Ramaphosa in for a rough ride to the polls and beyond


Cyril Ramaphosa's ascension to power gave the country a reprieve. Ramaphoria proved too brief because it was more about what South Africa averted than what the ANC conference delivered, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.

If you are looking for a case study of a leader who had to hit the rough ground running ahead of a rough election and is facing a rough post-election period, President Cyril Ramaphosa would be an excellent choice.

He inherited a state in a mess. Public confidence in the government was in freefall. The economy was teetering on the brink. State owned companies were looting sites. Parliament had become a joke. Corruption was the currency. The presidency as an institution had been hollowed out. And the foremost duty of captured public representatives and senior bureaucrats was to facilitate the capture of the state.

By the time the ANC's 54th conference took place in December 2017, the most optimistic of investors had prepared to dump South Africa. With their departure, even the marginal prospects of reversing the catastrophic unemployment rate would have faded.

It could have been worse had Ramaphosa lost that conference. We would have had the opposite of Ramaphoria. Recovery would have been nearly impossible. We now think of it as difficult but not impossible.

We would have plunged further into the abyss. A national miserable index, if ever it were to be designed, would have us rank high up on the list.

Ramaphosa's ascension to power gave the country a reprieve. It is true that Ramaphoria proved too brief because it was more about what South Africa averted than what the ANC conference delivered.

But when you consider what would have happened without the intervening Ramaphoria period, you realise how necessary an intervention it was. To the extent that there's reasonable expectation that an ANC government can do better notwithstanding the rot that had nestled in the party, it is largely because of Ramaphosa's presence at the top.

He has given the ANC a better chance to survive an onslaught among the middle classes who, as is the case in democratic countries, are often the first to change their voting behaviour. They might still dump the ANC next week, but certainly not to the extent they would had Ramaphosa not been elected party leader and president of the country.

The forced resignation of Jacob Zuma as president of the country gave Ramaphosa - and by extension the ANC - a huge advantage before the elections. Ramaphosa could show in deeds in addition to rhetoric what kind of a president he would be after the elections. If not in detail, at least at the level of his intention.

Since there is very little mud he has generated in his political career for it to be thrown back at him, opposition parties have had a field day with the dirt accrued from the misdeeds of his party as a whole. Disarmingly, he has not run for cover. He has led the ANC to make public admissions of the wrongs of the past.

The fact that he is not a denialist provides a basis from which he could frame the remaking of the state to fit our constitutional framework from which it had veered. He has set up a number of inquiries to probe corruption. He has stopped the state from financing legal defence of corrupt conduct.

Understandably, citizens are impatient and remain sceptical of the many advisory panels and inquiries he has set up. However, some of these processes have begun to yield results.

SARS is being reformed and there are real prospects that if the Nugent commission recommendations are implemented, it can be returned to its glory days.

The National Prosecuting Authority is on the mend with the axing of the deployees of institutional decay.

Once seen as a private entity of some powerful politicians, the state security apparatus is being reformed.

A huge battle is yet to be fought on the reforms necessary to get state-owned enterprises to function properly without asking taxpayers to fund them. Companies like Eskom and Denel should return to good governance. Citizens have a right to be annoyed by the delays in fixing state companies.

There are also many battles to be fought to fix provinces. Ramaphosa will have to forge alliances to improve governance there. This is a critical task given the fact that health and basic education are provincial competencies.

In addition to all the challenges Ramaphosa has faced and will continue to face after the elections, there is the lingering question of how much support the ANC will need in the election to give him a firm hand to continue with reforms.

This question has produced a myth: if the ANC wins with a small margin, Ramaphosa's reform agenda will stall and his enemies within the ANC will remove him. It's despicable to hear this kind of reasoning among respectable thinkers.

Ramaphosa's enemies know the significance of the hope he brings to the party and the country. The international community is also more positive towards him.

So his enemies in the ANC would be foolish to attempt to remove him and face the prospects of breaking the party. The consequences would make a formation of the UDM, Cope and EFF combined (all of whom cut their political teeth with the ANC) look like a picnic. To understand this, look not at the slim margin of his victory at Nasrec. Rather consider general public sentiment.

Ramaphosa's opponents should only embark on such an adventure if they are prepared to commit party suicide. If they indeed are prepared take the suicidal route, no massive victory at the polls will stop the dissidents from launching a bid to oust Ramaphosa. Thabo Mbeki was removed as president while running the country with a two-thirds majority victory.

The circumstances of Mbeki's removal - he dared allow law enforcement agencies to probe Zuma and his financial advisor Schabir Shaik - laid the groundwork for institutional decay.

With what South Africans now know about what this meant, it shouldn't be easy for Ramaphosa's opponents to take risks. The myth about his removal, often spoken about as a foregone conclusion, is also based on an unproven assumption: Ramaphosa's inability to forge alliances within the party.

- Mkhabela is a regular columnist for News24.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Find everything you need to know about the 2019 National and Provincial Government Elections at our News24 Elections site, including the latest news and detailed, interactive maps for how South Africa has voted over the past 3 elections. Make sure your News24 app is updated to access all our elections coverage in one place. 

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