EDITORIAL: Ramaphosa through Zuma’s looking glass
In a year’s time, when the country looks back on the dying days of this presidency, we’ll wonder how it was that we became so desensitised that we accepted such routine violations of Zuma’s oath without blinking
As panicked rumours swirled this week that Cyril Ramaphosa was to be axed as deputy president, it seemed a moment that exemplified how SA has moved through Lewis Carroll’s looking glass into a curious world of unfathomable silliness.
SA’s increasingly flaccid leader, Jacob Zuma, has wanted to get rid of his increasingly outspoken deputy for months. Now, ANC insiders are speaking darkly of another "intelligence report" that details how Ramaphosa is — wait for it — "a spy for Western capitalist interests". Treason charges might follow, they warn sternly.
It goes without saying that it would be a disastrous gamble for Zuma to fire Ramaphosa based on a report written by people who evidently don’t have the mental skills to wield cutlery without doing themselves serious harm.
But to fire Ramaphosa now would be to risk providing the billionaire founder of Shanduka with exactly the sort of trajectory that catapulted Zuma himself into the Union Buildings. SA loves a victim, so to be fired by Zuma based on a work of fiction would be an invaluable gift to Ramaphosa’s campaign. It would also be deeply ironic.
Zuma loyalists say the president is aware of the dangers of giving Ramaphosa enough time to capitalise on being a victim. His solution: get rid of him late in November, with just weeks to go before the ANC electoral conference.
But even that would backfire.
It’s a curiosity how Zuma, once an arch-strategist, is now so badly misfiring on this score. In part, this is because he has frozen out more reasonable advisers and surrounded himself with those who indulge his conspiratorial paranoia.
Insiders say he relies now, almost exclusively, on the guidance of David Mahlobo, a man who was elevated to energy minister this week from the state security portfolio. Mahlobo is a man of such sound judgment that he regularly visited renowned rhino poacher Guan Jiang Guang at his massage parlour until he was exposed. This is not the straw for Zuma to be clutching at; rather, it may be the one that breaks the camel’s back.
But the very fact that Ramaphosa’s ejection is being considered now — less than a week after another brutal cabinet reshuffle that was designed only to shore up political factions — illustrates how our politics is now almost exclusively steered by venal motives.
This isn’t to say that politics, even before Zuma, wasn’t shot through with self-serving machinations. It has always entailed walking a tightrope between personal ambition and public service — an equation kept in balance by the weight of accountability. In theory, these competing interests should lead to an acceptable outcome. But that balance has been lost in SA, as political accountability has all but vanished.
There are many reasons for this. One is that the president has too much unchecked power over state appointments. Another is that MPs are not accountable to the electorate, as they would be in a constituency system, but to their party first.
This is why, last week, there was the absurd situation where MPs were lobbying Luthuli House to block parliament’s inquiry into state capture, despite the baying of society for such a forum.
Commendably, ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu rejected this request. But it speaks of how, in some quarters, there’s a complete unmooring from any notion of fulfilling the oath MPs swore to the country.
In Carroll’s classic there’s a moment in which Alice stops and thinks about what happened a while ago. "It occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural," the book recounts.
In a year’s time, when the country looks back on the dying days of this presidency, we’ll wonder how it was that we became so desensitised that we accepted such routine violations of Zuma’s oath without blinking.