President Cyril Ramaphosa delivering his first Sona at parliament in Cape Town. Picture: SUPPLIED
President Cyril Ramaphosa delivering his first Sona at parliament in Cape Town. Picture: SUPPLIED

In the build-up to the delivery of his state of the nation address, the third in about 16 months, all eyes should have been on President Cyril Ramaphosa and his agenda for the next five years.

But he, or ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, made sure that this wouldn’t be the case. Before he had even uttered a word, his message was undermined. Instead, the country was left gasping for air and the names on people’s lips were those such as Mosebenzi Zwane, a Magashule protege and one of Jacob Zuma’s most notorious foot soldiers.

Zwane was plucked from relative obscurity in the Free State and appointed by the former president to head the minerals portfolio. He is most famous for an act of recklessness that cost investors in SA mining shares some R50bn in one swoop, doing untold damage to SA’s reputation.

What we can be sure of is that clean government and accountability were not priorities for those who put these names forward.

His successor, Gwede Mantashe, did much to try to repair the damage wrought by Zwane’s ill-conceived — assuming one is naive enough to accept that at least the intention was honourable — Mining Charter of 2017.

Before that, there was the 2015 visit to Glencore CEO Ivan Glasenberg in Switzerland, with Tony Gupta and other Gupta lieutenants tagging along, part of a naked attempt to manipulate events to enable the Gupta family to take ownership of the Optimum colliery, a coal supplier to Eskom. None of this will be news to Ramaphosa or the ANC as it was the subject of detailed testimony at the Zondo commission into state capture.   

On top of that, Zwane was fingered in the Vrede dairy farm scandal in which hundreds of millions of rand meant for emerging black farmers allegedly went to the Gupta family.

And there are more names, including that of Faith Muthambi, the former communications minister who in 2016 praised the SABC’s decision to stop broadcasting violent protests against service delivery. That’s not even the worst thing we can say about her.

Bongani Bongo, the former state security minister accused of trying to bribe the evidence leader into parliament’s inquiry into Eskom, is also among the list of those the ANC regards as fit and proper to carry out key oversight roles in parliament.

So much for the new dawn. And the timing of the announcement should lead one to only believe that it was done with the intention of giving the middle finger to Ramaphosa, or the electorate, or both.

And any credibility the party’s integrity commission had was dealt a fatal blow when chief whip Pemmy Majodina said MPs who had been named prior to the elections had been cleared after getting a hearing. This presumably includes Zwane, who the ANC nominated to chair the portfolio committee on transport.

These committees are supposed to be important and powerful bodies, tools for holding ministers accountable. 

What we can be sure of is that clean government and accountability were not priorities for those who put these names forward. Headlines about Zuma’s people being in charge are damaging to Ramaphosa’s authority and credibility.

Ramaphosa would, or should, have anticipated those reactions and questions have to be asked about what his failure to intervene and stop the madness entails. Is it a sign that, despite the “new dawn” rhetoric, he cares as much about clean governance as Magashule and his followers?

Or is it a signal that, despite having campaigned and won a mandate in May’s elections, he is still too timid and powerless to take the bull by the horns and deal with the ANC factions determined to thwart his reform agenda?

There might yet be hope, though the initial signs are not good. While the list of committee chairs looks dismal, the ANC political committee in parliament is packed with Ramaphosa’s closest allies. It is this committee that will direct the caucus.

If these characters make it through regardless, then that will be yet another indication that those who placed their faith in Ramaphosa’s election to usher in a new era of reform will be disappointed.