Before judging Cyril, count 100 and think of Zuma
There is good reason to hedge on Ramaphosa's achievements, but just imagine the alternative
On Saturday, Cyril Ramaphosa will have been in office for 100 days.
On that day, a legion of politicians, economists, journalists and columnists will weigh his achievements against his shortcomings and tell us How He Is Doing.
I will leave the hardcore political insights to my more qualified colleagues, but I suspect that two more or less opposed verdicts will emerge: that Ramaphosa is fatally hamstrung by a partially captured ANC and is doing too little, too slowly; and that he has done some subtle but strategic heavy lifting that will become the foundations of something much more impressive and progressive in the next few years.
Either way, the opinion will be muted. Those who feel that he isn’t doing enough won’t call him a lame duck but they will certainly suggest that he is a swan with a serious limp. Those who are cautiously optimistic will hedge more than a senior executive at Steinhoff.
There are probably good reasons for this generally hushed approach. It really is too early to tell, and nobody wants to be shown up by later events. Indeed, from the moment the president was sworn in, otherwise hopeful people were warning us not to succumb to “Ramaphoria”: hope, they cautioned, is dangerous when it comes to the ANC.But I suspect that there is another factor contributing to this deliberately careful attempt to keep Ramaphosa at arm’s length: our collective desire to forget the fetid open sewer that was the Jacob Zuma administration.
It’s a sensible urge, slamming the manhole cover down and hurrying away from the stench that disgusted and demoralised us for a decade. But I think that if one forgets the recent past, one also loses the ability to see how different the present is.
Which is a pity, because the present is much, much, much better than the recent past.
If you doubt that, allow me to paint a counterfactual picture of what this week might have looked like if a handful of ANC delegates had tilted in the other direction and damned us to a very different present.
We start five months ago, as a beaming Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is congratulated by a sombre Cyril Ramaphosa. A moment later she is embraced by Jacob Zuma, grinning from ear to ear. She has just become the new president of the ANC. The rand slides from R14 to R18, but ANC Twitter dismisses this as the last gasp of reactionary capital, and Minister Nomvula Mokonyane reiterates that she and her comrades will pick up the currency no matter how far it falls.
The next morning, the Presidency announces that rumours of an early exit by Zuma were nothing but a malicious effort by the DA, EFF and the media to create division within the party. Zuma will complete his term and step down as planned in May 2019. The only major change will be the redeployment of Comrade Ramaphosa, who has agreed that he will best serve the party as the ambassador to New Zealand. He will be replaced as deputy president by the beloved new leader of the glorious movement, Comrade Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. The rand goes to R20, and Julius Malema goes ballistic, vowing that he will not set foot in parliament while Jacob Zuma is in office.
Undeterred by protests gathering momentum throughout January, Zuma jets off to Moscow, accompanied by his new deputy and his minister of Energy, David Mhlobo. The nation stares, numb, unable to believe that Zuma will pull the trigger, but two days later he does: laughing and back-patting alongside Vladimir Putin at the offices of Rosatom, he announces that South Africa has just signed a R1-trillion nuclear build programme. Well, technically R1.02-trillion: the rand drops another 2% on the news.Of course, everybody knows it will never happen. South Africa simply doesn’t have a trillion bucks. But it does still have many, many billions of rands, and that was always the point of the Russian deal. Once it’s signed, the first tranches must be released by Malusi Gigaba’s Treasury, a hundred million here, a hundred million there, straight into the bank accounts of the capturati. The long-awaited payday has arrived, and the dismantling of South Africa enters its final phase.
When parliament opens in February, it opens behind a wall of razor wire, a cordon of SANDF armoured vehicles and a phalanx of riot police dressed in camouflage, keeping at bay a seething sea of red berets and blue T-shirts. Inside, Jacob Zuma drones snoozily through a state of the nation address to snoozing ANC cadres, empty opposition benches and an empty media gallery. Nobody is running the country.
There is, however, a problem. The capturati might be the lowest form of pond scum, but they are also fantastically rich pond scum. They know how to do their sums. And the sums are not in their favour. Every day Zuma remains in power, the country is a day closer to catching fire. And once it starts burning, the help-yourself looting buffet is over.
The Guptas take Zuma aside and explain the numbers, and show him architects’ drawings of the golden toilet in the golden en-suite bathroom in the golden palace they will build him if he goes quickly and quietly.
In early March, Zuma addresses the nation on live TV. He has, he says, always served the people. He has always listened to them. And now he has heard their voices. He has heard that they want renewal. And so he is obeying the will of the people, and stepping down, safe in the knowledge that he has fulfilled his oath of office. President Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is sworn in the next day, in an empty parliament, guarded by SANDF storm troopers.The capturati have bought themselves a few more months but everyone knows that it’s all going to end, either in flames or disgrace, in 2019. The pace of the looting becomes frantic. Every day another million dollars leaves the country in a suitcase headed for Dubai or Zurich. Lynne Brown is asked to explain why the SOEs under her command are getting multibillion-rand bailouts when the country is facing economic meltdown. Well, she says, it’s complicated. It rains money on the Guptas, the Zumas and all the other court hyenas.
Beyond the feeding frenzy of the political elite, the money is disappearing. The smart money is long gone. Those who want to follow it are struggling: the property market has collapsed and nobody can liquidate their assets. The 20% surge in the oil price, linked to a rand trading at R25 to the dollar, has pushed the petrol price into ludicrous territory. Every day another thousand people find that they can no longer afford taxi fair, and another thousand discover that they can no longer afford food staples.
Which brings us to today, where there is a dusk-to-dawn curfew in effect in three provinces. North West is on fire, partly in response to the killing of 12 protesters by police in Mahikeng last weekend. The country is afraid. The country is depressed. The country is full of rage. There is talk of assassinations.
I know that Cyril Ramaphosa has still not defeated the captured ANC. I know that he could have done more by now. I know that some things are still getting worse, not better.
But I also remember where we were, just six months ago, and I know that, but for a tiny handful of votes, that darkness would be everywhere right now, choking the last life out of us. I know that this is much, much better. And I know that nobody, no matter how excellent, can reverse a 10-year slide into the sewer in just 100 days.