POLITICS

Reluctant Ramaphosa Shows His Hand

Cosatu would not have thrown their weight behind Cyril Ramaphosa unless he agreed to it, which means the race is on.

25/11/2016 10:28 SAST | Updated 25/11/2016 12:33 SAST
Gallo
Cyril Ramaphosa, Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma at the Codesa negotiations at Kempton Park in December 1991. Mandela wanted Ramaphosa to succeed him, but Thabo Mbeki blindsided all of them in 1997, and became president in 1999. Ramaphosa has now signalled he wants to take over from Zuma.

COMMENT

Cyril Ramaphosa's full political comeback in 2012 at the African National Congress' (ANC) national conference in Bloemfontein came as a surprise.

Even though he was chairperson of the National Planning Commission where he worked closely with Trevor Manuel, he had been out of politics for more than a decade and was an established businessman, running the diversified company Shanduka and taking a stake in McDonald's South Africa. He was then elected deputy president of the ruling party.

In addition, Jacob Zuma's ANC was not Ramaphosa's, who was Nelson Mandela's choice to succeed him as president in 1999. Zuma had become embroiled in various scandals by then and Kgalema Motlanthe decided to challenge Zuma for the leadership as a matter of principle.

It's still not known exactly what was said or promised off-stage in the massive marquee tent on the grounds of the University of the Free State that December, but Ramaphosa — who has never been a supporter of Zuma — agreed to join the top six as Zuma's second-in-command, against Motlanthe.

It's still not known exactly what was said or promised off-stage in the massive marquee tent on the grounds of the University of the Free State that December, but Ramaphosa agreed to join the top six as Zuma's second-in-command, against Motlanthe.

In 2014 he divested from his businesses and became Zuma's deputy as head of state — and the questions around Ramaphosa's future kept swirling.

Thursday's announcement by the labour federation Cosatu, that it was supporting Ramaphosa to replace Zuma, is a significant boost for the former union boss.

Since assuming the deputy presidency he has been reluctant to involve himself in national political dialogue and opted to focus on his job as Leader of Government Business in Parliament and doing the dirty work Zuma delegated to him, which often were the most critical of hospital passes. Zuma gave him e-tolls, Eskom and SAA to sort out — all of them failed projects which drew massive public criticism.

Ramaphosa has supported his president in public, appearing alongside him at the opening of Parliament, the tabling of budgets and at press conferences before and after ANC leadership meetings.

Otherwise, he has been extraordinarily quiet and removed from the national discourse, saying nothing about the Constitutional Court's judgment after Nkandla, not much more after the elections and mostly silent on state capture.

Realpolitik of course dictates that he needs to choose his moment very carefully, a point his advisers have made privately for months. He cannot totally disassociate himself from the president and even though they have fundamental disagreements — on the economy, for example — it is simply bad (succession) politics to publicly oppose the president on any issue.

Realpolitik of course dictates that he needs to choose his moment very carefully, a point his advisors have made privately for months.

After all, he serves at the pleasure of Zuma.

Three key moments

There were three moments during the last year however where he has shown his hand — and that has not gone unnoticed by Zuma, who has a knack of sidelining his deputy (when, during 2010 and 2011, it became known to Zuma's staff that Motlanthe was building a significant support-base, he was sent packing on a series of nonsensical foreign missions, taking him out of circulation).

The first was Zuma's disastrous decision in December 2015 to fire Nhlanhla Nene as minister of finance.

Ramaphosa was the channel between government and the ANC and the captains of industry, who understood the significant damage that was about to be wrought on the South African economy if the Asian markets opened on the Monday after the previous weeks' drama.

He engaged with the ANC's top six leaders, including Zweli Mkhize and Gwede Mantashe, and lobbied select Cabinet colleagues to form a united front to challenge the president.

"It was Cyril who pulled the trigger... who told him if he doesn't undo what he's done, that there will be a revolt and ministerial resignations," the CEO of a major South African company with direct knowledge of events said at the time.

It was Cyril who pulled the trigger . . . who told him if he doesn't undo what he's done, that there will be a revolt and ministerial resignations

At a hastily arranged crisis meeting on Sunday, attended by government, ANC and business leaders, Zuma agreed to offer Pravin Gordhan the job, which Gordhan did after receiving assurances from among others, Ramaphosa.

The second moment was in August this year, where he delivered the eulogy at the funeral of former minister Makhenkesi Stofile, the same event where Sipho Pityana called for Zuma's resignation.

Ramaphosa told the audience that South Africa "now, perhaps more than ever", need leaders with integrity.

"We need people who understand... that politics must be about putting the country first. We need people who will stand up for what is right. We need people who will stand up and uphold the values of our movement.

He went on: "We need people who reject the notion that politics is about the promotion of one's self-interest."

This speech was carefully crafted by a tight circle of advisors, who wrote it as a declaration to members of the ANC that Ramaphosa is willing and able to lead. It also did not go unnoticed by Zuma.

This speech was carefully crafted by a tight circle of advisors, who wrote it as a declaration to members of the ANC that Ramaphosa is willing and able to lead. It also did not go unnoticed by Zuma.

The third moment was during the assault on Gordhan in October, after Shaun Abrahams, the national director of public prosecutions, decided to charge him.

Ramaphosa sent out an unusually defiant statement, saying he offered his "moral and political" support to Gordhan and that all South Africans must work together to "defend constitutional values".

It wasn't so much the content of the statement — in which he aligned himself to the rule of law — but the fact that he chose to do it at that moment, that gave us a glimpse of his positioning.

That, however, is the root of the problem with Ramaphosa — South Africans have merely been offered glimpses of his beliefs and convictions over the past year, nothing more. He has been largely silent and anonymous when the country has felt to be adrift and we don't know where he stands on critical issues like the economy or state capture.

Those in his small and tight inner-circle counter this by saying Ramaphosa is aware what's at stake and how to play the game. They also insist he has the desire and the guts to lead. The key however is when to go for Zuma's jugular, because if he doesn't succeed, it will be game over.

The key however is when to go for Zuma's jugular, because if he doesn't succeed, it will be game over.

After all, they say, he's still the same guy that terrorised mining executives in the 1980's as negotiator for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and that helped birth the Constitution. He knows what he's doing.

Cosatu would not have made such a strong pronouncement unless there were overtures between Ramaphosa and union leaders. The fact that they did, means Ramaphosa is all in.

The race has now well and truly started.