Think Cyril can fix SA? Let’s have a reality check
He remains shackled to the ANC, within which his biggest enemies will always be waiting to trip him up
There are many false assumptions about the power of President Cyril Ramaphosa and the state of the ANC on the downhill run towards the sixth democratic elections.
The first is that Ramaphosa can steam ahead with his agenda irrespective of who features from number two downwards on the ANC election list. Even Ramaphosa knows this is not possible.
From the get go, he panicked.
Immediately after he was elected ANC president at the party’s national conference at Nasrec in December 2017, Ramaphosa’s face fell as the rest of the top six was revealed.
The ANC is not a one-man show. Major decisions are made by the collective.
The ANC national executive committee, while weighted in Ramaphosa’s favour now, can still swing against him.
Unlike Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, Ramaphosa has not yet asserted his authority in the ANC. This is evident in his vacillation on issues like land expropriation without compensation and the nationalisation of the South African Reserve Bank. Secretary-general Ace Magashule runs the engine room of the ANC and can tap into every structure across the country. Ramaphosa is unable to constantly watch over Magashule’s shoulder to see what he is up to.
The ANC does not have some sophisticated algorithm that allows a democratic selection and arrangement of candidates on the election lists based on the will of the membership.
Magashule chairs the national list committee, which means that he ultimately arranges the deck. This is why the ANC’s national list looks like the second coming of the Zuma Death Star.
The perception that Ramaphosa will have carte blanche to do what he likes after the election is a fallacy.
He must choose his ministers and deputy ministers from the contingent in the national assembly. The constitution stipulates that the president “may select no more than two ministers from outside the assembly”.
So while Ramaphosa has been able to assign important tasks now to firefighting teams and special envoys to circumvent the dead wood in the executive, post elections, he has to play with the cards he is dealt.
It has become a tradition that the president consults the ANC’s top leadership on the appointments in cabinet. Testimony at the Zondo commission confirmed that the ANC secretary-general actually sits in the room when the president informs ministers and deputy ministers of their appointments.
This means it is more than likely that some of the charlatans who aided state capture or were completely hopeless in their portfolios will be returned to cabinet.
Another false expectation is that Ramaphosa can go ahead and appoint disgraced people and that they would naturally be flushed out when the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) starts taking cases to court.
This is a Hail Mary pass.
Firstly, there is no telling how long it will take to bring cases to court and what damage can be done to the incoming government in the meantime.
Secondly, it is not known whether there is sufficient evidence to charge members of the executive who facilitated and benefited from corruption. The Zondo commission has shown that it is not as easy as people hoped to nail those involved in state capture, especially because the criminal justice system was so contaminated and cases were sabotaged to protect high-flyers.
Thirdly, we have seen previously how the ANC protects people implicated in corruption so there is no guarantee that the bad apples will be thrown out once they are charged.
Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, it is unfair for Ramaphosa to shift the heat to national director of public prosecutions Shamila Batohi to sort out political issues. If he is unable to take hard decisions, why should she face the pressure?
Batohi needs to focus on building a credible team at the NPA and bringing winnable cases to court.
She is not there to mop up the ANC’s messes. In fact, Batohi said at her first media briefing that she had asked Ramaphosa for an assurance that there would be no political interference in the work of the NPA. He gave her this, she said.
So decisions to prosecute should be hers and hers alone, based on the strength of cases. There cannot be a back-door arrangement to use the prosecuting authority as an apparatus to exorcise bad elements from government.
Another false assumption is that because he is in charge of the state, Ramaphosa can do what he likes and ignore the chaos in the ANC.
The president derives his power from the party, not his fan base outside the ANC.
It is true that the constitution affords the president substantial powers, but he remains accountable to the ANC. Ramaphosa cannot colour outside the lines of ANC policy and decisions. He must implement these or it will be used against him.
Then there is the parliamentary caucus. If there are sufficient people in the opposition faction in the ANC caucus, this can become problematic for Ramaphosa.
Parliament serves various purposes, including holding the executive, government departments and state-owned enterprises accountable. MPs also pass laws, serve on ad hoc committees and debate major national issues.
There are many ways Ramaphosa’s agenda can be sabotaged, including by targeting his key ministers and point people.
We have already seen how people in the ANC and the alliance have gone after members of Ramaphosa’s front line: Tito Mboweni and Pravin Gordhan.
Ramaphosa, Mboweni and Gordhan cannot make the tough decisions necessary on state assets if the ANC keeps yanking them back.
The cover that public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane is getting from the ANC caucus means that she can also continue targeting people like Mboweni and Gordhan.
In his evidence at the Zondo commission last week, former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas testified about the hostility towards the national treasury from others in government who railed against expenditure management and refused to abide by legal and constitutional precepts.
He told Zondo how they were hounded and ostracised because of their refusal to succumb to populist pressure.
If largely the same troublemakers return to parliament and cabinet, the problems of the past few years will be recycled and the pressure will remain on the treasury to play fast and loose with taxpayers’ money.
There is much hope that Ramaphosa is hanging back and will flex his muscle after the elections. But the president cannot and will not do anything that will endanger his political survival.
It is delicate balancing act to effect a turnaround in government but also keep as much of the ANC onside.
Ramaphosa’s strongest enemies are inside the ANC and will remain chained to him for the foreseeable future, trying every means possible to trip him up.
As unpleasant as that image is, it is the reality that he and all those who support him must contend with.