By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa cleared his diary for Friday and the day after (10-11 February), his office announced. Of course, the events of interest were those that related to his duties as president of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party and not as deputy leader of the Republic. As preparations are afoot to celebrate the Nelson Mandela centenary (#Mandela100) on Sunday (11 February), Mr Ramaphosa was slated to attend buildup events on these days. So what was so pressing that would prevent the party president from attending what are quite important party events, you likely wonder. Hold that thought a moment. Not too long after, the party announced its senior officials would also not be participating in the #Mandela100 buildup programmes. I have your attention now, don’t I? Well, I would, if you have not been similarly following the twists and turns around the push to get South African president Jacob Zuma to resign from office. But if you have, you probably now hope Mr Ramaphosa would not prove to be spineless yet again. The supposedly savvy party leader would probably take great exception to this characterisation. But quite frankly, people are beginning to get impatient with what seems like a limited sense of urgency on his part. This is my sentiment, of course. Like the frustratingly nail-biting wait that presaged the resignation of former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, the South African “transition” is turning out to be similarly intriguing. I do not mean that in a complimentary manner.
In my BusinessDay column ahead of the earlier scheduled 8 February State of the Nation Address (SONA) titled: “Dirty Zuma exit fight inevitable” (see link viz. https://www.businessdayonline.com/dirty-zuma-exit-fight-inevitable/), I wondered what leverage Mr Ramaphosa would have left if he were to allow Mr Zuma deliver what is perhaps the most important speech in the political calendar. I thought it would make nonsense of the new party leadership’s talk of a “new era”, for sure. They thought so too, it seems; not that it was not already palpable to anyone with half a brain. Attributing a need to ensure decorum at this year’s SONA, in light of disruptions by opposition MPs in the recent past ones, parliament speaker Baleka Mbete announced a postponement two days before the earlier scheduled date of 8 February. Of course, all and sundry knew the real reason for the postponement. Mr Ramaphosa needed time to put pressure on Mr Zuma to vacate office. A planned meeting of the party’s executives, which had it held, would have almost certainly called for Mr Zuma’s recall, was also shelved. Why not just recall him and go ahead with SONA on 8 February, some wondered. It was suggested that perhaps Mr Ramaphosa was being mindful of likely ethnic-based violence in Kwazulu-Natal, where Mr Zuma hails from, in the aftermath of a rash recall decision.
Incidentally, the South African Communist Party (SACP), an ally of the ANC and member of its tripartite alliance, alleged Mr Zuma planned to fire Mr Ramaphosa as deputy president; a move he would have needed to make before what would have been a recall decision by the party executives at their shelved meeting. A vociferous denial by the president’s office of any such plans only added to the strength of the SACP’s scoop. This is because in the past, when the presidency denied so-called rumours and speculations, there usually came a time not long after, when what was hitherto a denied “rumour” suddenly became policy. Just like that. There is a recent example. A while back, there were reports the government-run pension fund for public workers would finance a bailout for loss-making power utility, Eskom. Although the possibility was not totally ruled out, the impression given by the finance ministry was that such a contemplation was simply in the light of brainstorming about financing options for the ailing utility. Now under better management, the treasury probably supposed it would not cause much uproar if it went ahead this time around. I do not want to focus overmuch on Eskom and the clearly sub-optimal allocation of public pension funds to it; about $8.3 billion in total now. But you certainly get the point about how “rumours” about Mr Zuma’s plans, no matter how outrageous, should be taken seriously. It was believed Mr Zuma would have replaced Mr Ramaphosa with his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who incidentally challenged the deputy president for the party leader post. It needs pointing out here, though, that the Zimbabwean parallel does not extend to Ms Dlamini-Zuma: unlike Grace Mugabe, she is very accomplished and a party grandee in her own right; having been minister and chairperson of the African Union Commission in the past.
Do it now
In light of the foregoing and what we know about Mr Zuma, imagine one’s surprise that Mr Ramaphosa seems not to be aware of his vulnerability. In his most recent press release, he acknowledges a “transition” is ongoing but does not indicate when it would be finalised. Some say the delay is because Mr Zuma desires immunity from prosecution. Considering Mr Ramaphosa has ruled out granting his erstwhile principal a ‘get out of jail free’ card, especially as he may not necessarily have the power to do so, it begs the question of what is really responsible for the protracted exit process. Worryingly, the longer it takes to get Mr Zuma out of office, the weaker Mr Ramaphosa looks and in fact becomes. Because unlike the Zimbabwean case, he does not have an army to force Mr Zuma’s hands. Additionally, he does not yet have the full command of the ANC party structure. With Mr Zuma still able to make last ditch efforts to buy support and in fact delay for longer Mr Ramaphosa’s accession to the country’s presidency by exercising his constitutional powers to hire and fire any member of his government, the ANC president seems bizarrely relaxed. Mr Ramaphosa should pick up the pace.