Cyril’s gamble: he wants two terms, but ANC monster lies in wait
He is counting on SA to put its trust in him in May, but he can't promise factional politics won't scupper his big plans
When Cyril Ramaphosa took his seat next to Jacob Zuma at the ANC top table in Mangaung in December 2012, he wore a look of someone who had just been told a joke and was trying not to laugh.
Ramaphosa had just been elected deputy president of the ANC in a landslide vote against the other contenders for the position, Tokyo Sexwale and Mathews Phosa.
Ramaphosa’s return to active politics after a 15-year hiatus was a signal that he was ready to reach for the brass ring – even if the means to the end was joining Zuma’s ticket at a time when the former president was consolidating his power.
Ramaphosa clearly knew then that this was a big political dabble.
What he did not know is that the Zuma camp would renege on their agreement to back him to become president in 2017.
Five years later, Ramaphosa had a very different look on his face when he took his seat on stage at the Nasrec conference after being elected ANC president. He was overcome with emotion, knowing that his destiny to be the next president of SA had been decided.
The ANC election battle had been brutal but his time had finally come.
Two months later, Ramaphosa stood in parliament to deliver the State of the Nation address (Sona) two nights after Zuma’s resignation.
Again, he seemed to be in awe of the moment.
On February 7 2019, Ramaphosa strode confidently to the podium in parliament, flipped open his iPad and delivered an 8,875-word speech as if he had been doing it all his life.
Considering that he was announcing that the elections would be three months and one day away, there must have been a temptation to make the Sona a campaign speech.
It wasn’t really.
Of course there were announcements that got voters’ juices running. The new directorate in the National Prosecuting Authority to tackle state capture, a new bank for housing, tablets for school kids and the requirement for work experience to be dropped in the public sector would have general appeal, even though there would be reservations about practicality and implementation.
But overall, Ramaphosa’s plan of action is long, hard slog – not the type of pledges to get stadiums cheering. Compiling investment books in each of the nine provinces would not have the same impact as announcing the doubling of social grants or that obtaining a degree would automatically qualify you for a job.
There were announcements in the Sona that were bound to be controversial, such as the unbundling of Eskom. The ANC has found it difficult to manoeuvre with the grip of its leftist allies constraining the restructuring of state-owned enterprises. There are, however, no more options left to rescue the ailing Eskom, meaning that the government has to take the plunge.
The chaos and frustration over nationwide rolling blackouts this week puts the government on notice that confronting Eskom’s financial and operational problems cannot be delayed any longer. But an election year is not the ideal time to initiate the unbundling of the energy utility. Ramaphosa knew his announcement would result in a backlash.
“We need to take bold decisions and decisive action. The consequences may be painful, but they will be even more devastating if we delay,” he said.
The scaling down and restructuring of government is another controversial move.
The issue is causing much nervousness in the government as many ministers, deputy ministers and senior officials are worried about losing their high-flying jobs and considerable benefits. The unions are also circling, warning that they will not accept retrenchments in the public service.
But it is well known that the government is oversized, unproductive and lacking in the skills it needs. The system needs to be overhauled and streamlined to ensure greater efficiency and delivery, and there needs to be a dramatic slashing of the waste, particularly when it comes to the ministries.
The team around the president needs to share his vision and commitment, rather than being a hotchpotch of ANC factions.
There is a danger that those who stand to lose their jobs begin to de-campaign the president and also escalate the fightback against him.
With some of Ramaphosa’s announcements, it would take years to see results.
He said as infrastructure development had slowed down they had realised that infrastructure provision was too fragmented between the different spheres of government.
The cabinet has adopted a new infrastructure implementation model to address these problems, and committed to contribute R100bn into the infrastructure fund over 10 years.
Ramaphosa said they wanted to use this to leverage financing from the private sector and development finance institutions. It will take several years to get the desired result.
The president also announced the introduction of two years of compulsory early childhood development for all children before they enter Grade 1, and said another critical priority was to improve reading comprehension in the first years of school.
“This is essential in equipping children to succeed in education, in work and in life – and it is possibly the single most important factor in overcoming poverty, unemployment and inequality,” Ramaphosa said.
This is a long-term but essential investment in future generations.
A careful analysis of Ramaphosa’s Sona shows that while he has the May elections in his sights, he is playing the long game.
He is banking on being elected president in May and possibly serving out two terms.
Ramaphosa may have rolled the dice to get to where he is but he is now putting plans in place for the long haul.
The ANC is both the vehicle to attain power as well as his greatest hurdle.
While the people of SA might put their trust in him in May, the question that always lingers at the back of people’s minds is: How long can Ramaphosa survive before the ANC’s factional politics torpedo his plans and his presidency?
What Ramaphosa is unable to promise are political stability and his own longevity.
If you are a voter or an investor wanting to board the Ramaphosa Express, those are precisely the assurances you would be looking for.
But politics is always a gamble and, as the events of the past few years have shown, you can never bet on what will happen next.