Cyril Ramaphosa’s election to the presidency of the ANC was an extraordinary achievement. Critics have presented it as the culmination of a career steeped in ambition. Cynics have observed that Ramaphosa had good fortune on his side. But the most important lesson to draw from the challenger’s victory is that his team displayed ruthlessness and effective organisation in the face of an incumbent faction with an overwhelming predominance of resources. This ruthlessness can be expected to continue.

The challenges confronting the country impose a set of inescapable imperatives on Ramaphosa. Analysts who doubt his ability to marshal a coalition for change forget the logic of political power under Ramaphosa’s predecessors: Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and President Jacob Zuma.

State power is immeasurably more potent than party power. An astute president can use state power, in conjunction with party power, to overwhelm the most resilient opponents.

The internal elections had to be won, but the current brouhaha over the "divided" top six officials of the party, and the mixed composition of the national executive committee (NEC), is a distraction from the fight over the real nexus of power: the state.

Ramaphosa may not have precisely the top six he would have chosen, given a free hand. But it now seems likely that he planned all along to install Mpumalanga ANC chairman David "DD" Mabuza into the movement’s deputy presidency.

The way Mabuza has been elected allows Ramaphosa to claim plausible deniability for his rise. There is no longer any need to pander to Lindiwe Sisulu’s ambitions to be second-in-command of the party. Moreover, the position of deputy president is powerful primarily as a stepping stone to the presidency.

In common with Mbeki and Zuma, Ramaphosa has a deputy president who is politically — or even criminally — vulnerable.
Like Ramaphosa under Zuma, Mabuza can be obliged to take on projects that will drain his political capital.

New treasurer-general Paul Mashatile sits alongside Mabuza as the other key contender for the highest office in the ANC, and he too will court Ramaphosa’s favour.

At the time of writing, the fate of Free State ANC chairman Ace Magashule’s ambitions to become secretary-general remained uncertain.

The power of a secretary-general, in any event, is personal more than it is institutional: Kgalema Motlanthe, for example, proved entirely unable to contain his president, Mbeki.

To describe these new office holders as "gangsters", as some critics have done, is to close one’s eyes to the realities of power in SA. The arrival, en masse, of provincial "barons" at the centre of power has been a long-anticipated development, and is a logical product of the ANC provinces’ parasitical dependency on revenue streams from the central government.

This relationship can be changed. The fact that provincial politicians cannot survive without entering into dubious relationships of patronage and corruption does not imply that they, as individuals, can or will reproduce such behaviour once they move to the centre of the movement.

In Ramaphosa’s favour too, is the retention of the outgoing secretary-general Gwede Mantashe in the position of party chairman. It seems likely that Mantashe will spend much time at Luthuli House. He will be Ramaphosa’s eyes and ears, and he has the capacity to engender chaos among the new president’s enemies. A weak and divided top six could suit Ramaphosa, just as it has suited his predecessors.

The greatest internal challenge confronting Ramaphosa is the exclusion of KwaZulu-Natal from representation at the highest level (unless Senzo Mchunu is installed belatedly). Dlamini-Zuma’s faction voted against Mchunu, while running with a KwaZulu-Natal-heavy slate.

Beyond the internal bickering of the liberation movement, an economic and social crisis is brewing, and national and provincial elections are closing in. In such circumstances, Zuma’s tenure as state president simply cannot continue. Will Ramaphosa sit on a lumpy sofa in Luthuli House for 18 months while the blue-light brigades loot and pillage in the run-up to the 2019 elections?

The state-owned enterprises pose a desperate hazard to a toppling economy. The Public Investment Corporation is a sitting duck for the cronies of the lame-duck president. International investors are sitting on their hands. Russian President Vladimir Putin is still marketing radioactive reactors. It is simply impossible to deal with any of these challenges while the current coterie of Cabinet ministers and senior officials remains in place. They are not merely incompetent, but serve as key agents of socio-economic instability. Zuma’s grip over the criminal justice, security, and intelligence agencies is a menace that will intensify.

The constructive power of an ANC president is nothing next to the destructive power of a state president. Zuma has to go.

A deal may be brokered between Ramaphosa and Zuma, and SA will not be informed about the details. This might concern the terms of reference of a state-capture commission or the ANC’s political and financial support for a beleaguered former president. There are many possible terms to such a deal — although not even a soon-to-be state president can legally promise immunity from prosecution or an arbitrary pardon.

If Zuma does not resign, it is difficult to see how decisive action to remove him can be avoided. There is no reason for the new leadership to prop up Zuma and his cronies and every reason to remove him forthwith.

Now he has lost his cloak of invulnerability. There is no sympathetic successor waiting in the wings to protect this lame duck. And there is no one but himself to blame for the defeat of his faction

There is little affection for Zuma in the top six, and there is unlikely to be much in the new NEC. Zuma has stabbed almost every erstwhile ally in the back. SA was, until quite recently, an authoritarian country and its governing party was quite recently an authoritarian liberation movement. It is little surprise that Zuma’s power has been based on fear rather than loyalty.

Now he has lost his cloak of invulnerability. There is no sympathetic successor waiting in the wings to protect this lame duck. And there is no one but himself to blame for the defeat of his faction: Zuma lost the election by imposing his preferred candidate, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, on branches when they could have won handily under former treasurer-general and unity candidate Zweli Mkhize.

If Zuma fights a rearguard action, the NEC is likely to hold a "recall" meeting at the earliest opportunity. With its eyes on the future rather than the past, it is unlikely to tolerate delay and obfuscation. If Zuma does not agree to resign, the NEC will presumably instruct the ANC caucus in Parliament to vote against Zuma in a
no-confidence motion.

There is now a precedent for a secret ballot, and there may be perverse incentives for opposition parties to prolong Zuma’s stay. But the seriousness of the national crisis is incentive enough for parliamentarians to vote together for Zuma’s removal.

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

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