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Leadership in Question part 3: Has Cyril Ramaphosa taken control of the ANC and the state?

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Leadership in Question part 3: Has Cyril Ramaphosa taken control of the ANC and the state?

Photo by Madelene Cronje/New Frame
Professor Raymond Suttner

30th November 2020

By: Raymond Suttner

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It was never going to be easy to steer the South African ship of state after the Jacob Zuma years, even though Cyril Ramaphosa’s rise to the presidency of the ANC and state was greeted with very positive responses from many sections of society. (The previous parts of this series on leadership are to be found at https://www.polity.org.za/article/leadership-in-question-part-one-the-leadership-we-have-2020-10-20/searchString:Raymond+Suttner and https://www.polity.org.za/article/leadership-in-question-part-two-emancipatory-leadership-is-needed-even-or-especially-in-a-crisis-situation-2020-11-04/searchString:Raymond+Suttner).

But Ramaphosa scraped into the job with a slim margin at the ANC national conference at the end of 2017 and faced a divided ANC especially at the leadership level. That meant he would not enjoy the level of unconditional support in the organisation that was enjoyed for most of the Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma periods at the helm. If he had had that backing it would have left space to take decisions that were required, in the face of whatever opposition encountered outside of the ANC.

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In fact, the most significant opposition that Ramaphosa has experienced has been from within the ANC and it has continued unabated until now.

The divisions that were manifested in the conference that saw him elected have never been repaired, even though they do not entail significant questions of ideology as opposed to populist slogans and, in some cases, a desire to access the state for corrupt purposes. Interestingly, it has increasingly emerged that alleged corruption is not the exclusive inclination of the Zuma camp, but may have involved quite a few of Ramaphosa’s own supporters, some of whom have been charged. 

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In fact, Ramaphosa does not appear to have had or developed any plan to deal with the divisions, beyond offering space to those who had been hostile to his candidacy. That unwillingness to simply suppress opposition undoubtedly has the merit of eschewing authoritarianism. But using authoritarian practices is not the same as exercising authority, and it appears that Ramaphosa still lacks that - at least within the ANC.

Most importantly, he conceded unqualified control of ANC HQ to the Ace Magashule group. It is true, that as Secretary General, that is where Ace Magashule operates, but given the hostility he has manifested towards Ramaphosa’s presidency, it may have been prudent to monitor very closely and engage with the overall approach that the Secretary General’s office has adopted.

It is possible that this was conceived as disarming hostile forces by generosity. This may have worked in some contexts and with a different set of personalities but does not appear to have had any results in terms of improving the authority and respect accorded to Ramaphosa as president. Attacks, whether veiled or open, have continued.

It is said that Ramaphosa’s greatness lies in his playing the “long game”, waiting for the right moment to do whatever needs to be done. This is said to be part of the strategic brilliance that some attribute to him, a skill carefully honed through his years as a negotiator in the trade unions and then in Codesa and other fora, where these skills were required – before and during the 1990s - leading to agreement to end the conflict and develop the Constitution we now have.

Consequently, Ramaphosa has been commended by some, at least initially, for the careful, deliberate pace at which he has moved. While this cautious approach has been depicted as a specific brand of leadership, much time has passed, and many key decisions have not been made and his position as leader has in fact weakened. Some commentators have ridiculed Ramaphosa as lacking a spine.

Admittedly, the post of Secretary General, occupied by Magashule, is the key organisational position and the incumbent should be allowed space to run it - for the benefit of the organisation.

But given that Ace Magashule was a declared enemy of Ramaphosa (and reputed, for good reasons that now form part of criminal charges, to be corrupt), was it not necessary to take steps to curb his power and space to operate, confining him to a more limited terrain than had been open to previous incumbents?

It is true that there are constitutional powers that vest in the office of the Secretary General but being in command of the organisation, as the president, Ramaphosa could nevertheless call on him to report to him and tell him of his plans and what he had been doing and planned to do. That would establish lines of communication that asserted hierarchical power. To advocate that is not to assert a democratic quality but to exercise authority in the organisation that Ramaphosa heads. That is power that is also constitutional, but it can be acted out in more than one way by different presidential incumbents.

The impression one has is that Ramaphosa thought the best way of managing the relationship with his opponents or perhaps more accurately, those hostile to the very idea of his remaining president, would be not to be seen as the aggressor, but to open space for Magashule to do his work as he wished.

Now that may have been magnanimous, but it was not seen that way, or magnanimity was interpreted as weakness and ceding a power to populate ANC HQ with a range of villains from the Jacob Zuma era, those who were now without jobs and had nothing to offer - in good faith - towards rebuilding the organisation and the country. Thus, we have Malusi Gigaba and Nomvula Mokonyane and others allegedly involved in corruption holding positions at Luthuli House.

Beyond this, Mokonyane has been praised to the rooftops by Ramaphosa for her work in North West. “Ramaphosa commended Mokonyane, saying she ‘and the comrades who are working in organising’ had kept the fire of the ANC burning through the organising department and that she was a pivotal expert of the party’s new online membership system.

“They've been going through the length and the breadth of the country. If you want to know the ANC, these are the comrades who have been doing the work, who have been going all over and who then got the NEC to adopt these guidelines we are reporting about in your regional report,” said Ramaphosa.’ (https://www.iol.co.za/news/politics/ramaphosa-heaps-praise-on-nomvula-mokonyane--9a1311ea-6572-4b20-9c58-b24c82d5cf56).

Being head of organising in the ANC, especially now, is not a neutral position and especially in provinces like North West, where the former Chair and Premier, Supra Mahumaphelo, one of those who attended Ace Magashule’s recent court appearance in Bloemfontein, remains active. Organising entails monitoring the building of branches and other structures and ensuring that they are created on a basis that conforms with the goals of the organisation. It could be that the organising department at every level ensures that there are no irregularities in recruiting members and the numbers required to establish branches and secure delegates to ANC conferences. But it has been reported by the ANC itself that there have been many cases - for some years - of money passing in order to enrol members, who then become voting fodder to elect delegates under factional control.

That organising of the ANC in general is the responsibility of the Secretary General is sufficiently dangerous to those who are not part of Magashule’s faction. But that he is allowed free rein to recruit and makes people like Mokonyane head of organising ought, one would expect, to be read as a danger signal by Ramaphosa. What leads him to praise her work to the rooftops is not evidence of the absence of sectarianism, but baffling.

It seems that there is a battle for control of the ANC but only one side is doing the fighting. The Ramaphosa side is conceding key positions (although it could not have prevented Magashule from doing much of his work as Secretary General). There is no attempt, from what can be seen, to prevent the population of ANC HQ by a range of individuals who are the remnants of the Zuma era and clearly antagonistic to Ramaphosa’s leadership and rebuilding the country. That Ramaphosa makes no attempt to combat this and indeed, in his praise for Mokonyane, is complicit, means, paradoxically, that he is contributing to his own demise.

Statements by Ramaphosa to the effect that the ANC always lands on its feet like a cat and has more than nine lives are not based on the reality that the organisation’s very existence may be in doubt. (https://www.news24.com/news24/southafrica/news/anc-is-like-a-cat-it-will-always-land-on-its-feet-ramaphosa-20201123). And even if it survives, it no longer represents the ethical values that drew many to support it in the past.

Lack of vision

To combat his opponents’ efforts to unseat him requires more than fighting them. It also needs Ramaphosa to advance a vision for the country. That he has not done. Can anyone remember any specific idea that has emanated from the presidency that encapsulates the type of society we want to see?

Disturbingly, his response to critical issues often appear to pander to some of the most reactionary, anti-democratic and anti-emancipatory qualities. Thus, in the midst of attacks on foreign nationals, who are truck drivers, Ramaphosa does not name these actions as xenophobic - a word that does not pass the lips of ANC and government leaders. It is simply described as criminality. This is part of the repudiation of the notion of freedom as universal, a right of all who live in the country and the world. Furthermore, among those appointed to the commission to probe the attacks on truck drivers are the Minister of Home Affairs, Aaron Motsoaledi, who from his time as Minister of Health, has firmly nailed his colours to the xenophobic mast.

For those of us who wish to see the crooks driven out of government, clearly the current leadership is not advancing a clear and compelling alternative beyond the admirable albeit limited reconstruction of key state institutions like the NPA.

Way forward?

No one can prescribe a way out of the present situation, where no political party commands moral authority or a vision of the future in which the poor and marginalised and others with goodwill can have confidence. There is a scattering of social movements who are dedicated towards bettering the lives of those who continue to experience oppression, as well as many individuals, located in a range of spheres, who act with good will and in good faith. It is crucial that some way is found to draw such groups and individuals together, in order to develop a common programme.

There will not be quick results but all those who are committed to ever-expanding freedom need to bend their efforts, wherever they are located to make this happen.

Professor Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor at the Centre for the advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD) at Nelson Mandela University, Port Elizabeth. Suttner served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner. He is currently preparing to write memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the periods through which he has lived.

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