Sunday Times

Is Ramaphosa waving or is he drowning?


Iwas five when Stevie Smith wrote her most famous poem, Not Waving but Drowning. I’ve loved it ever since I first actually read it and, as a reluctant swimmer, often think of it. Nobody heard him, the dead man, / But still he lay moaning: / I was much further out than you thought. /

And not waving but drowning.

It is impossible to resist drawing President Cyril Ramaphosa into a column that starts with this verse because it poses the question everyone has asked about him ever since he won the ANC leadership in 2017 and became head of state in early 2018: Is he waving or is he drowning?

For some, the default assumption has been the latter. Just a few weeks ago a newspaper suggested that Ramaphosa’s nemesis, ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, could in fact dethrone him this very year and possibly become the next president of both party and country. Polite commentato­rs somehow could not appreciate this.

Except that Ace, for now, has been well and truly dealt with, whatever he may do.

Sure, there’s always another hysteria-inducing threat, as there is this weekend at an ANC national executive meeting. But it is unlikely to overturn the Magashule suspension, which bars him from taking part in any ANC affairs until the 74 charges of fraud, corruption, theft and money-laundering he faces are finally dealt with. Given standard practice in the ANC for dealing with legal challenges, it will take a decade for him to reappear.

And Ramaphosa? He was shocked, he told the ANC parliament­ary caucus, to get a letter from Magashule suspending him in return.

I laughed. Of course he wasn’t. He was expecting it. Ramaphosa has stalked

Magashule for years, with much of the country taunting and insulting him while he did it.

Magashule may be a mere bagatelle … The big one will be the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma

Some of the taunts are well deserved. Economic policy is dire. But Ace, I believe, will slowly vanish. Tim Cohen, of whom I’ve written before, is the best journalist in SA, noted the other day how markets responded to the Magashule suspension and his own inept

“suspension” of Ramaphosa in return by paying neither any notice whatsoever. If anything, markets and currency strengthen­ed on the news.

Cohen compared it with the way the markets reacted to former president Jacob Zuma firing Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister in 2015 and replacing him with Des van Rooyen. Everything collapsed back then.

But Cohen reminded us that it’s not the numbers on the day that matter, but the “undertow”. “So what,” he asks, “is the difference between a finance minister being sacked and a president being put on suspension? Why did the markets react so badly in one case and not the other?

“The answer may be that, below the superficia­l flows in financial markets, there is often a strong undertow that is not apparent until it’s triggered by some event. And the important thing is the directiona­l flow of the undertow. If an event takes place which confirms the undertow, the market instantly overreacts. But if an event takes place which contradict­s the undertow, the market is more passive.”

Exactly. Cohen means the markets don’t listen to bullshit or take Twitter seriously. The rand overall is on a strengthen­ing trend, there’s a huge commoditie­s boom on and some of us may even be vaccinated once before Christmas, though let’s not get too excited about US President Joe Biden’s support for a patent waiver on coronaviru­s vaccines — it is a purely domestic political play that won’t for a moment see SA make a vaccine from scratch any time soon.

Nonetheles­s, Ramaphosa’s rivals and critics should take heed. He may in fact be waving.

In the UK, a deeply imperfect Conservati­ve government has just won the working-class Labour stronghold of Hartlepool by a huge majority, reminding us that opposition­s have to be actual, measurable, policy-driven alternativ­es to even rotten government­s to beat them.

The truth may be that for Ramaphosa, Magashule is a mere bagatelle, a coin you toss to the builders. The big one will be the arrest and imprisonme­nt of former president Jacob Zuma, a showdown brought much closer by the departure from office, forever, under the pretence of accumulate­d leave, of our chief justice, Mogoeng Mogoeng. He will be replaced at the top of the Constituti­onal Court for a few months by the solid Sisi Khampepe.

Mogoeng’s term officially ends later in the year, however, and clearly the only serious candidate for job has to be the most patient, thoughtful and balanced human in the country — deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo. Sometimes the right things just happen.

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