The crises that con­front Ramaphosa are also timely op­por­tu­ni­ties to clean house

Sunday Times - - Opinion - BAR­NEY MTHOM­BOTHI

‘Never let a good cri­sis go to waste” is a re­mark at­trib­uted to Win­ston Churchill, the crusty wartime prime min­is­ter who ca­joled and com­forted the Brits dur­ing the Blitz and whose ef­forts were so cru­cial in de­feat­ing nazism. The tri­umph against Adolf Hitler’s Third Re­ich in World War 2 was fol­lowed im­me­di­ately by the for­ma­tion of the UN as part of a new in­ter­na­tional ar­chi­tec­ture that, it was hoped, would pre­vent such a calamity hap­pen­ing again.

The nor­mal hu­man re­ac­tion when disas­ter strikes is to cower. Pro­po­nents of the “good cri­sis” the­ory be­lieve in­stead that it’s a time to be bold, to act de­ci­sively and think out of the box.

SA has a buck­et­ful of crises vy­ing for at­ten­tion. And of­ten it seems like our lead­ers are paralysed by the mere fact of think­ing about them. The prob­lems are too enor­mous. They don’t know where to start. And so they tarry or push them aside, hop­ing they will go away.

One must not un­der­es­ti­mate the is­sues con­fronting Cyril Ramaphosa. He has the most dif­fi­cult project of any pres­i­dent in the demo­cratic era. Nel­son Man­dela presided over a coun­try still bask­ing in the af­ter­glow of a smooth tran­si­tion and con­grat­u­lat­ing it­self on hav­ing dodged the bul­let of cat­a­clysmic civil war. All Thabo Mbeki had to do was to keep the ship on course. And Ja­cob Zuma? Well, he took Man­dela’s del­i­cate hand­i­work and smashed it on a rock. He spent the bet­ter part of his time in of­fice ac­tively cre­at­ing prob­lems, not solv­ing them. Many of those prob­lems are now ly­ing in Ramaphosa’s in-tray.

And Ramaphosa has ex­ac­er­bated the prob­lems by deal­ing with them the way he has, or even ig­nor­ing them.

ANC lead­ers ex­ag­ger­ate the pol­i­cy­mak­ing role of the party’s an­nual con­fer­ence, its na­tional ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee (NEC), or even its branches. We’re told cer­tain poli­cies have to be im­ple­mented as per a con­fer­ence de­ci­sion, or that cer­tain mea­sures can­not be taken be­cause ei­ther the con­fer­ence or the NEC has yet to pro­nounce on them. It’s the age-old po­lit­i­cal game of hid­ing be­hind one’s thumb.

But Zuma didn’t have the back­ing of the NEC or the con­fer­ence when he ig­nored the rec­om­men­da­tions of a ju­di­cial com­mis­sion of in­quiry and in­tro­duced free tu­ition at ter­tiary in­sti­tu­tions on the hoof. Or when he nicked the EFF’s cam­paign to ex­pro­pri­ate land without com­pen­sa­tion and took it to the ANC con­fer­ence, where it was adopted whole­heart­edly.

Ramaphosa’s big thing is the econ­omy. A grow­ing econ­omy is the an­ti­dote to so many of the coun­try’s so­cial ills. And Ramaphosa, suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man that he is, knows that land ex­pro­pri­a­tion without com­pen­sa­tion is anath­ema to a grow­ing econ­omy. You can have one or the other. You can’t have both.

Hav­ing failed to stop the con­fer­ence res­o­lu­tion on land ex­pro­pri­a­tion, he could, as party leader, have ar­gued for the par­lia­men­tary de­ci­sion on the mat­ter to be post­poned. Sure, he would have taken a lot of flak for it, but lead­ers have to fight their corner. In fact that’s ex­actly what the ANC did with its con­fer­ence res­o­lu­tion on the na­tion­al­i­sa­tion of the Re­serve Bank. It qui­etly put it on hold. Yet on the land is­sue, Ramaphosa al­lowed his party to meekly pig­gy­back on the EFF.

And now he has to speak from both sides of his mouth, promis­ing of­fi­cial land grabs and grow­ing the econ­omy at the same time. Im­pos­si­ble.

The one area where Ramaphosa has been in­ex­pli­ca­bly tardy is in the ap­point­ment of the head of the Na­tional Pros­e­cut­ing Au­thor­ity (NPA). This should have been up­per­most in his mind, even be­fore he be­came pres­i­dent. A court rul­ing gave him per­mis­sion as deputy pres­i­dent to ap­point Shaun Abra­hams’ re­place­ment be­cause Zuma was con­flicted. Abra­hams duly ap­pealed but Ramaphosa should have been ready with the per­son to take over when Abra­hams’ ap­peal was dis­missed by the court. And now here we are, less than a month from the court’s 90-day dead­line, and Ramaphosa is still dither­ing. Yet the NPA is key to all the is­sues that need ur­gent at­ten­tion — crime, cor­rup­tion, state cap­ture.

The res­ig­na­tion this week of fi­nance min­is­ter Nh­lanhla Nene is a clas­sic case of a good cri­sis that should not be wasted. By of­fer­ing to leave, ap­par­ently without be­ing pushed by any­body ex­cept his con­science, Nene un­wit­tingly shone a laser beam on all the rot­ten ap­ples in Ramaphosa’s cabi­net.

The ball is in his court. How can he, in good con­science, ac­cept Nene’s res­ig­na­tion for telling an in­nocu­ous fib while al­low­ing Malusi Gi­gaba (who lied in court), Nomvula Mokonyane, Batha­bile Dlamini, Maite Nkoana-Masha­bane — all drag­ging scan­dals of one kind or an­other — to con­tinue soil­ing his govern­ment’s rep­u­ta­tion? It just beg­gars be­lief. He should take the op­por­tu­nity of­fered by Nene to clean the Augean sta­ble, as it were.

This week’s jaw-drop­ping rev­e­la­tions about the brazen loot­ing at VBS Mu­tual Bank also play nicely into Ramaphosa’s hands, es­pe­cially as they re­late to the EFF lead­er­ship. The EFF’s hypocrisy has been laid bare for all to see. They went af­ter Nene for telling an un­truth, yet won’t con­demn their own for steal­ing mil­lions from the poor. This will se­ri­ously dent their rep­u­ta­tion and blunt their crit­i­cism of wrong­do­ing. And some of them would be wear­ing over­alls of a dif­fer­ent colour al­ready had the NPA been an ef­fec­tive or­gan­i­sa­tion. A less vo­cif­er­ous EFF will qui­eten the fear within the ANC and al­low Ramaphosa more room to ma­noeu­vre.

But it’s not so much that the coun­try’s prob­lems are dif­fi­cult to solve. It is the dy­nam­ics within the ANC that seem to mil­i­tate against sen­si­ble so­lu­tions.

The coun­try is hostage to its for­tunes.

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