Peter Bruce Columnist
Cyril Ramaphosa closes his eyes after being announced as the new ANC President during the 54th ANC National Elective Conference held at Nasrec. Picture: MASI LOSI
Cyril Ramaphosa closes his eyes after being announced as the new ANC President during the 54th ANC National Elective Conference held at Nasrec. Picture: MASI LOSI

At the end, it seemed it would never end; the company running the African National Congress elections dithered over final numbers, desperate to avoid conflict. But Cyril Ramaphosa came through, defeating Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma by a slender 179 votes. Ramaphosa is the new president of the ANC and unless the combined opposition in parliament pull their fingers out he will be the next president of South Africa.

In fact, the opposition might not have to wait until the 2019 election to have to start calling him “Mr President” when they attack him. It seems almost impossible that President Jacob Zuma will survive long in office at the Union Buildings. He got some supporters into the Top 6, notably Ace Magashule as the new secretary general.

But even though Ramaphosa would have preferred a deputy other than Mpumalanga Premier David ‘DD’ Mabuza and must have groaned at the return of Jesse Duarte as deputy secretary general, they will quickly get behind him. There is absolutely no mileage in any of them fighting for Zuma to stay in office.

Mabuza will demand some reward for his support and his less than clean administration of Mpumalanga will worry the markets. But the opposition will find it hard, unless cracks in the ANC widen, to make the progress it would have had Dlamini-Zuma won.

Ramaphosa takes the lead of a party at odds with itself but the possibilities for renewal are there. A new national executive committee will defenestrate Zuma just as Zuma’s NEC did to Thabo Mbeki in 2008 after he lost the party race to Zuma in Polokwane exactly 10 years ago.

What goes around comes around and with a Ramaphosa rather than a Dlamini-Zuma victory the ANC is much less likely to split. The Dlamini-Zuma camp was always the more opportunist. For most of its leaders a life outside the party is unimaginable.

Ramaphosa, being the gentleman he is, will be torn between making some sort of magnanimous gesture towards her or burying her completely — though that may be easier said than done. The leadership elected around him has some ambitious people in it, not least Mabuza, who appears to have handed victory to Ramaphosa by backing him when it had been widely assumed he was backing Dlamini-Zuma.

It would be a significant break with ANC tradition if Ramaphosa does not make him deputy president of the country whenever he assumes office. Ramaphosa could do that, nevertheless, without much risk to himself until 2023 when the ANC next elects a leader.

Zuma's three futures

He will surround himself with technocrats and supporters in cabinet. Obviously, like any politician, he will make gestures to gender and ethnicity but the powers of the South African president are immense, as Zuma has frequently demonstrated, and he will quickly sweep clean the Augean Stables Zuma created and left so filthy. Magashule, as close as Zuma has been to the Gupta family, will himself feature prominently in the legal fire Ramaphosa is now poised to ignite.

Zuma has three futures, all of them bleak. He could resign, he could be recalled by a new NEC or he could be removed when parliament next sits. His instinct will be to fight but he will lose. No-one in the new Top 6 of the ANC could reasonably contemplate preparing for the 2019 general election with Zuma still in office. He simply has to go.

I would be surprised if he opens the next parliament. The prospect of him giving the next state of the nation address is inconceivable. The number of cabinet members who would survive a Ramaphosa government would be minute. I doubt Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba would be one of them – certainly not at the Treasury. Ebrahim Patel perhaps. Naledi Pandor. Lindiwe Sisulu.

Ramaphosa has to move quickly. He is by nature a conciliator but he may quickly discover the virtues of total power. The markets cheered his victory with the rand rising fast and bonds yields falling (that’s good) equally fast. The political calendar though is unrelenting, with the traditional January 8 statement on the anniversary of the ANC’s founding less than a month away. Ramaphosa will have to make a significant statement of policy and intent then and it is less than a month away.

Then it is on to the state of the nation address and the budget in February – huge moments for the country as Moody’s, the last remaining big ratings agency not to have downgraded our sovereign debt to junk, waits to give its verdict. Ramaphosa will be desperate to avoid that. He may even call Pravin Gordhan back into the Treasury.

And while Ramaphosa battles to restore some confidence in the economy he will also have pay heed to the strong showing of the Dlamini-Zuma camp and its calls for radical economic transformation. He will have to sell dramatic new policies on land and state-owned companies. That should not be difficult. The constitution already allows for expropriation without compensation and he will have little difficulty, should he try, to persuade the private sector to play a bigger role in state enterprises.

The fact is that whatever the composition of the Top 6 elected this evening, business will understand that compromises will have to be made by all sides in the Great South African Debate. There are boils to be lanced and business will be comfortable enough with the mere prospect of a Ramaphosa presidency to pitch in and help him.

It goes without saying that the moment Zuma goes, Ramaphosa will institute a judicial inquiry into State Capture or a kind of State Capture Truth Commission. The Guptas have been fatally rude about him and arrogant generally about their access to power. That stops now. They prospered under a particular set of circumstances in South Africa, most important of which was Jacob Zuma’s weakness for money. Those circumstances have dwindled for months now and they too are officially over. If I were the Guptas I’d get out of South Africa immediately.

Cyril Ramaphosa was named the new president of the African National Congress on Monday. Subscribe to TimesLIVE here:

Ramaphosa, despite his incomplete victory, suddenly has great power but he will be judged harshly if he hesitates. The mood of the country is easy to read. It wants justice – not merely for the long past but for the near past too. There is no room for prevarication. The country will expect him to act against corruption in a tangible way. It needs to see people on trial and he will deliver. It is, for a start, a sure way to win with a parliamentary majority in 2019.

A judicial inquiry will spare no-one. Ramaphosa will draw former public protector Thuli Madonsela into his administration (perhaps as head of the National Prosecuting Authority) for a start and his big test will be who to prosecute once the inquiry is done. Zuma could face imprisonment – Ramaphosa would probably pardon him but he could only do that once he had been found guilty of something. He will institute a process, with the enthusiastic help of the rest of the world, to bring back money stolen under the State Capture project.

The Dlamini-Zuma camp will quickly fall apart. It has no patronage to offer. Nkosazana herself may be offered a cabinet position but it will be something hard, like basic education, where her ability or otherwise to turn around a wreck will be easily measured.

The failure of KwaZulu Natal to deliver her the top job will have been a huge psychological blow. She made the fatal mistake of relying on her former husband to do the hard yards in their mutual backyard.

But the biggest job now, politically, is for the opposition. Once Ramaphosa starts doing what obviously needs to be done, where will it find political space? The Economic Freedom Fighters are vulnerable. Zuma was such an easy target. The EFF needs to make policy it can sell to the marginalised without making impossible promises.

The Democratic Alliance is suddenly in the same boat. Without Zuma, or his surrogate, it is going to have to go up against Ramaphosa on economic policy and its leader, Mmusi Maimane, is going to have to craft an economic message that is not only different but also compelling. It is not there yet. Not even close.

But that can wait a little. For now, the ANC has miraculously given the country a Get Out of Jail Free card. The thieves and crooks are in trouble but for the most part we can breathe again. We have room to move, to do the right things. It is a blessed moment.

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