South Africa’s President Ramaphosa is finally growing a spine

Carien du Plessis
By Carien du Plessis

Carien du Plessis is a journalist based in South Africa, author of Understanding South Africa, and Woman in the Wings: Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma and the Race for the Presidency

Posted on Thursday, 17 March 2022 11:32, updated on Friday, 18 March 2022 07:24

South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa in Pretoria, South Africa, March 11, 2022. Elmond Jiyane/Government Communication Information System (GCIS)/Handout via REUTERS

With a few months to go to the ANC's elective conference, President Cyril Ramaphosa finally appears to be asserting himself. From promoting his candidates, to the building up the police and intelligence departments, to cleaning up cabinet and starting to control the structures of the ruling ANC, Ramaphosa's will is - finally - coming through.

Last week, he promoted deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo to chief justice after mulling over the decision for several weeks. Ramaphosa becomes the first president not to appoint a candidate recommended by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), after inviting public participation in the process.

The president of the Supreme Court of Appeal, Mandisa Maya, had vocal support from Ramaphosa’s detractors at the JSC, one of whom was Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters party. They wanted to block Zondo’s promotion by pushing for Maya to become South Africa’s first female chief justice – a position that also had some public appeal.

Zondo is particularly susceptible to attack as he presided over the state capture inquiry, which implicated a number of high-ranking ANC leaders in large-scale corruption. He also has only two years until retirement. However, through his appointment, Ramaphosa sent a message about who he is siding with in the battle against corruption.

Maya, for her part, looks set to be recommended for the deputy chief justice position, which means that she is likely to get the top post in 2024, when Zondo retires.

Strengthening policing and intelligence

Since his appointment as president, Ramaphosa has been reforming the security services (which were weakened under former President Jacob Zuma) so as to prevent prosecution of government officials linked to graft.

He first strengthened the National Prosecuting Authority and then centralised the country’s intelligence services at his office in August last year, after a wave of riots and looting which left more than 300 people dead. Zuma’s imprisonment sparked the riots, which were mostly concentrated in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng.

Treason charges could be brought against several high-ranking ANC politicians and businesspeople identified as masterminds.

Zuma was imprisoned after he ignored a constitutional court order compelling him to testify at the Zondo commission over corruption that allegedly took place during his administration.

At the end of February, Ramaphosa axed the police chief, Khehla Sithole, who was deeply compromised and blamed for lack of proper police action during the July riots, in which citizens were left to fend for themselves. Sithole also refused to declassify documents around the procurement of a grabber at the inflated price of R45m ($2.9m), which was procured ahead of the ANC’s 2017 conference.

The masterminds of the July riots have not been named or arrested. However, this week, News24 reported that the lengthy investigation was finally yielding results and that treason charges could be brought against several high-ranking ANC politicians and businesspeople identified as masterminds, including ministers.

Should this come to pass, it would be another positive development for Ramaphosa.

Cleaning up cabinet

The exclusion of former state security minister Ayanda Dlodlo from cabinet is another boost for Ramaphosa. Ahead of the July riots, there was apparent lack of proper intelligence, although Dlodlo refused to take responsibility for this.

She was moved to the public service and administration portfolio in August last year, but will be soon taking up a new job at the World Bank in Washington DC.

Ramaphosa has since scrapped the state security portfolio, which is now being managed by the presidency. Two weeks ago, he appointed Thembi Majola, a former diplomat and deputy energy minister, as the director-general of the State Security Agency, a position that has been vacant.

Defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, who is also said to have bungled the government’s response to the riots, was moved out of her portfolio in August, after almost a decade in the position.

ANC structures

Even within the ANC, things are going Ramaphosa’s way, and he seems to be on track to be elected for a second term, when the party holds its elective conference in December.

Secretary general Ace Magashule, one of the main obstacles in his way, was suspended from his position in May last year, after being charged with corruption related to a multi-million rand asbestos eradication tender, which was awarded while he was Free State premier – the case dates back to 2014.

One of Ramaphosa’s loyalists, Gwen Ramokgopa (she was previously a deputy minister and Tshwane mayor, but hasn’t served in government since 2014), has in the past few weeks been roped in to help in the secretary general’s office. Deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte, who was acting secretary general, was on sick leave in December.

Many of the party’s structures are in disarray, thus making it more difficult for anyone to launch a challenge.

Ramaphosa’s detractors have contested this move since the secretary general’s job is crucial in getting the party’s structures conference-ready. Anybody making a bid for the presidency needs the secretary general on their side to succeed.

Another factor that favours Rampaphosa is that many of the party’s structures are in disarray, thus making it more difficult for anyone to launch a challenge. The ANC Youth League is already being run by an unelected task team that is friendly to Ramaphosa, while the ANC Women’s League president, Bathabile Dlamini, was last week convicted of perjury (she lied while she was a minister). It is possible that she could be forced to step down even before the league has its elective conference in June – two years after it was due.

The party doesn’t have elected leaders in five out of the nine provinces, but all the provinces are expected to have their elective conferences before the party’s national elective conference in December.

Hurdles to reform

Politically, he may be doing well, but Ramaphosa still faces a challenge on the streets. Violent afrophobic sentiments leading to attacks on foreign traders in their shops and homes, as well as on cross-border truck drivers, are harming Ramaphosa’s efforts to be considered a good leader within the continent and to advocate for free trade as well as fair distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.

The threat of widespread civil unrest remains, with violent protests over the lack of affordable housing and unemployment already commonplace.

Still, with his way to a second term cleared, Ramaphosa can now afford to act a little more boldly in an effort to fix some of the damage inflicted during the Zuma years.

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