President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: Getty Images/Felix Dlangamandla
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: Getty Images/Felix Dlangamandla

As SA stands on the precipice of a crisis — one that could lead to the coronavirus spreading to hundreds of thousands of South Africans within weeks and have devastating effects on the health-care system — analysts agree that President Cyril Ramaphosa is exactly the kind of leader the country needs.

Ramaphosa did not have to dig deep to show leadership this week — it is under these dire circumstances in which he thrives and shines.

"This is who he is," says an investment specialist of his handling of the Covid-19 outbreak so far.

If anything, the crisis could have an unintended and positive consequences for Ramaphosa, allowing him to shore up political support within and outside the ANC. It would be a welcome boost after the waning "Ramaphoria" that accompanied his rise to the top of the ANC in 2017 and the country in 2018.

Elected to lead the ANC on a wafer-thin unity ticket, Ramaphosa has by all accounts battled to consolidate support inside the party. His opponents — not least of them party secretary-general Ace Magashule — have rallied against him at every turn.

In the months before the global Covid-19 crisis, he has also faced widespread criticism, even from former supporters, over his apparent reluctance to take bold, hard decisions to fix an ailing economy and ensure that those responsible for state capture and corruption are speedily brought to book. For his part, he’s repeatedly explained that the latter is outside his control; it falls to the criminal justice system, in which he dare not meddle.

Ramaphosa’s consultative and democratic approach to decisionmaking has also been criticised as being out of touch — particularly given the dire situation in which SA has found itself in the wake of the "nine lost years" under former president Jacob Zuma.

Until now.

It will take a cataclysmic event to unseat him
Somadoda Fikeni

This week, Ramaphosa was widely praised after announcing an unprecedented lockdown of the country to allow the government to take control of the Covid-19 outbreak. It was a tough, if obvious, decision.

Ramaphosa, following advice from health minister Zweli Mkhize, took steps that will hopefully place SA on a better footing than Western countries such as Italy, the US and the UK.

To do this, he used his characteristic consultative style, convincing business and opposition leaders of the necessity of a lockdown. He also obtained buy-in from the ANC itself — from its national office bearers to provincial leaders — a likely reason the announcement was somewhat delayed.

Even Magashule, responding to the announcement, declared that "the president has spoken".

He said: "This pandemic is not a joke, take the president’s directive seriously. Please listen."

While Ramaphosa has taken the right decisions, a failure by his government to now roll out — and properly enforce — the plan could prove to be his undoing.

"Politically, we think Ramaphosa is stronger now," says Citibank economist Gina Schoeman. "The end result will likely make or break his political future, but as long as he can manage a turnaround, the resulting … economic turnaround will strengthen his public perception, in our view."

Wits School of Governance associate professor Ivor Sarakinsky agrees, saying Ramaphosa’s presidency is at a "crossroads", and his political fortunes could go either way in the aftermath of the crisis.

Sarakinsky does, however, believe a positive outcome is all but assured for Ramaphosa, given that he’s taken all the difficult, but scientifically sound, decisions so far.

The only stumbling block Sarakinsky identifies is what he describes as the "crooks and clowns" in the ANC. Here is a likely reference to former Zuma loyalist and social development minister Lindiwe Zulu, who took to social media to express her frustration at being cooped up due to the virus — an action for which she had to apologise.

Then there is Ekurhuleni mayor Mzwandile Masina, another Zuma loyalist, who wanted to use emergency metro funds to access a Cuban "vaccine" for Covid-19, though no such thing exists.

Sarakinsky says this arrogance, based on ignorance, only serves to dilute the message of Ramaphosa’s administration.

"If it does go wrong, his enemies will use it against him [at the next elective conference] in 2022," says Sarakinsky. "But the chances of him being wrong are slim — science will vindicate him."

There is, however, another battle to win. Ramaphosa’s administration is still in the firing line of labour.

His key ally, labour federation Cosatu, took issue with the idea of a lockdown, even though the working class will suffer most should Covid-19 run rampant in SA’s urban and rural communities.

The response from SA Federation of Trade Unions head Zwelinzima Vavi was as odd. He said the federation "fully supports the president" and that the "price of doing nothing [will be] far greater and catastrophic" than the 21-day lockdown itself. But he went on to express his "disgust" at the government "fiddling while Rome was burning", and said thousands of workers would lose their jobs due to the lockdown.

There is also the simmering battle between public sector unions and Ramaphosa’s administration over a wage hike freeze, which the government is attempting to impose to rein in the budget deficit.

The country’s largest health sector union, the National Education, Health & Allied Workers’ Union, last week said it would proceed with a national day of action against Ramaphosa’s administration, should the government go ahead with its plan to renege on the last leg of the 2018 wage agreement.

The Public Service Association’s Reuben Maleka says that after the government insisted at the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council last week that the agreed increase would not be forthcoming on April 1, the association and other unions are preparing to take the matter to court.

If the government fails to honour its side of the 2018 wage deal, it could irrevocably damage trust between labour and Ramaphosa’s administration. It could also have harrowing political and social consequences, particularly if labour were to use the Covid-19 crisis to hold the government over a barrel.

But political analyst Somadoda Fikeni says the coming economic crisis due to the pandemic, coupled with SA’s dire state before the outbreak, may effectively neutralise labour.

He draws a distinction between a local and a global event, saying if the Covid-19 pandemic had been home-grown, it would have been easy to blame the head of state. But it’s a global event and no economy — not even the most advanced — will be spared the consequences.

He believes labour will have to play a constructive role in the crisis, or risk worsening an already explosive situation. Besides, it’s unlikely to win public support for its cause if it were to hold government hostage now. So it may have to let go of its hardline stance and return to the negotiating table.

What it means:

The Covid-19 crisis could allow Ramaphosa to shore up political support and neutralise labour

This is exactly what the SA Democratic Teachers Union national leadership mandated its negotiators to do this week. General secretary Mugwena Maluleke says his national executive committee wants the government to table its complete proposal before the bargaining chamber so that the parties can hold constructive talks. The hardline stance of other unions, however, has prevented this from happening.

Fikeni says the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic may also force labour to play ball when it comes to negotiating wage freezes, salary increases and retrenchments.

He believes Ramaphosa’s opponents, on the whole, have been neutralised by the crisis; just as they were about to deliver the knockout blow, they were left punching in the dark.

Ramaphosa’s opponents and critics — even in the unions — were set to use the ANC’s national general council later this year to neutralise him so that he would not pursue a second term, says Fikeni. But the Covid-19 crisis has resulted in the event being postponed — and even opposition parties are now rallying behind him.

"It will take a cataclysmic event to unseat him," Fikeni says.

It means, says Sarakinsky, that this is Ramaphosa’s opportunity to consolidate his support outside the faction-riven ANC.

"It can neutralise the toxic environment inside the ANC … Far too many ANC leaders don’t understand the severity of the crisis, but if he can establish a base outside the party, the support we have seen for him this week can become the new normal," he says.

Ramaphosa’s keenest test now lies before him: can he rally his government and society to avert a deadly scourge, and then weather the economic storm that will come in its wake?