South Africa: What’s next for Ramaphosa after his ANC victory?

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Thursday, 22 December 2022 12:39

Newly re-elected president of the African National Congress (ANC) Cyril Ramaphosa speaks at the close of the 55th National Conference of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) at the Nasrec Expo Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, December 20, 2022. REUTERS

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has been returned by his party, the governing African National Congress (ANC), for a second term, with top party officials in his corner. However, the number of tainted leaders in the party's powerful national executive committee seem to indicate that his "renewal" project hasn't taken root as yet, and his next cabinet reshuffle could be tricky.

On the morning of 19 December, it took Ramaphosa a second or two to realise that his name was being called from the podium as the winner at the ANC’s elective conference. Moments before, he’d vacated the stage together with his fellow leaders in anticipation of the results.

Supporters literally picked him up and pushed him back up there.

The billionaire gives the impression of being a reluctant president, which plays out well in a country where a former president clung to power to avoid prosecution and to enrich himself and his clique.

It was only 24 hours earlier that the 4,000-odd ANC delegates had queued to cast their votes for the party’s top seven officials. Provincial delegations that had vouched to support him before the conference, began to declare – one by one – that they were turning.

Accusations were flying over how Ramaphosa’s distance from his own re-election campaign could end up costing him. For example, he only intervened at the 11th hour to try to convince one of the two deputy presidential candidates in his corner to withdraw from the race to prevent Paul Mashatile from getting the job.

His intervention was unsuccessful, and he is now saddled with a deputy he really didn’t want, for reasons yet to be publicly explained. One of his campaigners said there were suspicions that Mashatile, formerly party treasurer-general, used the party’s fundraising structures to also raise money for his own internal campaign.

Ramaphosa’s re-election – with 2467 votes against his contender, former health minister Zweli Mkhize’s 1897 – took place just over two weeks after his near-resignation. This followed a report in parliament, which said he had a case to answer over his alleged failure to report the theft of a large amount of dollars from a sofa on his game farm, Phala Phala.

However, almost all ANC MPs voted against the report and impeachment proceedings, which means that Ramaphosa has been cleared, for now.

Strengthened

In fact, he returned stronger with only two out of the party’s seven top leaders not in his camp. Unlike five years ago, when he was first elected party president, the most powerful full-time official elected alongside him was a fierce opponent.

He only had one staunch ally: Gwede Mantashe, the party chairperson and a highly experienced former unionist as well as party hack who played a key role in Ramaphosa’s recent re-election.

Mantashe was re-elected for a second term as chairperson and a fourth term overall on the party’s top leadership, having served before as secretary general under former president Jacob Zuma.

The party’s new secretary general, Fikile Mbalula, is an experienced party organiser who has previously headed up the party’s elections campaign team and its mass mobilisation committee.

The rabble-rouser was a mentor to Julius Malema before the latter was expelled from the ANC Youth League and founded the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters.

I am a commander in bringing discipline to the ANC… There will be no lawlessness in the ANC

Those who backed Mbalula’s election at the time said he would be well-placed to counter political attacks on the ANC by Malema.

There was also hope that the 51-year-old former youth league leader would be energetic enough to spearhead Ramaphosa’s “renewal” campaign in the party. A number of ANC leaders were also at risk of being expelled in a year or two as a number of those who had been re-elected were implicated in the report on state capture, released earlier this year.

“I am a commander in bringing discipline to the ANC,” Mbalula said on Monday night. “There will be no lawlessness in the ANC. Those who want to continue with those shenanigans must be ready for me.”

Thus far, the backlash to the campaign to rid the party of corrupt leaders has been harsh, and Ramaphosa’s opponents have been vocal in their opposition against him.

Zuma, who believes Ramaphosa is hell-bent on sending him to jail, even – unsuccessfully – attempted to institute a private prosecution against Ramaphosa ahead of the conference in an attempt to force him to step down.

Ramaphosa in his address to the conference on Tuesday said “there have been attempts to divide us, to provoke us and to divert us from the tasks that we must undertake”.

Some of those re-elected to the party’s top leadership structure, but who may face charges soon, include one of Zuma’s former ministers, Malusi Gigaba, who resigned after an erotic video he made of himself, purportedly for his then wife, found its way onto social media.

Gigaba was heavily implicated in the state capture project by his embittered ex-wife’s testimony.

The fate of Andile Lungisa, the former councillor of the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro, who was charged after he hit an opposition councillor with a glass jug, is also yet to be finalised by the party’s disciplinary committee. Lungisa ran a strong campaign in the anti-Ramaphosa camp and was also elected to the party’s national executive committee.

Cabinet reshuffle imminent

Mbalula has hinted that Ramaphosa will be reshuffling his cabinet early in the new year. There could also be at least two vacancies when Mbalula resigns from his position as transport minister to tend to party matters full-time. The public administration portfolio has been vacant since April when the minister, Ayanda Dlodlo, left to take up a position at the World Bank.

Incidentally, many commentators have regarded Mbalula’s resignation from cabinet as one of the biggest victories from the ANC’s conference, as his performance in government has been lacklustre.

Mbalula also hinted that Mashatile, who for the five years occupied a full-time position in the party, could be appointed deputy president in the place of David Mabuza, who failed to make it back to the party’s leadership.

Ministers who have been implicated in the state capture commission report include Mantashe (mineral resources and energy), deputy minister in the presidency for state security Zizi Kodwa, communications minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, and deputy water and sanitation minister David Mahlobo, who was Zuma’s intelligence minister. It remains to be seen how Ramaphosa will handle his allies should they be charged with wrongdoing.

Of course certain things are very difficult to fix in the next 18 months

Most commentators reckon the president has been politically strengthened and could up the pace of his anti-graft campaign. He is also expected to begin to fix the damage done to state-owned entities like electricity utility Eskom during Zuma’s presidency.

Ambassador Melanie Verwoerd, a former ANC lawmaker, says Ramaphosa should feel politically more secure and confident to take bold decisions without fearing that he might be recalled.

“Of course certain things are very difficult to fix in the next 18 months,” she said with reference to the state-owned entities. “There are certain economic and capacity constraints.”

She does believe, however, that Phala Phala might yet sink Ramaphosa. “If there is a formal charge the president will resign, if it is a serious charge,” she says.

However, this is likely to only be in the long term. More immediate is the party’s electoral fortunes, which have been declining.

Ramaphosa has less than a year and a half to the next general elections to convince the South African public that he is serious about clean governance.

“We can talk about policy all we want, but what this conference has to do is focus on getting things right the next 15 months,” a party veteran said on the sidelines of the conference. “If we can’t win the elections, what would be the use?”

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