Opposition party weakness

Cyril Ramaphosa’s elevation to the presidency of the ANC was a close call. Some of his backers were swayed by their fear that a victory for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma would plunge the ANC to defeat in the 2019 elections.

Fear of the electorate also hastened Jacob Zuma’s removal from the state presidency. A “dignified exit” in reality allowed the ANC as a whole to turn on its former leader, so marking a clear dividing line between a discredited “old ANC” and Ramaphosa’s allegedly quite different party.

Wednesday’s painful budget also sent a signal to the people. Tax rises were spun as a result of Zuma’s disastrous decisions and his corrupt administration. Acting Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba — perhaps in exchange for the promise of a smaller but still gratifying blue light convoy — blamed Zuma for the unanticipated higher education funding announcement in December.

Ramaphosa’s political priority is presumably to deliver a resounding victory to the ANC in the 2019 elections.

His first cabinet reshuffle, delayed only by the budget, will be gratifying for almost everyone.

Meanwhile, Ramaphosa has already ducked blame for the abuses of the Zuma era – despite being Zuma’s deputy since 2014.

As general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1980s, Ramaphosa handled negotiations with the bosses. His sidekicks, such as James Motlatsi, sold the deals that he struck to union activists. Now that Ramaphosa is state president, his juniors will once again justify his actions to ANC members. His focus will be on key actors outside the ANC: opposition parties, investors, and swing voters.

Smiling warmly, in the manner of an affectionate crocodile, the president has reached out to the two key opposition parties in Parliament, the DA and the EFF. It has been widely reported that he “held out an olive branch” to them in a “spirit of national unity”.

If the DA participates in Ramaphosa’s talk-shops and policy conventions, the party will find it hard to criticise him when the election campaign begins. If the party refuses to participate, DA leaders will be portrayed as unpatriotic cynics, turning their backs on the new spirit of national unity. It is already easy to imagine the DA’s young leader, Mmusi Maimane, turning to the ANC leader for wise counsel.

The Ramaphosa crocodile is even more dangerous for the EFF. He is a son of Soweto, whose parents moved to Johannesburg from what is today Limpopo. His personal shadow falls over the EFF’s most promising regional and ethnic footprints.

Enthusing about a murky ANC resolution on the expropriation of land without compensation, Ramaphosa is now stealing the EFF’s policy thunder.

To sidestep Ramaphosa’s dubious advances, the DA may feel compelled to move right and the EFF left. A conservative and centrist electorate might then be enticed to remain with a centrist “new” ANC.

The opposition parties’ disarray will worsen when the quasi-coalitions they formed in major metropolitan authorities in 2016 start to fall apart. Despite steering shy of formal coalition agreements, the EFF supported DA candidates for mayor, in effect handing minority control of some of SA’s biggest urban centres to the official opposition.

The red berets have to destroy these sinful collaborations with white monopoly capital before the national and provincial election campaigns begin. This means attacking the DA.

While the opposition parties fight mock battles on the margins of politics, a rejuvenated — if essentially unreformed — ANC could walk to an easy victory through the middle ground of politics.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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