South Africa: President Ramaphosa’s almost-friends

By Anna Maree

Posted on Monday, 17 May 2021 13:51
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, 29 April 2021. (AP Photo/Kim Ludbrook/Pool)

President Cyril Ramaphosa has managed to convincingly tip the balance of power in the top structures of South Africa’s governing African National Congress in his favour, with last week's suspension of the party’s secretary general, Ace Magashule, who on 13 May moved to court to challenge his suspension. 

Previously, the power balance was somewhat precarious for Ramaphosa, who was elected party president in December 2017 with a margin of only 179 votes over his challenger Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma from Magashule’s faction.

Divisions amongst the 5000 branch delegates who attended the electoral conference were reflected in the 86-member national executive committee (NEC) whom they voted for.

Insiders say Ramaphosa’s support in the NEC has now grown to over two-thirds. Magashule, in court papers to overturn his suspension, said Ramaphosa used state power to curry favour: “Save for a few opportunistic individuals who were leading lights in the NDZ faction but who turned to the CR17 faction in the realistic hope of securing ministerial positions, the factions [that were present at the 2017 conference] have remained intact and operate on the basis of mutual distrust and suspicion of each other.”

Operating behind the scenes

Just like his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, Ramaphosa relies on such patronage. Unlike Zuma, however, Ramaphosa’s relationships are less personal and more business-like, and his cabinet reshuffles have been far fewer. Instead, he’s preferred to use rumours of cabinet reshuffles to keep his allies faithful.

One of his most vocal supporters in cabinet is transport minister Fikile Mbalula, the firebrand former ANC Youth League leader who was key in Zuma’s presidential campaign ahead of 2007. Other than the all-important cheerleading role he plays by filling up stadiums during ANC rallies, Mbalula is loud and brash and regularly engages in social media brawls against Magashule and his supporters.

“Cyril is backed by the powerful, rich elites who have written the power script in the country and who are dictating the terms,” said Xolani Dube, political analyst at the Xubera Institute for Research and Development.

Another supporter is deputy state security minister Zizi Kodwa, who also hails from the youth league and was a close confidante and spokesperson of Zuma until he followed Mbalula into Ramaphosa’s camp. Kodwa serves as Ramaphosa’s eyes and ears in the country’s intelligence services and operates behind the scenes in the president’s favour within the ANC.

Party chairperson Gwede Mantashe became a minister (of mineral resources and energy) for the first time in 2018, after spending most of his working life in trade union and the ANC leadership. He switched his allegiance from Zuma to Ramaphosa following revelations that the former was involved in large-scale corruption or state capture. As ANC secretary general, he ensured that Ramaphosa would be elected in 2017

Mantashe also played a leading role amongst the party’s top six officials in ensuring Magashule’s suspension and his eviction from a recent NEC Zoom meeting that he wasn’t supposed to attend. As a former secretary general, Mantashe is likely to continue playing a key role, even though he has been careful not to let this on in public.

Party’s funds drying up

ANC treasurer general Paul Mashatile has been spearheading ANC efforts to define the rules that led to the corruption-accused Magashule stepping aside. But despite working hard in Ramaphosa’s favour, he has also been touted as a possible challenger to the president next year.

Xolani Dube, political analyst at the Xubera Institute for Research and Development in KwaZulu-Natal, questioned Mashatile’s support base and power: “Paul has not had any success with fund-raising, because all the big business people only want to talk to Cyril,” he said.

Furthermore, Ramaphosa’s efforts to weed out corruption meant that kickbacks from state tenders – a big previous source of funding for the ANC – have mostly dried up.

New legislation regulating party political funding, established under Ramaphosa, has also contributed to the party’s cash crunch. There have been rumours that Ramaphosa had been paying staffers at the ANC’s Luthuli House, before a recent claim by the revenue services for outstanding income tax money left the party temporarily unable to pay salaries.

Jeff Radebe, a long-time ANC policy head and former minister, is another Ramaphosa supporter rumoured to have expressed presidential ambitions. Radebe has gone from leading efforts from within cabinet to whitewash Zuma’s presidency, to heading the team that advised Ramaphosa earlier this month ahead of his testimony to the state capture inquiry about corruption in the ANC under Zuma. Radebe’s presidential bid five years ago was however cut short by a sexual scandal.

Water and sanitation minister Lindiwe Sisulu – a long-serving ANC member and cabinet member herself – is also on the team supporting Ramaphosa at the inquiry. While she appears to support Ramaphosa, she has also been currying favour with the president’s detractors in the ANC Women’s League in her quest to build a support base for a possible presidential campaign next year.

Neutralising any possible defiance

However, in recent weeks, popular sentiment within the women’s league leadership has turned towards Ramaphosa, which means that any possible defiance from within the ANC’s national leadership structures to Magashule’s suspension at the NEC’s meeting last weekend was neutralised. This might end up scuppering Sisulu’s presidential bid too.

The shifting stance has partially been ascribed to Nomvula Mokonyane, who was removed from cabinet when Ramaphosa came to power but still has a significant power base amongst the women’s league.

Mokonyane was also one of the three leaders responsible for Ramaphosa’s return to party politics after spending two decades as a successful business tycoon. Together with Magashule and now deputy president David Mabuza, they convinced Ramaphosa to run as deputy president on Zuma’s ticket at the party’s 2012 conference. It was a bid to lend legitimacy and credibility to Zuma as he ran for a second term even though he was already mired in corruption allegations.

The deputy presidency also gave Ramaphosa a platform from which to launch his 2017 presidential bid, even if it involved the somewhat risky strategy of speaking out against corruption under Zuma’s administration.

Anthony Butler in his 2019 book Cyril Ramaphosa: The Road to Presidential Power said: “Ramaphosa’s power will grow as he weeds out old-order apparatchiks and accumulates control of the levers of state power and patronage.”

Butler has, however, subsequently warned on his blog that if Ramaphosa’s efforts to clean up state corruption goes too far, and the arrests start targeting provincial and regional leaders, “the power brokers who manipulate conference votes may start looking for a more sympathetic president.”

Almost all of those who had switched their loyalties from Zuma to Ramaphosa have, ironically, had some allegations of wrong-doing or corruption made against them. This will keep them loyal to Ramaphosa, Dube said, at least for long enough to help him usher in a second term.

“For now they need him for them to avoid going to jail for the allegations against them,” he said. “They are using Cyril as a safe house. Once they are arrested, he will dispose of them.”

Dube said Ramaphosa might “eventually flush all of them, and might recreate his own, ideal ANC” as part of a drive to “modernise” the party from being an old-style liberation movement to a political party more closely aligned to business.

“Cyril is backed by the powerful, rich elites who have written the power script in the country and who are dictating the terms,” Dube said.

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