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Can Ramaphosa seize this crisis to change South Africa?

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Friday, 23 July 2021 14:55

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks to the media while visiting a shopping centre which was damaged after several days of looting following the imprisonment of former South Africa President Jacob Zuma in Durban
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks to the media while visiting a shopping centre which was damaged after several days of looting following the imprisonment of former South Africa President Jacob Zuma in Durban, South Africa, July 16, 2021. REUTERS/Rogan Ward - RC2LLO9YLVSV

Beyond reshuffles of the cabinet, there are many urging President Ramaphosa to seize this 'revolutionary' moment to enact fundamental changes both for the ruling ANC and the wider economy. But those closest to the president suggest Ramaphosa's slow-but-sure approach is unlikely to change.

More than two weeks after infighting in the African National Congress spilled over into large-scale looting and violence, killing over 300 people, leaders of the oldest liberation movement are preparing to take stock.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has been under pressure to reshuffle his cabinet after some ministers in his security cluster were caught flat-footed when the imprisonment of his political foe – former president Jacob Zuma – on July 7, escalated into the worst violence the country has experienced since it became a democracy in 1994. Zuma was sentenced to prison for 15 months for contempt of court after ignoring an order to testify before an inquiry into large-scale corruption under his watch.

For more than four days, malls and warehouses in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces were looted as the police looked on. There were fears of further violence on Thursday when Zuma was granted compassionate leave to attend the funeral of his brother, Michael, but the day passed without an incident.

The disappearance of one million rounds of live ammunition during the looting and continued protests in KwaZulu-Natal have led to speculation that further violence could follow. The masterminds are also still at large.

Mutiny of ministers?

The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) has warned that the contradictions between ministers in Ramaphosa’s security cluster, including an open disagreement between police minister Bheki Cele and state security minister Ayanda Dlodlo about the failure of intelligence, could result in a ‘mutiny’ in cabinet. The DA added that Ramaphosa should get rid ‘of deadweight ministers clearly out of touch with reality and unable to fulfill their mandates’.

He must read them the riot act and assert the authority of the president, and move on.

On Monday, the ANC will hold a special meeting for its core leaders within the national working committee, as well as provincial chairs and secretaries. Such meetings are unusual, even though in February 2018, one of them resulted in Zuma stepping down as president. On the other hand, slightly over half of the party leadership supports Ramaphosa, so it’s unlikely that they will force him to resign over the recent riots.

Even so, Ramaphosa is said to have been furious about how ministers publicly contradicted his explanation of what happened. In his address to the nation, he had referred to the protests as an ‘insurrection’ but his defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula told members of parliament that it was an ‘insurgency’ and a ‘counter-revolution’. This implies that the violence was due to infighting in the party, rather than a failed coup – as Ramaphosa hinted.

“If it is an insurrection, then the insurrection must have a face,” Mapisa-Nqakula said. “If it’s about a coup, the coup will also have a face, but so far, none of those talk to that.”

Should Ramaphosa be unseated, or in the unlikely event that a vote of no confidence against him is passed in parliament, deputy president David Mabuza would be the most likely successor. However, in the last week of June, Mabuza left for medical treatment in Russia and his office indicated that he is still recuperating abroad. Both the Ramaphosa and Zuma camps in the ANC view Mabuza with mistrust.

Caution advised

Ramaphosa’s allies have cautioned against an immediate cabinet reshuffle, as it could spark a ‘revolt’ against him and even a motion of no confidence – which would need the support of at least half of the ANC’s caucus for it to succeed. Since its last elective conference in December 2017, the ANC has been almost split in the middle and it’s unclear how solid his support in the caucus is.

There is also pressure on Ramaphosa to use the crisis to effect some reforms, amongst others to the social welfare system.

“It is what’s going to destabilise the country again,” one of his allies in Gauteng said. “He must read them the riot act and assert the authority of the president, and move on.” According to him, Ramaphosa should continue cracking the whip on corrupt party members and allow legal proceedings against those who took part in the looting as well as those who instigated it.

Rebuilding the party?

Ramaphosa’s ‘reform’ efforts in the ANC has seen a number of the party’s structures disbanded and its corruption-accused secretary general, Ace Magashule, suspended. Magashule, who is in the Zuma camp but has kept a low profile since the riots, is set to face disciplinary charges that could lead to his expulsion after he defied the conditions of his suspension.

The inability to have physical meetings to elect new leaders, due to Covid-19, has seen the party limping along with depleted structures. The party’s staff members have also threatened a strike as cash flow problems mean their salaries haven’t been paid regularly.

On Thursday 22 July, the ANC Youth League’s interim leadership further announced in a letter “the dissolution of all structures that are not in line with the constitutional provisions in relation to the term of office and structures that are led by people who do not comply with the age specifications as outlined”.

This is likely to purge the remaining provincial structures of the league, which in the past has been one of Zuma’s strong support blocs. Another of Zuma’s vocal support blocs, the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association, has also been disbanded. However, some members of the leadership such as spokesperson Carl Niehaus – who has been one of the most vocal leaders calling for Zuma’s release – have defiantly ignored the disbandment. The disbandment of these structures is set to be discussed by the party soon.

Basic income grant

There is also pressure on Ramaphosa to use the crisis to effect some reforms, amongst others to the social welfare system. Analysts have highlighted the recent discontinuation of the R350 (20euro) Covid-19 grant as one of the reasons for last week’s discontentment.

On Sunday night, Ramaphosa told a party webinar that a basic income grant would show that government cares. “This will validate our people and show them that we are giving serious consideration to their lives,” he said. “We need to address the structural inequalities in our economy.”

The basic income grant would be the most transformative policy introduced since 1994.

But economist Duma Gqubula, who has been campaigning for such a basic income grant, said introduction it would lead to a clash between Ramaphosa and his finance minister Tito Mboweni. According to him, the government is more likely to re-introduce the Covid-19 income support grant and a rescue fund for businesses.

He said the basic income grant would be “the most transformative policy introduced since 1994” and would lead people to forgive the ANC for its mistakes, including inadequate service delivery in many local councils. It would “also signal a radical change of economic policies that have focused on pleasing rating agencies at the expense of addressing the unprecedented socio economic crisis,” he said.

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