Ramaphosa does not have much time on his side

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES -

OF course, it never was go­ing to last. Ramapho­ria, I mean.

Ramapho­ria is the warm, fuzzy feel­ing that washed over South Africa with the as­cen­sion of Cyril Ramaphosa to the pres­i­dency in Feb­ru­ary. With the de­par­ture of Ja­cob Zuma, the pall of gloom that had hung over the na­tion for al­most a decade was lifted.

Sud­denly all things seemed pos­si­ble again, in the “new dawn” that Ramaphosa pro­claimed. The sun came out, the rand surged, op­ti­mism soared.

But Ramapho­ria was never go­ing to be the same high-oc­tane po­tion as the Rain­bow Na­tion mam­poer that South Africans had got vrot on. The Ramaphosa gild­ing of the ANC is al­ready wear­ing off in patches, ex­pos­ing the same old tacky plas­tic be­low.

The rand is in re­treat. The public mood is again turn­ing ran­corous.

The de­gree to which cor­rup­tion and loot­ing has gut­ted the econ­omy is only be­gin­ning to be ap­par­ent, with bank­rupt­cies loom­ing in cor­po­rate and state-owned en­ti­ties sec­tors. The ANC’s new com­mit­ment to ex­pro­pri­a­tion with­out com­pen­sa­tion has spooked in­vestors, what­ever the ini­tial hopes that Ramaphosa would be able to soften the ex­tent of the lu­nacy.

That the hon­ey­moon is over was ap­par­ent in this week’s frac­tious par­lia­men­tary ex­change be­tween Ramaphosa and the DA chief whip, John Steen­huisen. Ir­ri­tated by Steen­huisen’s sotto voce in­ter­jec­tions while the pres­i­dent was out­lin­ing the ben­e­fits of the min­i­mum wage, Ramaphosa lost his tem­per, telling Steen­huisen sev­eral times in a tor­rent of anger to “shut up”.

Steen­huisen later tweeted,

“To (those) cel­e­brat­ing that the Pres­i­dent told me to ‘shut up’, laugh now but take note. It starts with the op­po­si­tion be­ing told to shut up. It will soon move to the me­dia and pretty soon all will be ‘shut up’.”

That is un­char­ac­ter­is­tic hy­per­bole from Steen­huisen. Af­ter all, this is the man that City Press claimed ear­lier this year re­signed from the DA’s cam­paign team over the party’s ini­tially hos­tile re­ac­tion to the new pres­i­dent. Steen­huisen re­port­edly ar­gued that the DA should have wel­comed Ramaphosa’s elec­tion with gra­cious­ness.

And that is how the scenery has shifted be­tween acts in the Zu­maPhosa drama. The EFF ac­cords a re­spect­ful si­lence to a pres­i­dent who has ap­par­ently em­braced their most con­tro­ver­sial poli­cies, while a dis­en­chanted DA fires barbs and, ac­cord­ing to Ramaphosa, ex­ple­tives.

For the nor­mally phleg­matic Ramaphosa to lose his cool over some rel­a­tively mild par­lia­men­tary bar­rack­ing – his pre­de­ces­sor chor­tled hap­pily through much worse – may in­di­cate the pres­sure he is un­der. Not from the op­po­si­tion gad­flies, but from the hor­nets of which he has yet to draw the sting, nestling within the ANC.

Ramaphosa gained power by a nar­row mar­gin. While he has moved adroitly to con­sol­i­date his author­ity, the bat­tle is far from over.

Zuma is clearly not con­tem­plat­ing an idyl­lic ru­ral re­tire­ment. He is not go­ing to be spend­ing his time wal­low­ing with wife-of-the-week in the Nkandla fire­pool.

In­stead, Zuma is con­tin­u­ing his war of le­gal at­tri­tion, smoth­er­ing ev­ery at­tempt at putting him in the dock with an avalanche of coun­ter­mo­tions. Zuma is also try­ing to bol­ster his pro­vin­cial power­base, while white-anting Ramaphosa ev­ery­where, at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity.

The pre­car­i­ous­ness of Ramaphosa’s si­t­u­a­tion is il­lus­trated by events in North West. Fury over the in­com­pe­tence and cor­rup­tion of the ad­min­is­tra­tion of ANC pre­mier Supra Mahumapelo – strongly aligned with Zuma – has boiled over in vi­o­lent protests.

There has been at least one death, as well as scores of in­juries, as po­lice clashed with tyre-burn­ing, shop-loot­ing mobs de­mand­ing Mahumapelo’s res­ig­na­tion. Vig­i­lantes bar­ri­caded hos­pi­tals and clin­ics, un­doubt­edly caus­ing fur­ther deaths and mis­ery.

Last month, Ramaphosa cut short a trip to the UK to ad­dress the un­rest. The text­book re­sponse to such anti-gov­ern­ment vi­o­lence is first to re­store public or­der, then to ad­dress the root causes of the dis­af­fec­tion.

Ramaphosa has taken a more cir­cuitous ap­proach. While he wants to pla­cate com­mu­nity anger by get­ting rid of Mahumapelo, this had to be done diplo­mat­i­cally, so as not to trig­ger a re­volt by the Zuma fac­tion in the ANC.

It seemed to be work­ing. Af­ter meet­ings with Ramaphosa, Mahumapelo’s res­ig­na­tion was an­nounced on Tues­day. Then, just hours later when it be­came ap­par­ent that Mahumapelo’s suc­ces­sor would not be from the pre­mier’s camp, the res­ig­na­tion was with­drawn.

In­stead, Mahumapelo is on a “leave of ab­sence” and he has ap­pointed Fi­nance MEC Wendy Nel­son to act as pre­mier in his place, while the be­hind-the-scene machi­na­tions con­tinue. Nel­son is cer­tainly in Mahumapelo’s camp – both he and she are ac­cused in an al­leged R160 mil­lion fraud.

To sur­vive for the long haul, Ramaphosa has to ma­noeu­vre care­fully in these fraught early stages. How­ever, he may not have time on his side.

For years there have been spo­radic and seem­ingly spon­ta­neous erup­tions of dis­con­tent in many parts of South Africa. But this week, a Hu­man Sciences Re­search Coun­cil sur­vey re­ported that 13% of North West res­i­dents now see public vi­o­lence as an ef­fec­tive in­stru­ment of po­lit­i­cal change.

For a democ­racy, that is a chill­ingly high per­cent­age. It makes for a vul­ner­a­ble pres­i­dency.

● Fol­low WSM on Twit­ter: @TheJaun­dicedEye

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