The particular issue that received much attention was the position and power base of President Ramaphosa and what it holds for his future as President, and also the future of South Africa.

After the so-called January 8 statement, many political commentators speculated on what is happening in the ANC at the moment. It was a speech that contained nothing new, as it was, in fact, the National Executive Committee’s (NEC) collective effort, and President Ramaphosa was just one of the contributors. The purpose of this annual statement is to provide feedback on the implementation of the previous year’s policy decisions (this time at Nasrec 2017). There were clear signs of compromise in the compilation of the declaration, but also clear discrepancies, which still reflect the split in the ANC’s top six and the NEC.

In the last two weeks, things further came to a head due to developments around Eskom. The first was the resignation of Chairman Jabu Mabuza, probably due to the comments of Deputy President David Mabuza that Eskom’s Board of Directors, management and Minister Gordhan had misled the President about loadshedding. This led to pressure from within the ANC alliance and the EFF on President Ramaphosa to dismiss Pravin Gordhan as Minister or at least to transfer responsibility for Eskom to Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe.

In the last week, by far the majority of commentators offered strong criticism of President Ramaphosa or sketched out a “last days” scenario. Piet Crouwcamp asked in Vrye Weekblad whether the President has no backbone, or whether his hands are simply cut off? Judith February writes on Daily Maverick that Ramaphosa should seize the moment and establish and maintain his strengh, among other things, by building alliances. Stephen Grootes makes the point on Daily Maverick that the political forces around Eskom can make or break the country and Ramaphosa, but that it is not clear whether there is the political will to resolve it. Max du Preez feels even stronger: Cyril must now cross the Rubicon or become a lame duck President. On News24, Mpumelelo Mkhabela warns that Ramaphosa will have to “auto-correct” quickly or else everything will be lost. Pieter du Toit (also on News24) describes the apparent plan to make Ramaphosa a one-term President – starting with his undermining at the National General Council of the ANC scheduled for June. Then there are also rumors (among other things articulated by Prof Andre Duvenage of the NWU) that David Mabuza left the Ramaphosa camp and joined the Ace camp. Ferial Haffajee (Daily Maverick) is convinced that Ramaphosa will not fire Gordhan as Minister, but that as a compromise Eskom may move to Mantashe.

If it depends on the above, President Ramaphosa’s power base is very shaky and his future as President hangs in the balance. Melanie Verwoerd (on News24) is literally the only one to say it’s not the end of Ramaphosa yet for a long time. From the ANC itself, it was only the veterans group who openly supported Gordhan and Ramaphosa.

Is this the beginning of the end for President Ramaphosa?

From the dull January 8 statement, it may have seemed that the Ace faction prevailed, focusing on the implementation of the Nasrec decisions – which included the nationalisation of the Reserve Bank, and which Ramaphosa clearly disagreed with. The January 8 statement focuses annually on the implementation of policy decisions and Ramaphosa or any other President) has very little control over it. The Ramaphosa camp did gain some victories in the final statement, mainly around strong comments about State capture and corruption, poor State administration and non-racialism. Only when President Ramaphosa delivers his State of the Nation address on February 13 will we be able to catch a glimpse of the President of the country and of all South Africans. So it will be important to look at every nuance in the SONA speech to accurately determine the power position of Ramaphosa. In that respect, it is still too early to predict his demise.

What is worrying is that persistent rumors suggest that Ramaphosa can no longer rely on the support of the so-called top six, with question marks on both David Mabuza and Paul Mashatile. In addition, the name of Lindiwe Sisulu is now also called a “break-away”. All the seemingly new “apostates” have one thing in common: they have higher political aspirations and see any Ramaphosa weakness as a future opportunity. Mashatile, Mabuza and Sisulu would like to see their names on the top list at the next election conference in 2022 – preferably as a candidate for the presidency. So the dynamic is not necessarily just a binary one with (just) a pro-Ramaphosa or a pro-Magashule camp. It’s more complex and dynamic than that. And it exemplifies the deeply personal and policy differences within the ANC’s leadership.

There is one factor that can change this whole power dynamic quickly. If the National Prosecuting Authority (as promised by Shamila Batohi) comes up with some high profile prosecutions by the end of February, it could strengthen the Ramaphosa camp, weaken the Magashule camp and make it more difficult for Mabuza and others’ aspirations. A National General Council meeting without Ace Magashule and perhaps a few other well-known Zuptas will be much easier for Ramaphosa to handle. It can strengthen its power base in the party.

Another possible factor that could be positive for Ramaphosa is that Eskom’s new CEO, Andre de Ruyter, could have a visible impact on the power supply’s operation. He started quietly and without fanfare in early January, which could be a good sign. Unfortunately, the appointment of the interim Chairman of the Board, Malegapuru Makgoba, has already been criticised. Makgoba has an outstanding record as an academic and has also been the Rector of the University of KwaZulu-Natal for a number of years. Whether this will help him resolve the Eskom problem is not clear.

South Africa therefore has a President who is fighting to strengthen his political base – which started on a weak footing. This has been – and is being – made more difficult by, in particular, the backlash of the Zuptas and other corrupt persons, the decline of the State and State enterprises (especially Eskom) and the slowest economic growth since the Second World War. However, Ramaphosa’s problem is that he and his broad power base disagree on certain fundamental policy issues, especially economic ones. That broad base of power has been led down the garden path by either the SACP and trade unions’ obsolete socialist ideas for the past decade or so, or the Zuptas’ self-centered culture of appropriation or ambitious colleagues who see an opportunity in its (perhaps widespread) weakness to take political advantage in terms of future leadership positions. The corruption, rot, and culture of appropriation runs deep in the ANC’s structures. Like Thabo Mbeki, Ramaphosa is involved in a struggle for the soul of the ANC. It’s not an easy fight.

Without denying that President Ramaphosa could have acted stronger and faster, and could have strengthened his power base earlier, it is too early to see current events as the beginning of the end of our President. For that, he is too much of a strategist. But folding his hands and doing nothing is also not an option. Then it is all over for him, and also for South Africa.

By Theuns Eloff: Chair, FW de Klerk Foundation Board of Advisers
23 January 2020

*First published in Afrikaans on Maroela Media