President Cyril Ramaphosa is joined by Thandi Modise, chair of the National Council of Provinces, to prepare for his state of the nation address, February 6 2018. Picture: GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa is joined by Thandi Modise, chair of the National Council of Provinces, to prepare for his state of the nation address, February 6 2018. Picture: GCIS

The timing could hardly be worse for President Cyril Ramaphosa and his renewal project.

From Davos to Cape Town, he has  talked up the theme of rebirth for the country, even urging us to see the positives in the grizzly corruption scandals that have emerged in the Zondo commission on state capture.

In words that irked his predecessor so much that he felt moved to respond on Twitter (where else?), Ramaphosa has talked much of the nine “wasted years” in which rampant corruption became entrenched and key institutions such as the power utility Eskom were manipulated to serve the interests of one family. From law enforcement to tax revenue, the destruction was immense and threatening to bring down the whole economy.

Perhaps reflecting the country’s need for soothing and, most importantly, hope, he has gotten away with it, though now and then there’ll be an observer pointing out the irony of the renewal being led by someone who was often sitting alongside Jacob Zuma when untold damage was being inflicted on the country.

That’s an interesting debate on its own, but those familiar with the workings of the ANC largely appreciate that there was probably no other way. Rather than talk of a new dawn, the price of Ramaphosa giving away his seat at the time would have been the country having another president called Zuma today, and yet more despair.

Public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan, who has the mammoth task of cleaning up state-owned enterprises, has consistently warned about a fightback by the ‘forces at the centre of state capture’.

So, the national instinct has been to give Ramaphosa the benefit of the doubt, in the hope that he could take hold of the ANC and be the force of reform he wants to be.

News on Wednesday that Supra Mahumapelo, an ally of Zuma, had succeeded in his court bid to overturn an ANC national executive committee decision to disband the provincial leadership — effectively firing him as party leader in the province — is a timely reminder of the forces Ramaphosa is up against.

Coming a day ahead of Ramaphosa's widely anticipated state of the nation address, it will cast a dark cloud over what is meant to be an optimistic message about a way forward for the nation. The faction Mahumapelo is part of cannot be said to represent anything to do with a new dawn.

This is the same Mahumapelo who was part of a group that met Zuma in that famous meeting at a hotel in Durban in 2018, where they allegedly cooked up a plot to unseat Ramaphosa. If anything, he is a symbol of the toxic divisions that bedevil the ANC and constrain any prospects for meaningful reform.

One of Ramaphosa’s lieutenants, public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan, who has been given the mammoth task of cleaning up state-owned enterprises, has consistently warned about a fightback by the “forces at the centre of state capture”. He told a conference in 2018 that this grouping is “not just walking away, they’re fighting back and trying to hold on to what they have and get rid of the good guys so they can win back that space and continue with the kind of destruction in those state-owned entities”. 

Whether Mahumapelo is part of such a grouping remains to be seen, but what is not in dispute is that this sorry mess shows how far Ramaphosa has to go before he has control of his party, and the dangers that lurk  around his leadership and authority. For ANC supporters, the most immediate concern may well be what all of this means for the party’s electoral prospects in a province where it has seen its support drop since 2009. 

For citizens and investors looking for solutions to challenges such as unsustainable levels of unemployment and poverty, that is the least of their worries and the distraction is unwelcome.

At a time when the country is crying out for leadership, these spats within the ANC can only lead to anxiety about what’s to come and questions about how much authority the president commands in order to give meaning to any promises he makes on Thursday night.