Ramaphosa in the shark tank, buoyed by our hopes

23 December 2017 - 00:00
Former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas says new ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa takes over at a sensitive time, and will have to negotiate obstacles to his vision from  both outside and inside his party.
Image: Brian Witbooi Former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas says new ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa takes over at a sensitive time, and will have to negotiate obstacles to his vision from both outside and inside his party.

The sense of joy that rippled across South Africa on Monday evening with Cyril Ramaphosa's election as ANC president was immediately tempered with caution about the composition of the top six, the strength of the national executive committee, and the state of the ruling party.

Rightly so. For as we need to savour this moment, we also need to address how the new leadership can break decisively with the Jacob Zuma era.

Before examining the policies I think Ramaphosa should embrace, I'd like to comment on why I think the jubilation is justified, regardless of the misgivings. Ramaphosa can, should he choose to lead decisively, transform South Africa into the extraordinary nation he imagined when he helped to write the constitution.

He could truly modernise the ANC, freeing it from the discourse of liberation politics in which it is stuck. And he could restore every South African's sense of pride in and hope for our nation.

He takes over at a sensitive time. We are a deeply damaged, deeply fatigued and deeply disoriented nation. But we are also deeply loyal and deeply hopeful - and it is here Ramaphosa can reshape, redefine and reimagine a different future for us.

Cyril Ramaphosa wipes a tear after being announced as the new ANC President during the 54th ANC National Elective Conference held at Nasrec.
Image: Masi Losi Cyril Ramaphosa wipes a tear after being announced as the new ANC President during the 54th ANC National Elective Conference held at Nasrec.

He must implore us to introspect; to be brutally honest about our structural economic weaknesses, our obscene inequality, our social ills, the rampant corruption in the public and private sectors, and our failed developmental state project. He must reunite us, dislocate the mistrust that has taken hold, and reignite the deep sense of compassion that initially defined our nation after 1994.

We cannot be blind to the fact that Ramaphosa's road to becoming president of the country may be fraught with difficulty. It is not a given that the old order will retreat gracefully - especially given the composition of the new leadership. The negative forces in the ANC, which have allowed state capture to take root and governance to evaporate, have some worrying allies. And they have everything to lose. We need to prepare for them to be at their most dangerous in the coming months - in their strategy, propaganda and possibly worse.

Ramaphosa will need to differentiate his leadership from the incumbency of the ANC - the survival of the country, via a strong state; the survival of the party, via internal renewal; and the survival of our multiparty democracy, via the emergence of much-needed political competition. This requires a president willing to bridge, not exploit, these seemingly intractable faultlines.

There are some obvious quick wins. But there are other, tougher decisions, where Ramaphosa should avoid, at all costs, the old ways of thinking: historic stakeholder relationships, patronage networks, and deployment.

It is here that his leadership will be made or broken - his ability to build his team based on merit, skills and professionalism; his ability to revitalise policy (including backing unpopular choices) and to ensure coherence and, most importantly, implementation across departments and tiers of government; his ability to root out corruption right down to the smallest municipality; and last but not least, the salvation of our trampled education system.

Ramaphosa must inculcate in the party's government representatives the necessity of putting the country first, then the party, then themselves - an order of priority forgotten by politicians across the globe.

He must urgently lead the country through an economic transition that deconcentrates ownership and addresses economic exclusion, including unbundling state-owned enterprises to provide cost-effective services, while increasing aggregate investment and output growth.

In achieving the growth necessary to generate millions of jobs and promote investment, net asset wealth and food security, Ramaphosa needs to be single-mindedly committed to fiscal consolidation to reduce our budget deficit and stabilise public debt. His failure to do this could terminally compromise our fiscal sovereignty

He also needs to navigate some of the more sensitive policies that emerged from the conference, the most obvious being land expropriation without compensation and nationalising the Reserve Bank.

While acknowledging that our extremely high levels of inherited asset inequality are bad for growth, Ramaphosa's guide in this regard should be this simple reality: that while asset redistribution programmes (land distribution, for example) are critical in reducing poverty, these impacts are minimal if the causal determinants of inequality - rooted in the structures of the economy - are not simultaneously transformed. Policy focus should not be reduced to redistributing existing assets as an end in its own right. Rather, it must be better linked to production outcomes to have sustained economic impact.

So far, our key economic institutions of the Reserve Bank and the National Treasury have remained centres of excellence in a sea of institutional decay and mediocrity. But imagine the economic damage if this ceased to be the case. Nationalisation in a context of corruption, weak corporate governance, patronage and disdain for the bottom line (if our SOEs are anything to go by), will not lead to jobs, the reduction of poverty or less inequality.

Questions around the nationalisation of the Reserve Bank need to be driven dispassionately and rationally to ensure that our central bank, which, incidentally, is wholly accountable to the people of South Africa via parliament, is able to fulfil its immutable constitutional mandate.

Tampering with the independence of central banks is the well-trodden route to hyperinflation, as practiced by Weimar Germany, Zimbabwe and Venezuela. At the same time, urgent steps are necessary to reverse the disintegration of South African Revenue Service and nurse it back to the credible institution it once was.

Returning to the broad tone of Ramaphosa's leadership, he must ensure that the macro-stability of the economy is protected, and an inclusive growth agenda accepted and executed.

Civil society, the constitution, the media, the judiciary and our Chapter 9 institutions must be obsessively protected to ensure that we never again undermine our institutions of democratic accountability. Indeed, it is these strong traditions of democracy, accountability, civil mobilisation, and dialogue, that differentiate us from a Venezuela, and which ultimately safeguarded us from absolute capture and collapse (although we are not out of the woods yet). Let us pay homage to those clever people - and yes, that includes our new ANC president - who wrote the constitution, and built in the necessary checks and balances.

Now, with Ramaphosaat the helm, let us rebuild our beautiful South Africa. This includes pushing back the rise of populism and diffusing social tensions. He will need to take a courageous stand to build in better checks and balances on presidential prerogative around key appointments, and electoral reform, to make our political representatives more accountable.

None of this will be easy, given the high levels of social conflict and vested interests in the status quo. He will have to mobilise support across diverse interests and sectors, and manage the spoilers. We have no choice.

I know Ramaphosa is up to the challenge.

∗ Mcebisi Jonas is a former deputy minister of finance