South Africa: Can the new pro-Zuma RETMO party topple Ramaphosa?

By Audrey Simango

Posted on Thursday, 26 January 2023 17:04
South Africa's former president Jacob Zuma and President Cyril Ramaphosa on July 5, 2017 in Johannesburg, South Africa. AFP PHOTO/MUJAHID SAFODIEN

Stung by the victory of arch-enemy President Cyril Ramaphosa at the ANC presidential elections in mid-December, some leaders of the ANC faction loyal to ex-president Jacob Zuma have announced that they are quitting the ruling ANC party to form a new far-left, party called the Radical Economic Transformation Movement (RETMO).

“Yes – I want to get rid of (president) Ramaphosa,” Carl Niehaus, the founder and chair of RETMO, boasted in a Twitter Spaces public audience that The Africa Report attended on 4 January.

Niehaus – a famous white South African political prisoner who, at 23, was tortured and sentenced to death by the white Apartheid government in 1983 for supporting the ANC’s guerrilla war – a former ambassador to the Netherlands, is also a former spokesperson for Nelson Mandela, the ANC, the Umkhonto WeSizwe (the ANC’s war-era rebel army), and a former ANC National Executive Committee, its ‘politburo’.

He is the most publicly visible ally of ex-president Jacob Zuma and has crisscrossed South Africa leading aggressive public protests advocating for Ramaphosa’s ousting. After four decades of membership, Niehaus was finally expelled from the ruling ANC party on 12 December, two days before the congress that re-elected Ramaphosa as ANC president.

“At the moment (RETMO) it’s a movement, it’s not a political party. We are registering as a non-profit,” Niehaus told the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation on 15 January, insisting that RETMO is not a party yet. He then gave away a hint: “What the future holds, I cannot tell you. This movement at some stage may become a political party.”

Promises made

RETMO has, much like Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), based its appeal on a promise to seize and return the land to Black South Africans without paying white farmers, and nationalising the South Africa Reserve Bank.

“Sadly the ANC changed. The ANC is no longer standing for those ideals of RET,” Niehaus told the public broadcaster, accusing the ruling ANC of being captured by what he calls ‘white monopoly capital’.

Radical Economic Transformation, RET, is a nickname adopted by the coalition of ANC seniors rallying around ex-president Jacob Zuma and seeking president Ramaphosa’s toppling.

Purpose of RETMO

Nothing is known yet about who is funding RETMO, but its associates include high-placed ANC members who are opposed to Ramaphosa.

Mervyn Dirk, the leader of anti-Ramaphosa ANC lawmakers, who defied party instructions and publicly voted for Ramaphosa’s impeachment in parliament in December, is a RETMO executive board member but has yet to resign from the ruling ANC.

“This is a pro-Jacob Zuma party forming with a sole mission of toppling president Ramaphosa in 2024 crunch elections, or even before,” Kudakwashe Magezi, a South Africa analyst, tells The Africa Report.

“It has two critical missions: lure ANC bigwigs to defect from the ANC before 2024 and weaken Ramaphosa or split the ANC’s vote in 2024, and cost Ramaphosa the presidency.”

Author, and South Africa observer, Yasin Kakande, warns that Ramaphosa should pay close attention to RETMO’s tactics as 2024 nears.

“If I was president Ramaphosa, I’d look at who’s likely to join RETMO. I see Ramaphosa’s arch-enemy Ace Magashule joining RETMO and helping slice away a huge chunk of the ANC voters,” Kakande tells The Africa Report.

Magashule, a kingmaker who ran an operation in South Africa’s key Free State province for two decades, is said to still command a wide following inside the ANC. “Carl Niehaus, RETMO’s founder, is Ace Magashule’s closest backer. The two won’t rest until Ramaphosa is dethroned.”

Independent economist Carter Mavhiza sees RETMO’s formation as part of a twin-pronged attack on Ramaphosa’s presidency ahead of 2024.

‘Clever political strategy’

“It’s a clever legal and political strategy: keep Ramapahosa sweating in court, defending against Zuma’s private prosecutions – and at the same time keep Ramaphosa anxious by forming an adversary political party that can steal or split his ANC voters.”

Niehaus, the RETMO founder, was seen last week in the South African high court showing solidarity with ex-president Jacob Zuma’s private criminal prosecution of president Ramaphosa.

‘The new RETMO ‘party’ could significantly damage Ramaphosa in 2024 if it allies with another far-left party, such as the EFF of Julius Malema. If that happens, the ANC could even sink further to 35% of the national vote, lower than the predicted 42%,” says Kakande.

However, economist Carter Mavhiza wonders if South African voters in 2024 still have an appetite to embrace another extreme-left party, knowing the racially divisive antics of Julius Malema’s EFF in the last 10 years.

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