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