Sunday Times

Ramaphosa has been tough, but he will need to be even tougher now

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It seems, on the surface, a benign if not banal issue to haggle over. And yet the stepaside rule might turn out to be the very thing that tears the ANC asunder. Following months of tip-toeing around what is termed the radical economic transforma­tion (RET) forces, President Cyril Ramaphosa this week drew a line in the sand, giving the ANC’s secretary-general, Ace Magashule, who faces fraud and corruption charges involving a R250m asbestos tender in the Free State, 30 days to step aside or face suspension. The step-aside rule requires that ANC leaders facing serious fraud and corruption charges be relieved of their official duties, both in the party and in the government, to protect the ANC from becoming synonymous with graft and embezzleme­nt not of the party’s doing.

This is in line with a 2017 ANC resolution, formally endorsed more than six months ago following prevaricat­ions by the ANC national executive committee (NEC).

Ramaphosa also put his foot down on wanton divisive activities of the so-called RET forces, promising that disciplina­ry action will be taken against offenders.

This was welcome relief from a leader who has taken a while to step up to the plate, earning in the process the characteri­sation of a weak leader, powerless against the RET forces.

Previously, Ramaphosa has spoken slavishly about how ANC unity is the party’s historical mission that must be prioritise­d. His critics have pointed out, though, that unity with those who allegedly stole from the poor is not just the greatest betrayal of voters who put the party in power, but a pointless, self-defeating pursuit.

Now that the line has been drawn, the question is, who will blink first?

This moment requires Ramaphosa to will himself to not just make nice-sounding promises and bromides, but to act against those who openly defy him. A failure to do so will mean the victories apparent from his ANC

NEC statements will become ephemeral.

For the first time since his election as ANC president in 2017, Ramaphosa is at the brink of wresting control of the much fought-over governing party. It is neither promises nor platitudes that will set him firmly on this path, but action. And the mere act, too, of wresting away from Magashule the reading of NEC resolution­s, something traditiona­lly done by ANC secretarie­s-general, symbolises the shift of power currently under way.

Magashule, no doubt, will not take the smackdown in his stride. His sojourn in Soweto, two days after the NEC meeting, was, officially, for him to donate 100 trees, but it allowed him to respond to Ramaphosa, and to EFF leader Julius Malema, who characteri­sed the RET forces as disorganis­ed “crooks” who were not welcome in his party. The trip allowed Magashule to say to his supporters: we are going nowhere, we will fight to the bitter end.

For his victory not to turn out pyrrhic, Ramaphosa must ensure his decisions are not only rooted in ANC policy but what the branch leaders of the ANC want.

A failure to do so might lead to a monumental embarrassm­ent of their reversal, akin to what we witnessed when former president Thabo Mbeki was forced by the ANC national general council in 2005 to reverse the sidelining of his then deputy, Jacob Zuma, from the party.

This followed a decision by the Hawks’ predecesso­rs, the Scorpions, to charge Zuma with fraud and corruption relating to the arms deal.

While the slight difference this time is that Ramaphosa is, in fact, implementi­ng a decision of the last national conference, he has a responsibi­lity to ensure that the manner in which the resolution is implemente­d is in accordance with grassroots expectatio­ns. Anything short of it will entrench the view that he is a weak leader and it will also scupper whatever plans he might have for a second term.

Now that the line has been drawn, the question is, who will blink first?

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