20 December 2017

ARC’s Augustine Booth-Clibborn argues that despite the hype, Cyril Ramaphosa’s election as ANC president has not fixed the party’s considerable problems, but he is the candidate with the best chance of doing so.

Deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa won the election to be the new president of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) at its national conference on 18 December and therefore most likely, South Africa’s next president. Ramaphosa narrowly beat Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, former chair of the African Union and ex-wife of South African president Jacob Zuma (2009-present). For the past two years commentators have billed this election as the defining moment of South African politics – either years more of Zuma and his allies’ alleged corruption or a new dawn under the man former president Nelson Mandela (1994-1999) wanted to succeed him as president. Neither of these scenarios has come true. Instead, the newly elected top six officials of the ANC reflect the current state of the party – divided between competing centres of power with diverging legislative agendas.

Ramaphosa campaigned on a slate of like-minded moderates in the ANC. He had hoped for key allies such as former KwaZulu Natal ANC provincial chairman Senzo Mchunu to win the secretary general position. However, Free State premier Ace Magashule beat Mchunu by just 24 votes to win the position. Magashule is a staunch Zuma ally who has allegedly taken large quantities of money from the notorious Gupta family alleged to be behind the ‘state capture’ or corrupt control of many state institutions. This was not the only upset for the Ramaphosa camp. David Mabuza, the Mpumalanga premier who campaigned for unity before declaring for Dlamini-Zuma in the run up to vote, beat Ramaphosa’s candidate, Lindiwe Sisulu to become deputy president and thus potentially South Africa’s future president. Gauteng premier David Mashatile won the important treasurer-general position that governs ANC finances Mashatile is a long-term supporter of Ramaphosa but reportedly worked with Mabuza and Magashule to try to get Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma to work on a joint slate. If one group emerged a clear winner from the national conference, it is these provincial premiers. The other two candidates are political survivors: Gwede Mantashe, who has become one of Zuma’s fiercest critics, retained his position as ANC national chairperson; Jessie Duarte, who is popular despite strong links to the Gupta-backed attempted takeover of the finance minister in 2015, kept her position as ANC deputy secretary-general.

The ANC has torn itself into many factions during the divisive Zuma administrations. Ramaphosa hoped the party would rally to his cause, but every vote was close and Dlamini-Zuma’s supporters, particularly in the ANC Women’s League, are angry at her defeat. It is fair to say the party got the top six it deserved. They certainly reflect the divisions in the party from the top six down to branch level. Ramaphosa will have to manage the competing interests of the top six and the deeply divided National Executive Committee (NEC) that governs the ANC. Under Zuma multiple fiefdoms have emerged within the party and each will want Ramaphosa to work for them.

However, Ramaphosa is a master consensus builder and a patient tactician. He was the ANC’s lead negotiator with the outgoing apartheid regime in 1991. He will work within the top six to ensure that his new deal for South Africa takes place – at least in part. He has emerged relatively unscathed after decades in politics and business. Even his proximity to the 2012 Marikana massacre has failed to taint him. He will be able to work with Mantashe, Mashatile, Duarte and even political chameleon Mabuza. Magashule is Zuma’s strongest supporter at the top, but someone who can be bought can also be swayed. However, Ramaphosa will have to cut deals with the Zuma camp to move his agenda forward. Rampahosa will not carry out his campaigns against Zuma in public but will continue to work, as he has done for the past four years in office, behind the scenes.

The fight for South Africa’s future will be between the ANC and thegovernment. The battlegrounds will be economic policy and ministerial, departmental and state-owned enterprise (SOE) appointments.  Ramaphosa is focused on the economy – South Africa’s biggest problem – and has the markets behind him. He has built good relationships with business leaders, the rand has rallied on the news of his election, and ratings agency Moody’s has said that this may avert a downgrade of South Africa’s rand-denominated debt to junk status. The February 2018 budget will be a litmus test of his ability to influence policy. On deployments, Ramaphosa has already managed to move allies into key posts and with the new weight of his position will seek to deploy an ally as the incoming chair of Eskom.

Ramaphosa is not certain to succeed. The Zuma administration’s disregard for the rule of law makes it unlikely that they are going to listen to a hostile ANC president. Any hopes moderates had for Ramaphosa to recall Zuma, or indeed any of his ministers, are unrealistic. When Zuma forced Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008) to step down as president of South Africa, Mbeki left out of respect for the party. There is a clear constitutional argument against the ANC being able to recall a sitting president and Zuma will use it if Ramaphosa manages to get the rest of the top six to support him. Zuma may be at a disadvantage, but he will use every weapon in his considerable arsenal to maintain power for as long as possible. He faces prison time for an alleged 789 counts of corruption, and the courts have removed his direct influence on the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). Zuma’s policy directives of attacking so-called “white minority capital” and continuing to protect his allies at the top of South Africa’s SOEs may continue. Zuma controls the finance ministry through ally Malusi Gigabawho will make it hard for Ramaphosa’s pro-business policies to take root before 2019. Zuma and his allies may counter-attack by starting a campaign to ensure that Ramaphosa is not the ANC’s presidential candidate in 2019.

Any effort to prevent Ramaphosa from becoming the ANC’s candidate could be damaging for the party. Ramaphosa has widespread popular appeal. He is Mandela’s chosen successor. The feeling in Johannesburg when he won the election was one of relief that the right person is finally in charge. The ANC needs to restore the narrative that it governs in the interests of the people. The majority of ANC delegates believe Ramaphosa is the man to do it. With the opposition Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters pushing hard, Ramaphosa has just two years to unite a divided party and restore some prosperity to the economy to avoid a coalition government in 2019. 

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