President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Ramaphosa’s Turn: Can Cyril Save SA?
Ralph Mathekga
Tafelberg, Cape Town, 2018

Ralph Mathekga’s book on Cyril Ramaphosa begins with an account of what happened at Nasrec in December 2017, when the then deputy president of SA was elected president of the ANC. Mathekga’s account is mildly shocking and yet plausible: he avers that the real winner of that contest was not Ramaphosa but the so-called premier league, the trio of then provincial leaders who formed an alliance within the ruling party a few years before Nasrec.

The book is an analysis of a moment in SA’s political history: the period from the fall of Jacob Zuma up to a few months after the appointment of Ramaphosa as SA's president, looking forward to his possible election in 2019.

It is an account of a transitional phase, and already some of its findings have been overtaken by events, especially the power plays within the ANC and the revelations of the various commissions into state capture.

Mathekga, using a concept derived from Machiavelli, says that Ramaphosa was handed a victory by the “fortune of others” — mostly by David Mabuza, whose motives are obscure. Ramaphosa won the presidency “but lost the power play”.

Nasrec was both a struggle for power and a battle over policies. Zuma’s faction blames all SA’s ills on white monopoly capital and is calling for radical economic transformation, while Ramaphosa’s allies see corruption as the chief evil holding back the country. Mathekga argues that the Zuma faction prevailed in the policy battle at Nasrec, thus the decision to change legislation regarding land reform. But there was no outright victory.

Neither was the leadership battle a clean sweep. Ramaphosa managed only a “lonely victory”, surrounded as he is by Zuma’s people in the top six. It was the premier league, an interest group, that clinched “maximum returns”. The group “outsmarted both the Zuma and anti-Zuma factions”. They exploited both factions, engineered the outcomes and decided the pecking order in the ANC.

The bulk of the book tries to answer the question posed in the subtitle: Can Cyril Save SA? To answer the question, Mathekga considers Ramaphosa’s relations to the tripartite alliance, friends and foes, rural SA, KwaZulu-Natal, the state capturers and the private sector.

The tripartite alliance doesn’t work. The post-apartheid SA Communist Party (SACP) has become a drag, mediocre in its contributions to policy development and, worse, an “additional platform for ANC factional battles”.

Cosatu is the alliance partner that has suffered most since 1994, undergoing declines in membership, adverse economic conditions, especially in the mining sector, and the departure of the metalworkers' union, Numsa.

Both partners decided to support Ramaphosa in 2017, but it is not clear why, Mathekga says, and he wonders if SACP support is a result of Stockholm Syndrome, a mere survival tactic. Cosatu’s support came precisely because Ramaphosa is a billionaire, “unlikely to indulge in corruption”. The alliance, Mathekga says, makes for unreflective allies.

The premier league is presented as both friend and foe: it eased Ramaphosa into the presidency but dominates the top six, and Ramaphosa needs the league, an unwelcome situation.

The league, Mathekga says, knows how to run up political victories, having installed its  candidates in the ANC’s Youth League and Women’s League, but it  lacks credibility and sees Ramaphosa as its  ticket to it.  The premier league is quite capable of using the Zuma faction to destabilise Ramaphosa’s presidency, as indeed Ace Magashule  has already done.

But subsequent events appear to show that the premier league is in disarray and not quite the victor Mathekga presents, although it might yet harbour some destructive capacity.

A key chapter considers Ramaphosa’s chances in the 2019 election. He is the worst thing that could have happened to opposition parties. Unlike the old ANC, he appeals to those outside the ANC. His biggest challenge, says Mathekga, is securing the support of his own party. He has used the media to his advantage but he has scored own goals, the most serious being the VAT hike, which Mathekga argues should have been introduced after a 2019 victory. It has brought a confrontation with the unions, and what he needs to do, above all, is to avoid confrontations.

On some issues Mathekga seems plain wrong: he questions Ramaphosa’s accession to the presidency, arguing that he should have waited for Zuma’s term to end before assuming power. This is because he is now forced to defend people implicated in state capture and opens himself to the charge that he is using state institutions to fight political battles. But he would have been open to that charge under any circumstances and, besides, Zuma’s reign was disastrous and his dislodging came not a minute too soon.

Mathekga is an able analyst but lacks depth that could come from consulting more academic analyses of the state of SA. His sources are mainly newspaper articles, his prose is staid and there is a distinct lack of excitement, even if he does succeed in setting out a useful map of SA’s politics.