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South Africa: Ramaphosa is winning the battle but still fighting the war

By Anna Maree
Posted on Friday, 30 April 2021 16:34, updated on Sunday, 2 May 2021 22:55

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa appears on behalf of the ruling African National Congress party at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into state corruption in Johannesburg, South Africa, Thursday, April 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Kim Ludbrook/Pool)

For two days, South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa looks to have made headway in damage control for the ANC at the State Capture Commission. While many are calling his appearance a smart PR move, the battle is far from over.

In his two-day testimony, President Cyril Ramaphosa had to balance between re-establishing internal and public trust in the ANC, and avoid being seen as a sell-out by his comrades and numerous detractors in the party.

Ramaphosa made a calculated gamble when he became the first sitting president in South Africa’s recent history to appear before a judicial commission of inquiry this week.

“It’s not everyone who will have that kind of courage, who will have their testimony in public and under scrutiny, and for some people, it’s career-limiting,” he told the body that was established to probe large-scale corruption — or state capture — during what he termed as “nine wasted years” under his predecessor, Jacob Zuma.

Allegations of serious corruption under Zuma’s watch started surfacing in 2011, two years after he became president, and a year before he was re-elected party president, with Ramaphosa as his deputy.

It is in his capacity as ANC president that Ramaphosa had to account for the large-scale corruption in the party when he was deputy, from 2012 to 2017, and the country’s deputy president from 2014.

A ‘watershed’ moment

In his description of the elections for ANC president in 2017, he painted a picture of a ‘watershed’ moment in the party’s fight against graft, saying that after years of denial, the majority of leaders in the party now acknowledge that state capture occurred and it was wrong.

Ten party heavyweights filled up one row in the spacious old Johannesburg city council chamber to support him this week. On the sidelines of the inquiry, team leader Jeff Radebe, a long-serving ANC policy head, endorsed Ramaphosa’s testimony on behalf of the party. “It was a very honest statement from our president indicating the role of the ANC,” he said, “cooperating with this commission of inquiry.”

“If you look at it superficially, Ramaphosa’s show [at the state capture inquiry] was a smart PR move,” said Theo Venter political and policy specialist at the North West University Business School.

This comes as Zuma faces possible jail time for walking out of the commission last year and defying a subsequent court order to testify further. Zuma said he considered the commission to be hostile and objected against the fact that the commission chair fathered a child with one of Zuma’s sisters-in-law, decades ago.

Many commentators have described the past week as a key moment in the ANC’s 109-year history, and a good one for Ramaphosa, who also managed to lead national celebrations for Freedom Day on Tuesday in the heartland of his archrival, party secretary-general Ace Magashule.

It’s the first non-virtual rally in a year, held under relaxed Covid-19 protocols. The visuals from Botshabelo, in the Free State, showed cheering crowds with none of the threatened disruptions.

Purged for ideological differences?

On 29 April, Ramaphosa’s supporters served a notice of suspension to one of his main detractors, Supra Mahumapelo, after the former North West premier ran parallel party structures in the province. Mahumapelo has appealed, meaning he remains a party member and member of parliament, for now.

On Thursday Mahumapelo told the public broadcaster SABC that his disciplinary outcome was pre-determined: “I won’t respect that suspension. I’m exploring internal procedures because I know it is done over bad political motives.”

Ramaphosa’s detractors claim they’re being purged for ideological differences, but also for the control over state resources, as instances of corruption have emerged even under Ramaphosa’s watch. For example, his spokesperson Khusela Diko, was recently suspended by the ANC in Gauteng over her late husband’s link to the irregular procurement of Covid-19 personal protective equipment. She has appealed the ruling but remains on special leave from her job.

Ramaphosa’s apparent inability to act against the corruption-charged Magashule has frustrated his supporters in the party. Magashule was ordered by the party’s national executive committee to step aside by the end of April or face suspension, but they now look set to throw him another lifeline at the committee’s meeting on 7-9 April as he remains defiant, contradicting the party’s leaders at every turn.

Magashule, the ANC’s most powerful full-time official, was also not part of Ramaphosa’s support team at the commission this week. He is said to harbour presidential ambitions ahead of the party’s elective conference at the end of next year.

“If you look at it superficially, Ramaphosa’s show [at the state capture inquiry] was a smart PR move,” said Theo Venter political and policy specialist at the North West University Business School. “His strategy was of admitting to all previous mistakes and of promising not to repeat them again, just to be unable once more to act against Magashule.”

Tip of the iceberg

Ramaphosa admitted to the inquiry that, while the party took a decision in 2017 that party leaders charged with corruption should step aside for the duration of their court cases, few were willing to do so.

“If people feel that they were treated unfairly, they could disrupt the organisation and its processes,” he told the presiding judge, who pointed out that there were no legal barriers to an organisation disciplining its own members.

With six months left to the local government elections, such disruption could hurt the party at the polls and reduce to naught Ramaphosa’s efforts to woo back corruption-weary voters while the main opposition Democratic Alliance seems to be bleeding.

His testimony at the state capture inquiry came on the backdrop of resignation of two provincial ministers in the DA’s Western Cape heartland. They resigned from their positions during what is considered to be the party’s ongoing repositioning to the right. Former party leader Mmusi Maimane and a number of his sympathisers have left the party in the past two years.

Senior research associate at the Institute for Global Dialogue Sanusha Naidoo says it’s too early to tell how Ramaphosa’s fellow party leaders and voters will react to his testimony. “It’s only two days, it’s not enough for us to draw a conclusive conclusion,” she says. “This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the president presenting himself and dealing with the past issues, but it was interesting that he took it all on. It was unpredecented.”

Uncertainty among party leaders

She said she expects him to delve more deeply into some of the issues raised at his next two-day appearance before the commission in May, on his account as the country’s president.

Ramaphosa appears not to be completely confident that he has won the war in his party just yet. He has, for months, held off on a cabinet reshuffle and a possible reduction of ministers. The uncertainty this creates amongst the party’s top leaders is a subtle strategy to keep them loyal.

The recent deaths of a couple of cabinet members, including one of his key allies, minister in the presidency, Jackson Mthembu, of Covid-19 in January, means the move is becoming urgent. But despite periodic rumours, the belt-tightening has yet to come to pass.

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