After the darkness, can Cyril Ramaphosa rise to the occasion?

Will Cyril Ramaphosa's 'long game' be strong enough to rid the ANC of state capture and corruption and restore public trust in the integrity and accountability of the government, asks Ranjeni Munusamy

12 May 2019 - 00:02

The story of Cyril Ramaphosa's ascent to power is not a glorious tale for the ages. The prelude was at the darkest of times for the nation, when SA was grieving the death of its founding father, Nelson Mandela. That was when the country's romance with the ANC faded. It was also when the world stood witness to the ANC's war with itself.
On a rainy day in December 2013, the eyes of the world were on FNB Stadium in Soweto, where 90 heads of state were among the crowd for Mandela's memorial service. Something happened that nobody foresaw. Sections of the crowd, dressed in ANC regalia, booed every time the image of the then president, Jacob Zuma, appeared on the big screens. It was not incidental or fleeting. The anger was palpable, underlined by a sense of betrayal of the values espoused by the icon to whom the world was bidding farewell.
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Ramaphosa, then ANC deputy president, was the master of ceremonies at the event and had to contain the commotion. He appealed several times to the crowd to quieten down. Eventually he said, in Zulu: "Don't embarrass us, we have overseas visitors here. We can deal with present-day stuff once the visitors have gone."The "present-day stuff" was the unfolding political, economic and social crisis in the country.As five and a half years passed, the crisis deepened and the rot became entrenched.On Wednesday, South Africans finally pushed back.Millions of people had a hard talk with the political elite, particularly in the ANC, through their voting choices, with some opting not to vote.The ANC slid below the 60% psychological barrier for the first time in 25 years of democracy, even though it held its majority nationally. It did so on the strength of Ramaphosa's commitment to restore the rule of law and rebuild the integrity of the state.Had any other person been leading the ANC, the party would have lost its majority, as shown by the split in national and provincial votes for the ANC. Ramaphosa has had favourable approval ratings since taking power and his Thuma Mina rallying call has engendered a positive spirit.
The election results reflect that the nation trusts him but loyalty to the ANC is steadily diminishing.
There is still no viable alternative to the ANC to govern the country. The election revealed a fragmentation of the vote, and laid bare the fact that millions of people are losing faith in the political system.
The turnout, at 65,9%, was the lowest in the democratic era and the number of spoilt ballots constituted the sixth-largest bloc among the votes cast.
Years of frustration have now boiled over, mainly from the government not listening to the cries for help through service delivery protests, xenophobic attacks and destruction of infrastructure.
The ANC suffered immense brand damage during the Zuma years, and now represents a culture of corruption, wealth accumulation and arrogant entitlement.
The boos that resounded in that rain-drenched stadium in 2013 have echoed across the nation through the ballot box.
After Mandela's death, the ANC and the country coursed past Dante's nine circles to a netherworld where the elite feed off the poor and the poor sink into hopelessness.
SA became the worst version of itself.
Three months after Mandela's burial, former public protector Thuli Madonsela released her report on the security upgrades at Zuma's Nkandla home. It showed that R246m of taxpayers' money was wasted on the former president's private home, including non-security features such as a swimming pool and a chicken run.
The scandal exhibited Zuma's belief that the state and its resources were at his disposal, as well as his refusal to be held accountable.
The ANC tried desperately to shield him and smother public outrage, therefore adopting the damage.
In May 2014, the country went to the polls. The ANC's support dropped, particularly in Gauteng where the emerging middle class signalled its fatigue with scandal and bad governance.
The ANC disregarded the warning lights while Zuma and his newly constituted cabinet simply switched gear, accelerating towards political and economic decline.
Ramaphosa was now at Zuma's side, as his deputy. His plan seemed to be to sit tight until the moment of his coronation came.
At the time, state capture was still largely unobserved and the tentacles of the Gupta family were penetrating the heart of the government and state-owned enterprises undisturbed.
In 2015, their project was peaking. Entities such as Eskom, Denel and Transnet were being looted while people like Tom Moyane at the SA Revenue Service and Mthandazo Berning Ntlemeza at the Hawks were decimating vital organs of the state.
Then came the explosion.
In December 2015, two years after Mandela's death, Zuma fired his finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene, in frustration over his thwarting of a trillion-rand nuclear deal.
The country lost billions. Zuma resented having to correct his mess by appointing Pravin Gordhan as finance minister.
The events of December 2015 made it obvious that Zuma was willing to sacrifice the country in service of his benefactors.
Ramaphosa manoeuvred behind the scenes but did nothing publicly to signal his opposition to Zuma's ruinous crusade.
In March 2016, then deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas broke the covenant of silence in the ANC. He made public the Guptas' offer of a massive bribe and their desire to promote him to finance minister.
This triggered the surfacing of further evidence of state capture, and SA's banks closed the Guptas' bank accounts. The ANC, however, fell for the Gupta-driven propaganda campaign that said the move was racially driven. It refused to act against the hijacking of its electoral mandate.
In August 2016, it received a hammering in the municipal elections, tumbling to 53.9% of the vote and losing control of key metros, including the capital city and the country's economic powerhouse.
It was only in March 2017, in the face of another act of wilful sabotage, that Ramaphosa broke ranks. He openly condemned Zuma's removal of Gordhan and Jonas from the finance ministry and found his voice on state capture.
This launched his bid for the presidency of the ANC, which rode on the back of the mass public campaign against Zuma.
In May 2017, the Sunday Times published the first of the Gupta e-mails, setting off a series of explosive revelations about the pillaging of the state by the family and their cohorts.
Ramaphosa evolved into the "coming man", commandeering the anti-corruption campaign and positioning himself as the only leader who could possibly secure victory for the ANC in 2019.
In December 2017, Ramaphosa was elected the 14th president of the ANC in a tightly fought race with the Zuma camp.
Power shifted almost immediately and two months later, Zuma made a whimpering exit from office.
Ramaphosa's elevation to high office was messy, not at all the way that, in December 2012, he had envisaged his return to active politics. He had never wanted to compete for positions in the ANC and had hoped to have a smooth ride to the Union Buildings.
Instead it was a dogfight against Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to win the leadership of the ANC and Ramaphosa almost had to wrestle Zuma out of the west wing of the Union Buildings.
Had Zuma remained in office, the ANC's election campaign would have been like trying to scoop hot lava back into a volcano. Opposition parties made major gains from Zuma's trashing of the ANC's image and the state capture contagion.
The 15-month transitional period gave Ramaphosa time to mop up some of the mess and set in place the process of rehabilitation.
In his first state of the nation address, last year, a day after taking the oath of office, Ramaphosa was already the instant statesman.
"Fellow South Africans, I believe that our country has entered a period of change. While change can produce uncertainty, even anxiety, it also offers great opportunities for renewal and revitalisation, and for progress," he said. "Together we are going to make history in our country."
There was a sense of relief across the nation. It was as if Ramaphosa had released SA from a hostage situation.
But the honeymoon quickly faded as an intense fightback campaign was mounted against Ramaphosa and his key ministers.
This gained momentum through a realignment of political forces, a coalition of the wounded led by Zuma and ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, and those maligned by the clean-up campaign in the state. This was backed by a fierce social media campaign, one that was appropriated by the EFF to fend off its own allegations of corruption.
Ramaphosa maintained his unruffled demeanour, going on with business as usual and never taking the opportunity to attack his enemies.
He has stuck with the strategy of the "long game", banking on his opponents eventually being tripped up by law enforcement agencies for their involvement in grand corruption.
Ramaphosa set up multiple commissions of inquiry to probe the infestation of the state, allowing the nation to journey through the rot.
This has been a necessary step to rebuild the credibility of institutions, but the commissions have heightened public restlessness at the lack of prosecutions.
The Zondo commission has left no doubt that the ANC leadership has been heavily compromised by patronage, bribery and rent-seeking. Witnesses at the inquiry provided stunning accounts of the brazen takeover of state institutions and the abuse of access to power by the Zuma, Gupta and Watson families, the latter of Bosasa infamy.
The appointment of Shamila Batohi as national director of public prosecutions made her a lead character in Ramaphosa's cast of players to restore stability and credibility to the state. The establishment of a special investigative directorate on state capture will be the key weapon in Batohi's arsenal once it is properly resourced and staffed.
The National Prosecuting Authority is yet to bring a high-profile case to court, and if Ramaphosa had the urge to get Batohi to demonstrate action against corruption to boost the ANC's election campaign, he certainly did not act on it.
A cornerstone of the transitional period was the process of stabilising and reforming embattled state-owned enterprises and curbing their drain on the fiscus.
In the meantime, Eskom, the ground zero of the state capture project, hit the rocks. At the end of last year, load-shedding resumed due to an unexpectedly high number of plant outages. In February, the crisis escalated as rotational blackouts suddenly went to stage 4.
Public frustration mounted as finance minister Tito Mboweni scraped up funds to give the power utility a lifeline and Gordhan, now the public enterprises minister, engaged in a massive intervention to stabilise the power supply.
Ramaphosa, meanwhile, swept across the country on the election trail, promising to deal with chronic problems of joblessness, the lack of housing and bad service delivery.
A defining moment during the campaign was when the president got stuck on a commuter train between Mabopane and Pretoria, experiencing first-hand the frustrations of ordinary South Africans struggling with a dysfunctional public transport system and generally poor services and infrastructure.
This was a complex election campaign with neither the ANC nor the DA looking particularly worthy on their governance record. This was exemplified by the protests in Alexandra and the resultant blame game between leaders from national, provincial and local government.
While Ramaphosa's charisma lit up the ANC's campaign, his main pledge to stamp out corruption was undermined by his own party. In an act of self-sabotage, the ANC compiled an election list topped with a number of people implicated in corruption and enabling state capture.
Zuma and Magashule, both heavily implicated in serious corruption, proved to be a toxic twosome, countering the positive energy around Ramaphosa and nullifying his commitments to clean up the ANC and the state.
The campaign was also marked by tragedy as more than 70 people perished in devastating floods in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. The deaths spoke to the calamitous conditions in which millions of people live across the country without hope of better lives.
Ramaphosa voyaged through the nation, listening to the voices that nobody hears outside of election cycles. His expression of shock at many of the country's endemic problems reflected the disconnect between those in power and the people they lead.
It has been the harshest of journeys to power for the man who wrote the script for how SA should be governed.
Through the negotiated settlement that produced the democratic era and the constitution that stands watch over the nation, Ramaphosa envisaged what his country ought to be.
But in the wrong hands, the republic fell into deep distress.
This nation of tragedy and injustice, of forgotten legends and shattered dreams, needs hope.
SA's sixth democratic election was not about crosses on ballot papers. It was a long, painful epistle from the nation to its leaders, asking them to halt the betrayal and the plunge into the abyss.
The New Dawn has come and gone.
For the journey ahead, we must find our true north.
It is Ramaphosa's moment to point the way.

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