The flies in Ramaphosa’s ointment
It was a historic week in SA politics, with former president Jacob Zuma ending his tenure just as controversially as he began it nine years ago.
For incoming president Cyril Ramaphosa it was an unforgettable week. He was swept into office on a tide of relief and expectation after Zuma’s long era of maladministration. On Friday he delivered an unforgettable state of the nation address, widely lauded from all sides.
A week before, it seemed an unlikely event, as Zuma kept the nation on edge, resisting his ousting. As he bucked against his recall by the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC), the words "constitutional crisis", "state of emergency" and "ethnic mobilisation" were spoken aloud.
The approach adopted by Ramaphosa in ensuring Zuma’s removal was slow and steady.
Eventually, the tipping point came when Zuma requested three more months in office to satisfy "international commitments" and to "introduce" Ramaphosa to his counterparts in the Southern African Development Community and in the Brics group of countries.
The NEC flatly rejected this, and unanimously decided on Zuma’s removal. Though Zuma dug in his heels, the ANC’s parliamentary caucus, led by chief whip Jackson Mthembu and supported by ANC treasurer-general Paul Mashatile, said he had no choice and would be removed through a motion of no confidence.
By then, Zuma realised the game was up. Late on Valentine’s day, he resigned in a bitter and rambling speech on live television. He now retreats into political Siberia, with the grim prospect of facing criminal charges linked to 783 allegedly corrupt payments dating back to the arms deal in 2000.
After Zuma quit, it all happened exceedingly quickly. Ramaphosa was elected president by parliament and sworn in within 24 hours. The following day he delivered his maiden state of the nation address, and was almost immediately consulting on an upcoming cabinet reshuffle.
In his speech on Friday, he made it clear that his administration would be markedly different to the outgoing one.
Sweeping changes would include reconfiguring the cabinet, and getting rid of those tarring the image of government. "It is critical that the structure and size of the state is optimally suited to meet the needs of the people and ensure the most efficient allocation of public resources," Ramaphosa said.
"We will therefore initiate a process to review the configuration, number and size of national government departments."
Inquiries are on the cards into whether SA Revenue Service commissioner Tom Moyane and national director of public prosecutions Shaun Abrahams are fit to continue in office. A reckoning is fast approaching, after which it seems unlikely Moyane and Abrahams will remain in their positions.
It was no coincidence that on the morning of Zuma’s resignation, the Hawks raided the Gupta family’s Saxonwold compound and arrested a number of suspects.
Though a welcome development, this speaks volumes about the lack of political independence of our criminal justice machinery, which switched rapidly from serving its political master, Zuma, as soon as it was clear his time in office was over.
But as much as there is positive momentum, Ramaphosa will still face immense challenges in the ANC itself — not least of which is the prominence of hardline Zuma-loyalists in the party’s top six. ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule and his deputy Jessie Duarte will remain a problematic counterbalance to Ramaphosa’s renewal agenda.
Two days after Zuma’s resignation, his backers in the ANC’s largest region, eThekwini, publicly demanded an explanation for the recall. NEC members Barbara Creecy and Zweli Mkhize were also part of a high-level team sent to KwaZulu Natal to explain the decision and avert a rebellion.
Zuma backers are regrouping. So expect the contestation in the upcoming regional and provincial conferences to be fierce.
It is a reminder of how at least half the leaders elected alongside Ramaphosa in December have a decidedly different take on the way the state and the party should be run. They want to stick to the Zuma blueprint.
These tensions explain the lengthy consultations that Ramaphosa is conducting before he reshuffles and reconfigures his cabinet. He will be well aware that it was partly Zuma’s failure to consult on cabinet appointments that alienated the ANC’s allies, the SACP and Cosatu.
Nonetheless, the early days of Ramaphosa’s presidency have already instilled new hope among South Africans across party lines. He was fondly addressed as "Mr President" and "Comrade President" in the national assembly by EFF leader Julius Malema — a sharp contrast to Malema’s disdain for Zuma.
DA leader Mmusi Maimane, too, began his response to Ramaphosa’s state of the nation address on a positive note, recognising that the entire national assembly had given the new president a standing ovation. "I’ll be honest with you. It felt good. It felt good to be a member of this august house, with its dignity restored. It felt good to be a member of the opposition, knowing that our efforts over the past decade have not been in vain. Most of all, it felt good to be a South African," Maimane said.
Given the goodwill of the opposition, it will be a tragic irony if Ramaphosa’s biggest stumbling block emerges from among his own comrades.