Has the coronavirus just saved Ramaphosa from his enemies?

29 March 2020 - 00:02 By SIBONGAKONKE SHOBA
President Cyril Ramaphosa. File photo
President Cyril Ramaphosa. File photo
Image: Themba Hadebe / POOL / AFP

Just a few weeks ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa's lieutenants were preoccupied with hatching a plan to shield him from his political foes so he would emerge unscathed from the ANC national general council meeting scheduled for four months' time.

It was not going to be an easy task.

Impatience with Ramaphosa's leadership had spread beyond the "radical economic transformation" (RET) faction of the ANC even to some of those, in and outside the party, who had supported his ANC presidency.

It was as if a dark cloud had gathered over this great republic in the past few months. A sense of helplessness prevailed.

The economy's performance remained below par, as a result of a cocktail of problems, including the unreliable power supply brought to us by Eskom. Despite leadership changes at the power utility, no clear message had been communicated to assure the public we were anywhere close to resolving the electricity crisis.

Load-shedding meant that industries switched off machines, and production ground to a halt. As a result several companies issued retrenchments notices - adding thousands more people to the burgeoning unemployment statistics.

The business rescue process at SAA brought more instability than assurance. There was no consensus within the government and the ANC on how the restructuring of the airline should be carried out. This created anxiety among staff, investors and customers.

Of course, Ramaphosa inherited a corrupt, looted and dysfunctional state - so none of these problems was his own creation.

But he has been in power for two years now, and the patience of the public and investors was wearing thin.

At a time when the country yearned for its leaders to come up with solutions, there was total silence from the presidency.

Perhaps Ramaphosa had his own personal headaches. His opponents within the ANC were sharpening their daggers ahead of the national general council, which is supposed to be a mid-term meeting to review the party's policies.

His leadership was going to come under intense scrutiny.

Not for his record on addressing the above long list of challenges, but because his foes want to render Ramaphosa a one-term president. The RET group, which he defeated at the ANC's Nasrec conference in 2017, had drafted charges they planned to place before the national general council; these accused the president of sole responsibility for the party's failure to implement policies that were adopted at Nasrec.

The RET faction was ready to blame Ramaphosa for the slow pace of the process in parliament to amend section 25 of the constitution to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation, and for delays in tabling a motion to nationalise the SA Reserve Bank and change the bank's mandate.

His backers, on the other hand, were preparing to defend the president and openly challenge his opponents on whether some of the policies adopted at Nasrec were correct.

Under ANC rules, a national general council meeting cannot remove a sitting president. But Ramaphosa's detractors knew that openly challenging him at the gathering could undermine him ahead of the next elective conference.

Even though the RET faction's accusations were ludicrous, Ramaphosa's real or perceived impotence in fixing the ailing economy served to strengthen their hand.

For a while, it seemed as if it would take a miracle for Ramaphosa to redeem himself.

The president must have thought he did not need additional problems that would put him under an even brighter spotlight.

But a deadly virus was spreading across the world at a rapid pace, and it was a matter of time before it reached our shores.

When the country recorded its first Covid-19 case early this month - a South African who had been on holiday in Italy - Ramaphosa and his cabinet moved swiftly.

Health minister Zweli Mkhize, whose presidential ambitions are an open secret, became the face of the fight against the pandemic.

Since the first cases were confirmed in SA, Mkhize has kept the public up to date on the spread of infections and the measures being taken to contain the outbreak.

Mkhize, as unflappable as ever, has spoken with authority, giving comfort to the public and providing some reassurance that we have a health minister who knows what he is talking about.

But from the moment Ramaphosa first stepped up to the podium at the Union Buildings two weeks ago to address the nation on the pandemic, he has conveyed a sense that his government was not caught off guard by the virus, and that there is a plan in place to try to ensure that the spread of the disease is contained.

This pandemic, as tragic as it is, meant the national general council had to be postponed "until further notice", giving Ramaphosa breathing room. But it may also be the opportunity for him to show the kind of leadership that will regain the trust of South Africans, and in the process disarm his rivals.

Ramaphosa's leadership in these turbulent times will determine his future. He could still become the president the country has been longing for. If he doesn't, Mkhize may well seize the moment.

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