POLITICS
14/02/2018 04:45 SAST | Updated 14/02/2018 05:01 SAST

Ramaphosa Wins The Recall, But Loses The Moment

The transition from President Jacob Zuma holds many lessons.

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INSIGHT

In January, South Africa returned from its annual holiday to a whole new mood. There was a new sheriff in town, and things were happening.

Eskom was exorcised and put on track for a fix, the National Prosecuting Authority's Asset Forfeiture Unit unveiled a fat packet of state capture cases it was investigating, and President Jacob Zuma announced a commission of inquiry into state capture.

Mike Hutchings / Reuters
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa . . . the determined way in which he has publicly communicated his agenda has led to a new feeling of optimism in South Africa.

The president was clearly acting on the instruction of ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa, and the palpable power shift changed the national mood.

Then Ramaphosa took the political rejuvenation across the waters to the power pow-wow, the World Economic Forum at Davos. By all accounts, he did very well to sell the story of a fundamental change in South Africa. The markets responded well, and the currency strengthened — it's always a good barometer of sentiment, because it is highly traded. This short time of hope even had a name: the Cyril Spring.

NOW IT'S A JACOB ZUMA WINTER

Witness how the mood has changed completely. The ANC has repeatedly acknowledged that a difficult political transition from Ramaphosa to Zuma has made South Africa uncertain and anxious.

The country has been on a political death watch for all of February, as Zuma has repeatedly delayed his inevitable exit. Uncertainty has replaced hope, and very quickly the country has slid back in the culture of brinkmanship and instability that has been such a staple feature of the Zuma administration.

Zuma is the smiling assassin, and while he led Ramaphosa along, believing they had a deal, there was no such thing – the president was always going to take it to the brink and force a recall.

Ramaphosa wanted a quick and peaceful transition: in his parlance, he wanted a change of power that did not humiliate Zuma. But did he go too softly-softly in parlaying with the street-fighter?

There's a good argument to make for this. Ramaphosa stepped back from the battle-line when he postponed last week's meeting of the party's top brass who sit on its national executive committee (NEC). Instead, he sought to negotiate an amicable exit with Zuma. With the benefit of hindsight, this was a huge mistake.

HuffPost has previously reported that Zuma's middle name, Gedleyihlekisa — the name given to him by his father — is a shortened form of the Zulu sentence "ngeke ngithule umuntu engigedla engihlekisa" ("I won't keep quiet when someone deceives me with a beautiful smile while he is doing damage to me").

SIPHIWE SIBEKO1 / Reuters
Jacob Zuma, the victim, outside the Pietermaritzburg High Court in 2008.

Zuma is the smiling assassin, and while he led Ramaphosa along, believing they had a deal, there was no such thing — the president was always going to take it to the brink and force a recall.

RAMAPHOSA DRAWS A LINE IN THE SAND

When Ramaphosa realised he had been played, he used Sunday's speech in Cape Town to channel the spirit of the ANC's legendary leader Nelson Mandela and draw a line in the sand.

"As we emerge from a period of difficulty, disunity, and discord, this centenary year offers us a new beginning," he said.

In the end, the talks snagged on Zuma's demand for a three to six month notice period in office.

"It offers us an opportunity to restore to our national life the values and principles for which he so firmly stood. It offers us an opportunity to return our struggle to the path along which Nelson Mandela led us.

"It is the interests of you, our people, that must be put first, and not the interests of anyone else," he said.

Then he drew the line in the sand: "The NEC will be meeting tomorrow [Monday] to discuss this very matter, and because our people want this matter to be finalised, the NEC will be doing precisely that."

AND ZUMA BREACHES THE LINE IN THE SAND

By Tuesday, the line had been breached by Zuma, who refused to resign after playing Ramaphosa in talks: he kept changing the goal-posts of the negotiation. In the end, the talks snagged on Zuma's demand for a three- to six-month notice period in office.

Sumaya Hisham / Reuters
President Jacob Zuma at Tuynhuys in Cape Town earlier this week, after leading Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to believe there's progress in their talks.

Because of our history, South Africa loves a victim. After all, "Ag, shame" is a national term that cuts across class and race.

Zuma has been most powerful when he has been the victim: first as the prisoner of the odious apartheid regime, and then later when he cast himself as the victim of an elitist ANC under Mbeki and moulded himself into the image of the man who would return the party to the people.

By pussyfooting around the president, Ramaphosa has allowed Zuma to open up a victim corner for himself, by being recalled instead of resigning.

Make no mistake, the ANC recall is a powerful weapon that has been unleashed. Zuma can game for a few more days, but he has to resign.

A resignation would have carried a measure of responsibility; a recall is a punishment.

The president's victim corner may not be a very powerful spot any longer, because all surveys show his support has plummeted around the country — but it allowed Zuma to breach the firm deadline of Monday that Ramaphosa had set.

A MATTER OF DAYS

Make no mistake, the ANC recall is a powerful weapon that has been unleashed. Zuma can game for a few more days, but he has to resign.

Ramaphosa will be over the painful interregnum, and he can resume the reformist path, which saw 2018 start on the vibrant note.

James Oatway / Reuters
African National Congress (ANC) Secretary-General Ace Magashule and members of the ANC National Executive Committee address a media conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, February 13, 2018. REUTERS/James Oatway

The painful transition away from Zuma does, however, hold important lessons for Ramaphosa as he moves forward. Until now, he has privileged ANC unity over the needs of the country. The ANC is divided, as the party's secretary-general Ace Magashule displayed on national television when he attempted to communicate the decision to recall Zuma.

Instead of using the moment to drive home the message of probity and change, Magashule created confusion by saying that Zuma was being recalled because Ramaphosa needed to deliver the state of the nation address, and not because he had done anything wrong.

The ANC president's reformist agenda risks being muddied, if his secretary-general and the rest of the party leadership is not aligned with his key messages of being anti-corruption and of being a new broom.

Ramaphosa is going to have to move more boldly in future to privilege the nation over the party.