Of testicles and tigers

President Cyril Ramaphosa was beleaguered this week. A manufactured army of protesters demanded that he strip public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan and his department of control of the Eskom reform process.

Direct attacks on the leadership capabilities of the president also escalated, some of them from erstwhile allies. In an example of an organisation discovering it had testicles at just the wrong moment, Business Unity SA chair Sipho Pityana railed this week against “summits, conferences and lekgotlas”. He demanded “credible, single-minded, resolute and decisive leadership that sets the tone, determines direction and pulls the nation with it”.

Both sets of critics are likely to be disappointed. Ramaphosa is unlikely to be transformed overnight into a conviction politician. But it is also improbable that he will sacrifice Gordhan as a result of political pressure.

Pityana’s pointed comments certainly raise legitimate questions about Ramaphosa’s presidency. Do the president’s problems flow from personal psychological or intellectual limitations? Or are they a product of fundamental clashes of interests that make leadership almost impossible?

In common with many national leaders, Ramaphosa has realised his lifetime’s ambition to become state president. He would not be the first to discover that the qualities that got him the job are not the ones he needs to succeed at it.

But the president is learning that lines in the sand can work. During last year’s SA Reserve Bank “crisis”, in which the proxy issue of public ownership was deployed to destabilise his administration, Ramaphosa’s decision to reappoint the Bank governor to a second term brought a whipped-up political storm to an abrupt close.

He probably knows he will soon have to make a clear statement of a nonnegotiable Eskom reform pathway and timeline. This is a prerequisite for maintaining any kind of coalition behind him.

The bigger issue is that Ramaphosa faces a deep and almost unmanageable clash of interests. At Eskom, an unholy alliance has been forged between unions representing the workers in the coal-energy complex and beneficiaries of the parastatal’s coal and diesel supply chains. These vested interests have direct influence within the ANC through the tripartite alliance and as party (and lifestyle) funders.

Some critics complain that Ramaphosa simply does not know what he is doing. His backgrounds in black consciousness politics, trade unions and business pull him this way and that. He has no clear intellectual or moral framework, they argue, and so he simply cannot decide what to do.

This is improbable. Indeed, Ramaphosa’s detached approach has many merits. He has surrounded himself with a concentric circle of economy cluster ministers who represent distinct approaches to the way forward.

Novelist F Scott Fitzgerald once observed that a test of intelligence is “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”. In this complex situation Ramaphosa is probably right not to rely on his own immediate instincts.

What does this imply about the future of Pravin Gordhan? Gordhan is a target because he sat for almost two decades at the top of the most important informal intelligence network in SA. Relentless attacks on him over the past decade, from captured institutions, the public protector and the EFF, testify to fear of Gordhan and his network: perhaps a decade of criminal activity is finally going to result in prosecutions.

Gordhan is also custodian of the only Eskom plan we have. Passing the job on to Gwede Mantashe and his ramshackle department would mean a resurgent coal lobby, no single market operator and prescribed assets to keep the leaky vessel afloat. Will Ramaphosa abdicate his presidential responsibilities because Mantashe is his friend and closest political ally? I would bet not.


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

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