, writes Ralph Mathekga.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has come to realise that diplomacy is not always a suitable approach when dealing with conflict in the ANC, particularly when confronted with an outright war by determined detractors.

If reports coming from the ANC NEC meeting held over the weekend are anything to go by, the president has dared his detractors within the party to go ahead and try to depose him in the party's NGC (national general council) to be held next year.

It has been reported that Ramaphosa and his allies muzzled Ace Magashule's attempt to turn the NEC meeting into an execution council with only one item on its agenda: the political execution of Derek Hanekom.  

Hanekom is accused of plotting with the EFF to remove Jacob Zuma from office through a parliamentary motion of no confidence back in 2017. After the seasoned EFF gossip mongers released information about their meeting with Hanekom, Magashule did not waste time, writing a statement in which Hanekom was referred to by all sorts of names.

I consider Hanekom one of Ramaphosa's allies, whose fall would send a strong signal that it is too risky to openly align oneself with Ramaphosa in the ANC. By taking a position and ensuring that Magashule did not hijack the NEC meeting to focus on Hanekom instead of Zuma's fantasies about the spies in the ANC, Ramaphosa declared that he is willing to pick a fight.

According to reports, the NEC meeting went well, and there was no chaos emanating from the Hanekom matter. The significance of this NEC meeting is that it illustrated the willingness by Ramaphosa to face the threats of removal head on.

It is refreshing to see Ramaphosa acknowledging that his presidency is held to ransom by threats of removal. By daring is detractors to try to remove him, he is a step ahead of them by exposing their plots all South Africans. I do not think that Ramaphosa confronted his detractors in the NEC simply because he was irritated with them and lost his cool. I rather see this as a calculated move.

Ramaphosa knows that he played a significant role in helping the ANC to hold on to its electoral support in the May elections. In return for this job, he has been publicly humiliated by having to make compromises that undermine the essence of his presidency. He compromised on Cabinet positions, with some of Zuma's controversial lieutenants making their way back to Cabinet. He was pushed to compromise in relation to the party's parliamentary list. And he compromised in terms of some of the individuals who chair parliamentary portfolio committees.

These compromises were also extracted from Ramaphosa because he wants the second term as the president of the ANC, which is nearly a guarantee for him to lead the country for the second term.  

The president realised that those who want to remove him will go ahead with their plans, irrespective of his willingness to dish out compromises in favour of his detractors in the ANC. His calculations are that if he compromises further on key issues that are supposed to define issues of his presidency, South Africans outside the ANC will lose hope in his presidency. In the last few months, President Ramaphosa has come across as too willing not to fight for principles.

In confronting his detractors to go ahead and try to remove him in the NGC, Ramaphosa is reading the moral and institutional weakness of the ANC as things stand. He is betting on the broader South African population to ensure that the cost of removing him will be too high for the ANC to bear. At this point, if the ANC removes him through the party's internal democratic process, South Africans might push for snap elections to renew the political mandate which would have been significantly altered with the removal of the president. 

Therefore, since Ramaphosa cannot count on political support in his party, he decided not to worry about the party and focus on where his support is coming from: from South Africans outside the party.

If the ANC removes Ramaphosa and replaces him with Deputy President David Mabuza, for example, the party will be dealing not only with the removal of a popular president but also with public anger about an unlikeable replacement. This is a recipe for social discontent and a call for elections. Both the EFF and the DA will support snap elections, given that the two parties performed poorly in the last elections.

This is how the cost of removing Ramaphosa midway through his term will be too high for the ANC to bear. The ANC will be pitted against society; and the party might not pull it off.

It is worth repeating that as the ANC experiences a moral decline, any attempt to remove Ramaphosa through internal party processes will be met with indignation by South Africans outside the party. This is the thread that is holding Ramaphosa's presidency in place and the president seems to be aware of this leverage he holds over the ANC. 

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

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