South Africa: Getting the band back together
Barack Obama was elected on a tidal wave of hope, but battled in vain to manage expectations about how much he could change. Cyril Ramaphosa won his party’s internal election on a knife’s edge, and managing hope is no less tricky for him. Within hours of Ramaphosa’s December elevation to president of the governing African National Congress (ANC), the rand rose to a three-month high against the US dollar. More importantly, hope returned. Disenchantment had set in as corruption under former president Jacob Zuma tightened its grip, with even loyal ANC voters drifting off to the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Democratic Alliance (DA).
Though there have been clear victories for Ramaphosa in displacing some corrupt networks – including the March sacking of the South African Revenue Service boss Tom Moyane and the shuffling off of disgraced ministers – the shine has come off in recent months.
Former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas, who Zuma fired for speaking out against ‘state capture’ and the infamous Gupta family, told reporters that the country should resist “Ramaphoria”, pointing out that growth was negative in the first three months of the year.
Rand Merchant Bank economist Isaah Mhlanga says ANC divisions are driving poor investor sentiment: “We have to stop the downward momentum.”
Former president Zuma and his allies who remain in powerful positions in the ANC are behind that downward tilt. In June, Zuma sat in the dock at the Durban High Court on 16 counts offraud, money laundering and racketeering as his close allies and friends kept a watchful eye on proceedings. These include the disgraced former South African Broadcasting Corporation boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng, North West Province ANC chair Supra Mahumapelo and Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association spokesman Carl Niehaus.
Outside the Durban court, hundreds of supporters – dressed in their ANC regalia – were singing pro-Zuma songs. Inside, former ministers like Faith Muthambi and Black First Land First leader Andile Mngxitama watched as Zuma again reminded the crowd that he is a victim. “I did nothing,” pleaded Zuma, before turning threatening. “I am not a coward. I don’t fear. I know politics. I don’t know it from a distance,” he told the crowd, warning that he might reveal some secrets that party leaders may not want the public to know.
Playing the victim has saved Zuma before – especially in his fight with another former president, Thabo Mbeki. “We will forever support [Zuma] no matter what the consequences,” Mahumapelo told supporters.
That could mean political gridlock. “Look at what is happening in my province, KwaZulu-Natal [KZN],” says Makhosi Khoza, a former member of parliament and chair of the portfolio committee on public service and administration. She quit the ANC in September after facing disciplinary measures for her criticism of Zuma. “There are so many people on the ground that have benefited from the Zuma patronage network, almost the entire leadership went to court to support him. This is a dangerous situation, and Ramaphosa has limited power.”
A few hours after Zuma’s court appearance, chaos erupted at an ANC provincial conference in KZN. Many delegates booed one of Ramaphosa’s key allies, the party’s national chairman, Gwede Mantashe, when he tried to address them. With some branches complaining about voting irregularities and obtaining a court interdict to stop voting, a KZN ANC elective congress has been put off until at least July. The ANC has more members from KZN than from any other province, and the upheaval there does not bode well.
So how much damage can Zuma’s supporters really do? The recent flurry of court cases to try to hang on to control of ANC provincial structures shows their strategy – keep hold of areas where they can retain patronage money and influence. Zuma’s allies rely on the provincial power bases of the ANC in places like Free State, Limpopo and Mpumalanga to apply pressure on the national party.
Khoza argues that there is an unspoken cold war within the ANC, with the different factions all vying for power and contradicting each other. “The chief whip, Jackson Mthembu, did some appointments in parliament, then the secretary general, Ace Magashule, withdrew some of the people that the chief whip had appointed. So who is in charge?” asks Khoza.
Part of the problem is that Zuma stuffed much of the ANC hierarchy with placemen the course of his two terms. Political analyst and author Ralph Mathekga says that after the vicious political fight at the ANC national conference in December, when Zuma sought to get his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to succeed him, Ramaphosa is still in the boxing ring. “He is [against] street fighters who know the ANC better than him. He is the opposite of Zuma, who didn’t care about the workings of government and was more interested in the inner workings of the ANC.”
The key elements of this pro-Zuma faction on the political side are provincial premiers and former premiers like Mahumapelo and Magashule. On the security front, State Security Agency director general, Arthur Fraser, holds the keys, while Shaun Abrahams still sits atop the National Prosecuting Authority.
Ruling Party Split
Ramaphosa is clearly trying to dislodge this merry band, but he does not have a free hand to do so. Dennis George, head of the Federation of Unions of South Africa, tells The Africa Report: “The [ANC] National Executive Committee [NEC] is usually the grouping who is able to move against people […] like they did against Jacob Zuma. If Cyril cannot get this group firmly behind his vision then it will weaken him.” The NEC ‘top six’ are Ramaphosa, deputy president David Mabuza, chairman Mantashe, secretary general Magashule, deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte and treasurer Paul Mashatile.
Ramaphosa’s political opponents also say that his party is not yet fully behind him. DA leader Mmusi Maimane told reporters: “Internally, the ANC cannot see eye-to-eye on a litany of issues […]. The ruling party’s top six is split down the middle, and therefore many of the political decisions that influence government are reduced to a tussle between two factions within the ruling party.”
Zuma’s court case and the last-minute court interdict stopping the KZN ANC conference is worrying ANC watchers. The province has been without leadership since a 2017 court ruling nullified its 2015 elective conference. And it is not just in the volatile KZN, but also in Free State that Ramaphosa has struggled to impose himself. There, suspended Dihlabeng municipality mayor Lindiwe Makhalema has been the most vocal in her opposition to Ramaphosa, calling him a “stinking sellout”.
With the backing of allies like ANC stalwart Cheryl Carolus and businessman Sipho Pityana, President Ramaphosa wants to deal decisively with those who are looting the state’s coffers. But others preach a focus on the long game, claiming the KZN case shows the president does not yet have the control he needs to shake things up.
An insider on the Ramaphosa team tells The Africa Report: “He is taking people out one by one […]. He is President and has access to state power. The institutions of the state are taking them out.”
Putting on the squeeze
That can be seen in Ramaphosa’s boa-constrictor approach to his enemies. Take the spy boss, Fraser, who is said to hold compromising files on many top politicians. Ramaphosa has set up a ‘task team’ on which he placed key allies like former police minister Sydney Mufamadi and former spy chief Barry Gilder. It will, “seek to identify all material factors that allowed for some of the current challenges within the [State Security Agency]”, according to the presidency. In essence, the team will quietly prepare grounds for Fraser’s dismissal.
Ramaphosa appears to be gathering momentum. Despite Zuma’s friends making moves in KZN, his support there is on the rise. The Congress of South African Trade Unions Western Cape leader, Tony Ehrenreich, says: “KZN was always Jacob Zuma’s base. They are fighting, but it is clear that Zuma is no longer in control and he is on the retreat […] no matter how much noise he makes.”
In May, the ANC National Working Committee (which is appointed by the NEC) unanimously agreed to replace Zuma-ally Mahumapelo with the more neutral Job Mokgoro as premier of North West Province. Mahumapelo had faced violent protests about corruption and poor service delivery.
Magashule could prove more difficult. One possible tactic is the use of deputy president David Mabuza – who flipped against the Zuma camp in the December polls – to neutralise Magashule’s aggressive campaign to undermine Ramaphosa. Insiders see Magashule’s hand quietly fanning the flames of conflict in Free State and Eastern Cape, for example.
Expect another ‘task team’ to investigate abuse soon in Magashule’s home base of Free State, where he is already facing criminal charges. If, as is likely, the ANC wins the elections planned for mid-2019, then Ramaphosa will have more space to act. Until then, the boa-constrictor mechanism and expectation management are his top priorities.
This article first appeared in the July/August 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine