No walk in the park as Ramaphosa takes ANC reins


A GREAT deal is expected from Cyril Ramaphosa who was elected as the president of the governing ANC. His posting positions him to become the country’s state president in 2019. Conversation’s Sibonelo Radebe asked Rhodes University’s Owen Skae to consider the implications of Ramaphosa’s victory.

What does Ramaphosa’s victory represent in political economy terms? Judging by his statements he made during the height of his campaign, Ramaphosa has promised to ring in changes that will jump-start the struggling South African economy. Brought to its knees by the recklessness of the Jacob Zuma presidency, the economy needs a new deal.

Ramaphosa has promised exactly that. He has the advantage of bringing a deep understanding and strong networks of business and organised labour to the position, so he has a better chance of getting business and labour to commit to a compact that can deliver economic growth and job creation. Clearly the market likes him. His election saw the country’s currency strengthen and the stock market has shown above average activity for this time of the year. Even credit rating agencies are getting a little excited.

But it’s not going to be a walk in the park for Ramaphosa as his ANC presidency comes with a divided top leadership team. Three of the party’s elected top six leaders come from the camp that backed Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma for ANC president. This is likely to make it difficult to take certain critical decisions. For example, many people are hoping that Ramaphosa would immediately recall Zuma as the first step, restoring the Office of the Presidency and undo the economic damage he has caused.

This is now unlikely to happen given the balance of power in the Top Six. What does he need to do to make his mark? The biggest challenge he faces is managing the two centres of power: he holds sway in the party as president while Zuma holds sway over the executive as president of the country until national elections in 2019. This could cause infighting. Given Zuma’s reaction to Ramaphosa’s victory, it is clear that cabinet meetings are likely to be a frosty affair. This 18-month period leaves time for Zuma and his supporters to continue their destructive path of self-interest in government – that is, unless the ANC recalls him. I’m of the view that Ramaphosa needs to push for Zuma to be recalled by the ANC as soon as possible and then fire all conflicted ministers and bring back those with the best credentials to manage the economy.

He has the opportunity as deputy president to appoint a respected director of the National Prosecuting Authority. Leaving Zuma to act as if it is business as usual could have dire consequences for Ramaphosa. The prevailing battles surrounding the national Treasury and the budgetary process are case in point. The most recent of these is Zuma’s stunning announcement that the government will deliver free higher education for about 90% of South African students from next year. He announced this populist move against advice that it will place enormous pressure on the fiscus.

It has placed the national Treasury in an unenviable position of having to accommodate an unrealistic demand in the next budget which is due in February. If it’s allowed to go through, the negative consequences will be felt for years to come. Ramaphosa must find a way to stop this financially reckless decision, but also address the legitimate demands students have made of the state. Another financially senseless decision he needs to find a way to tamper with is Zuma’s plan to commit the country to a plan for nuclear power. Whatever he does, Ramaphosa will have to show his hand soon enough, otherwise those in the ANC who wish to oust him will make his task as difficult as possible.

What could undermine Ramaphosa’s term? He still hasn’t dealt with the Marikana tragedy when striking mineworkers were shot dead by the police. The workers came from Lonmin, a platinum mining group in which Ramaphosa had a shareholding and served as a director. He can be sure that he will be reminded of this event many times during his presidency. He did issue an apology but it wasn’t impassioned enough. This speaks to a question of trust. His detractors will always question his bona fides given that he started life as a trade unionist before becoming a billionaire businessman.

He will also be challenged on why he didn’t do more to address corruption while serving as deputy president. Of course the easiest way to silence critics is to move decisively to deliver solutions to the country’s problems.

Owen Skae is associate professor and director of Rhodes Business School at Rhodes University.

This article is from online publication The Conversation.