Cyril Ramaphosa “triumphant”: what does this mean? (Polity 29 January 2018, reprinted in Daily Maverick and

Astonishingly, in one month, much of the formal political terrain in South African politics has changed significantly, though unevenly and with many changes not yet having been brought to finality.

One year ago, the ANC was on the back foot and it seemed a strong possibility that it would fail to secure a majority in elections in 2019. It was still likely to emerge as the strongest party but without a majority.  The possibility of other parties combining to rule seemed feasible or more likely than the ANC continuing its dominance.

The ANC December conference pitted supporters of Cyril Ramaphosa, depicted as a “clean-up” person, who would “get South Africa working again”, who would engender investment, market and business confidence against candidates who were seen as corrupt or “captured” or sympathetic to or condoning the conduct of those who were. The latter operated under the rhetoric of being anti- “White monopoly capital” and for “Radical Economic Transformation” but, in many cases, favouring or engaging in pillage of state resources.

To secure Cyril Ramaphosa’s election reports suggest that deals were entered into between forces that might well have been expected to oppose one another, thus seeing Mpumalanga Premier, DD Mabuza emerging as Deputy President and securing more votes than any other candidate amongst the “top six”.  Mabuza bears the taint of alleged corruption, state capture and political murder.  It is claimed that he, in combination with Paul Mashatile, a strong Ramaphosa ally, elected as Treasurer General, were the main wheelers and dealers securing Ramaphosa’s and their own election to the top six.(–but-same-top-six-split/ )

In this context, the election of the clean-up president was somewhat blemished by the need to secure support from candidates that were not unambiguously clean, and it also resulted in an apparent deadlock amongst the top six between Ramaphosa supporters and those supporting defeated presidential candidate Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

The National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ANC reflected a similarly ambiguous composition and some feared that it would be difficult for Ramaphosa to move and make decisions that would be necessary in order to make a difference.  It appears, however, that many of those elected did some calculations and decided that the future lay with Ramaphosa and have in more or less unseemly haste started to change sides.  This is a feature of ANC transitions that has been seen before -how anti Thabo Mbeki figures positioned themselves in ways they thought would reward them when his election as leader became clear. Likewise, many Mbeki loyalists jumped ship and crossed to Zuma when they read the Polokwane signs.

Although Zuma remains state president substantial public enthusiasm has greeted Ramaphosa’s election.  The energy with which he has acted has convinced many in leadership, that there will be no future in trying to block a programme for renewal or recovery or regularisation in the light of the strong public support or honeymoon currently enjoyed by Ramaphosa locally and amongst international investors.

It has also become less sustainable to support Jacob Zuma now in the light of the revived commitment of law enforcement agencies to act against state capture with freezing of assets and potential arrests, court cases and jail terms on the horizon.  What previously required no defence or received an arrogant response from parties implicated, like the Estina dairy project has now become for Mosebenzi Zwane a project over which he merely played an “oversight” role.

Along with this a momentum has been created by Ramaphosa and his supporters whereby he has acted presidentially without yet being president of the country.  Zuma has not dared to intervene because the actions initiated by Ramaphosa in relation to ESKOM and other matters, have been greeted with much public support. Zuma has been passive, whether or not he resents what is being done.  He has in many respects been displaced from the state presidency.

The Cyril Ramaphosa factor, the enthusiasm that he has evoked is based both on real qualities and those that are imagined or hoped for. The appeals to Ramaphosa to intervene on various matters, like the Cape Town water crisis is based on the assumption that he is more likely to act and do so effectively than Zuma and also perhaps, to entrench the notion that he can act as president now.

There is an element of messianic hopes attaching to Ramaphosa but there are also qualities that are legitimately attributed to him:

  •  He has an interest in ensuring regularised state functioning and an environment for investment, business activities and the state to perform its assigned role.  Anyone who knows anything about business knows that there needs to be certainty, that business cannot function or thrive where the rules are unclear or observed erratically, where what is expected is constantly shifting.  Being a business person, Ramaphosa knows this more than most other politicians.


  • He has no interest in diversion of state funds whether under state capture or corruption. He is a former business person who relates to the capitalist class not in order to facilitate predatory behaviour but in order to ensure that the state oversees and provides an umbrella for business and other economic activities to thrive.


  • He has an interest in ensuring legality, constitutionalism and the Rule of Law, not for sentimental reasons as one of the key figures in making South Africa’s constitution but because he understands that there is an already unstable and explosive situation in the country. There is stark inequality, said to be the highest in the world, some 40% of the able-bodied people in the country being unemployed, high crime rates, notably violent crime in a country beset by endemic violence and many other dangerous factors.  He has no interest in allowing or condoning other forms of illegality especially what has been done through access to the state.


  • The present state has been founded on a legitimate basis. Ramaphosa will have an interest in and be committed to advancing adherence to the laws of the land and ensuring compliance as a basis for creating a sense of security and certainty amongst all South Africa’s inhabitants.


  • Ramaphosa comes to the ANC presidency and potentially state presidency as part of a new bourgeoisie that has been assisted by its links to the ANC. Ramaphosa left the ANC Secretary General position and joined New Africa Investment Limited (NAIL) in 1996.  From there he gradually accumulated considerable wealth.


  • He was not part of a section of the bourgeoisie dependent on corrupt favours in order to build his wealth. One can criticise his form of bourgeois development, the extent to which it was productive and job-creating, but it was not, as far as I am aware, tied to corruption.

The election of Ramaphosa and the sentiments that this has evoked has related to imagery, mythology, hard-nosed business sense and the “Anyone but Zuma” (ABZ) sentiment.  A weary South Africa has looked, very often, since his becoming Deputy President, to Ramaphosa to vanquish the demons in the ANC and government and revive growth and development.  That certainly addresses some of the problems that preoccupy the minds of South Africans, though even if state capture can be brought to book and there can be a gradual recovery of state institutions that have been contaminated, there remain many social issues that are critical, beyond safeguarding the fiscus from looting.

At this point in time, Ramaphosa will, correctly, focus on fiscal rectitude and recovering what has been looted and securing prosecutions and convictions of wrongdoers.  But there will be a large section of the population whose concerns are served by these efforts but also suffer from hunger, unemployment, landlessness, homelessness, and the other broader effects of inequality.

Logically one can separate the need to regularise state functioning at a formal level from addressing social issues more intensely, once the fiscus is in secure hands and safeguarded against pillage.  But Ramaphosa and his allies must understand that those who have not benefitted greatly from the post-apartheid order will not be impressed with these logical and sequential distinctions. They are hungry and angry and some of that is a fertile ground for anti-social and criminal conduct that can feed into different forms of instability.

The ANC itself may not be so well attuned to the needs of the poor, as it was at the onset of democracy.  Consequently, there are issues that will require a changed mind-set and also activities of organisations outside of government and the ANC to ensure that they are addressed. Should that not be done, the Ramaphosa era will mainly address the needs of some, who are relatively wealthy. But it may not satisfy others, whose needs are vital to their very existence -to live a life of dignity and without want.  If Ramaphosa were to return to the constitution in whose drafting he played so central a role, he will know that it is part of the state’s duty to meet basic needs.  Cleaning up the state is part of achieving that, insofar as both rich and poor suffer from downgrades and other consequences of pillage.  But Ramaphosa knows that there remain broader issues of social justice that need to be addressed if his presidency and ANC incumbency remain sustainable.

For those who may be supportive of removal of Zuma but are not in the ANC, it will be necessary to remain mobilised and especially to build sustainable organisation in order to safeguard their interest in achieving social justice.





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