ANTHONY BUTLER: Cyril Ramaphosa shouldn’t take flak for blasé ministers
The president may not be under threat of being replaced, but the lack of support from his cabinet means he has to crack his whip
We are not short of explanations for the seeming drift of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration. The legacies of Jacob Zuma’s decade of destruction are more damaging than we could have imagined. Regional barons who campaigned on Ramaphosa’s coattails are insisting on business as usual. The alliance partners Ramaphosa relied on to become president, the SA Communist Party and Cosatu, now circumscribe his policy options. Business is unwilling to invest because policy reform and clean government have not yet been entrenched.
More curiously, Ramaphosa’s leadership is constantly portrayed as under threat from a Zuma-aligned “fightback” crew. Yet the alleged rebels invariably turn out to be insubstantial has-beens, already exposed crooks or political weaklings destined for prison or the backbenches of parliament. How do we explain this apparent paradox?
One possibility is that it is not the fightback crew but rather Ramaphosa’s supposed political backers — and a wider pro-Ramaphosa citizenry — who are unable fully to commit to his success. Prominent figures in the party have plainly not rallied behind their new leader in times of difficulty. Cabinet ministers the president has only recently appointed have refused to stick their necks out, even when their own portfolios have been involved. Senior officials in mission-critical posts at the top of the state have been hedging their bets.
In the face of surely fanciful rumours about a “recall” conspiracy linked to the ANC’s toothless national general council next year, Ramaphosa has insisted he is going nowhere. This should be unnecessary: the ANC is incapable of holding a leadership election between conferences, and there is no consensus for deputy ANC president David Mabuza, treasurer-general Paul Mashatile or health minister Zweli Mkhize.
There are ways in which Ramaphosa could establish a sense of inevitability about his own continued leadership. The possibility that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma might step in for an ousted Ramaphosa needs to be decisively ruled out: too many hangers-on of Mkhize, Mashatile and Mabuza see this as their last hope of a run at the ANC presidency in 2022.
Meanwhile, no president can stand up in front of a troubled country and take the flak alone. Ramaphosa can bring his ministers and officials to heel only if it is clear what the government stands for. It is a career skill of politicians to take credit for good times and hide when things are bad. This is why the government needs to have a collective “line” on every key issue and controversy. Endless negotiations with Luthuli House to find a compromise cannot work.
Ministers should repeat the government line loudly and clearly, and not duck and dive while emitting evasive tweets.
If ministers are unable or unwilling to defend the government’s positions, Ramaphosa should remove them and replace them with younger ministers who want his project to succeed.
SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande has been virtually alone in coming out in support of Ramaphosa. Even this has been a minimal effort, however, given the undeserved array of cabinet positions granted to the party that formerly monopolised the colour red.
Much the same is true of Cosatu. Ramaphosa delivered the minimum wage, while Cosatu has delivered little but intransigence, threats of violence and economic disruption. Fixing Eskom and reforming the basic education system are surely non-negotiable, and the government must be the driving force behind change.
There is a wider ambivalence among opinion formers in the media and ordinary people in the society at large about Ramaphosa’s project. This extends to many who deep down have really wanted him to succeed. The tension that built up among pro-Ramaphosa citizens in the run-up to the 2017 Nasrec conference of the ANC was followed by a powerful sense of relief — and hope — after the “Thuma Mina” state of the nation address.
It was perhaps inevitable that a sense of disappointment would follow given the reality that the country’s fundamental problems have not changed. As every football fan knows, it’s the hope that kills you.
• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.