Up until this last week, President Cyril
Ramaphosa seemed somewhat isolated within his own party. The swirling
controversies surrounding the CR17 donations saga had left him exposed and
vulnerable – at least if you believed the Twitter-centred onslaught against him
which even resulted in a venomous yet trending #ramaphosamustfall hashtag.
By the end of the week, it all looked
marginally better. Jessie Duarte, secretary general of the ANC, penned a
defence of her president. The ANC in KwaZulu-Natal backed Ramaphosa in a public
statement against the “sustained public assault” against him.
In addition, there were legal fightbacks
from Ramaphosa-aligned supporters like Derek Hanekom and Lesetja Kganyago suing former president Jacob
Zuma and ANC Nelson Mandela Bay councillor Andile Lungisa respectively for
adding to the toxic domestic debate.
Still, it all seemed a little thin. The ANC
was attempting a band-aid job to patch up a wounded president who also seemed
caught in the headlights of these internecine battles raging around him.
And, with the rand crashing and equity
markets in turmoil, it took a somewhat frustrated Pravin Gordhan to make an
unsolicited call to Bruce Whitfield’s Money Show to calm jittery investor
nerves and prop-up a mooted restructuring plan for Eskom soon to be announced
by the president.
Despite some internal ANC support for the president,
Ramaphosa remains at the helm of a very unstable ship. Over the next few
months, there are at least five flashpoints which are likely to test ANC unity
to the hilt. Considering the breadth of issue and complexity of context, each
pressure-point would be enough to harm the governing party on their own. That
they all come more-or-less simultaneously suggests a period of extreme instability
for the party of liberation.
1. The Public Protector
With each successive week, South Africa’s
legal system is contributing to a case file against the continued office of Busisiwe Mkhwebane.
While the DA and
others will attempt to begin a parliamentary (and legal) procedure to remove
her from office, it will probably be the ANC caucus (and even the inner-sanctum
of the NEC) that would eventually have to decide her fate.
effectively polarised the ANC for or against her appointment. Those who
continue to wish to undermine the Ramaphosa presidency want her to stay – under
the guise of protecting the integrity of the institution at all costs – while
those who argue that she is intentionally (or unintentionally) aiding and
abetting an anti-Ramaphosa agenda would like to see her gone and will use the
ever-increasing High Court smackdowns against her as motivation.
The battle lines are
starkly drawn – and she has largely contributed to them herself. But the battle
is more than just about her position. It reflects all the characteristics of
the larger Zuma/ Ramaphosa conflict. And, should she be removed, it will be an
undeniable victory for the Ramaphosa faction.
This issue is
therefore potentially the biggest internal showdown that Ramaphosa has yet to
face within his own party. On the basis of her recent actions, Ramaphosa’s own presidency
looks set to continue to be destabilised should she remain in office, yet her
removal could do exactly the same by polarising factions and hardening already
held views. The next few months will therefore be critical for the ANC as the
issue plays itself out in full view of an anxious public gallery.
2. The debt conundrum
and economic policy
The well documented
bailout for Eskom and ongoing drain on the fiscus by additional SOE failure now
threaten to push South Africa’s debt-to-GDP well over the 60% mark and flash
red for the ratings agencies. Clearly, it is not just about restructuring
Eskom, but now about a broader review of the turmoil in the current state
funding model and government expenditure in particular.
It would seem that
government will have to consider a restructuring or the implementation of a dreaded
“austerity” plan to reduce its head-count and other forms of
Within the context of
a state-driven developmental political party like the ANC, this is highly
risky. With bureaucratic numbers under threat, the unions are sure to voice
their displeasure. And – not forgetting – they were a major component of the
Ramaphosa support team too.
Managing a downsizing
under these circumstances is fraught with political risk. Of course, the
alternatives are the vexed IMF bailout or a risky deployment of prescribed
assets from pension funds into state bonds to offset debt. Either way,
President Ramaphosa faces immense push-back from anything that smacks of job
losses. It’s yet another pressure-point virtually at boiling point.
More broadly, the
pressure-point of the SOEs is also that of the economy. Amidst a deteriorating
domestic financial environment, the lack of economic progress may also
undermine the president’s authority and increase the voice of a more radical or
Dealing with the
economy and its rescue is therefore a potential risk – but also an opportunity
to boost support if adequate corrective measures are implemented. Still, battle
lines over land and the NHI will pry open broader divisions within not only
South African society but also internally within the ANC as the reality of the
state’s spending capacity and its attractiveness to the outside world clash
with the dictates of previous ANC policy outcomes.
3. Patronage opportunities
When the ANC declined
to 57% of the popular vote in the May election, their caucus size was reduced.
With that reduction went jobs and a number of support positions.
And, with government
spending under the spotlight and some sort of avowed intention to reduce
patronage-based business opportunities within the state sector, those seeking to
use the ANC as an extension of rent-seeking or as an opportunity for profit
extraction will be under pressure.
Even since 1994, the
ANC has been more than just a conventional political party. It has embodied a
quasi-entrepreneurial party for the elites and well-connected. While this is
unlikely to end, it may just be less prevalent or more guarded in its voracity
When careerists find
it tougher to extract salaries and profits from the ANC, expect another layer
of tension as the party once seen as an open-ended treasure-chest for cadres
now faces its own internal recession.
4: The ANC in
Despite their support
for Ramaphosa this week, the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal remains deeply divided. And
of course, the axing of Durban mayor Zandile Gumede piles on the pressure.
In an country crying
out for some type of action against those accused of malfeasance, the move was,
perhaps, the bravest public signal around restoring integrity to public
officials at the highest levels.
departure will flesh open existing wounds. She will clearly harbour resentments
about the new course of ANC leadership and her very vocal supporters will see
this as the continuation of a factional battle for control within the broader
While possibly a
litmus test to see the extent of political fallout following a high-profile
axing, Gumede will probably not be the last to face the chop. She can position
herself and her followers (including elements within the ANC Women’s League)
internally as a power block keen to take political revenge at some point in the
future. Not to mention Zuma still on the sidelines but seemingly prepared to
lend a hand to fracturing his own party for political gain.
As the new National
Prosecuting Authority (NPA) moves closer to possible arrests, a period of
further internal instability can ensure – one that we are perhaps already in.
When comrades are fired – or indeed arrested – this too will add to Ramaphosa’s
5. The CR17 donations
Make no mistake, the
confusion surrounding the donations to the Ramaphosa presidential campaign hold
within them further areas of strain for the governing party. Clearly, much more
needs to be explained and the courts themselves will judge the matter. Yet
other leaks and claims of impropriety should not be ruled out as those keen to
undermine the president find themselves under further pressure.
The matter should have
taught the president a number of lessons. He needs to be not only better
informed of sensitive issues, but he also needs a much more effective
communications strategy to combat potentially awkward leaks into the public
These leaks, their
procurement by the Public Protector and media houses indicate that President
Ramaphosa has a series of political enemies keen to undermine his authority. He
needs to get ahead of the debate and control the discourse before it controls
him. So far, it’s been tenuous but further investigations and greater
transparency can clear the air.
Still, the president
has been undermined by the accusations – even if most seemed to epitomise “fake
news” and manufactured outrage from his opponents both inside and outside
The danger here is
that if Ramaphosa comes through this ordeal (and I suspect he will), he cannot
possibly face another embarrassment such as this. And, if his enemies are
circling, you can bet your bottom dollar they will seek another angle to exert
additional damage. The defence of the president will therefore occupy the minds
of the factions and can continue to boil over in different formats.
These five areas are not
exclusive. Within each are a host of additional nuances posing risks to the
internal stability of the ANC. What is required is strong leadership and a
confidence to move forward.
But the depth of the
internal challenges within the ANC are such that we might be nearing a point
where a more mature realignment of South African politics is on the cards.
therefore, might well need the support of those not in the ANC – as much as he
needs his own faction to come through for him. Our mindset of narrow party
interests and allegiances should therefore be much broader as testing but interesting
– Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.
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