This is a guest post by Dr. Jason Robinson, Oxford Analytica
While trying to inspire a nation, President Cyril Ramaphosa is hamstrung by those within the ruling ANC and outside who are seeking to derail reform efforts.
months on from the
May general election,
an ongoing populist pushback led by allies of former President Jacob Zuma (2009-18)
is distracting Ramaphosa’s focus and posing serious governance risks.
and investors alike hoped after the May 8 polls that Ramaphosa would quickly move
to unveil various measures to reform government, boost economic growth and curb
unemployment. However, such hopes have largely been dashed.
turnaround plans for state-owned enterprises such as power utility Eskom and South
African Airways (SAA) have yet to be unveiled, while Zuma’s allies in the ANC, in
particular Secretary-General Ace Magashule, are regularly undermining Ramaphosa’s
authority with statements contrary to party and government policy, spooking both
markets and citizens alike.
Even some of his supposed allies are causing Ramaphosa problems, with the president recently forced to take national and provincial officials to task for contrasting public utterances on controversial e-tolls.
the while, economic growth remains stagnant, rampant unemployment persists, and
high crime and insecurity is a pressing (longstanding) concern; troops from the
South African National Defence Force (SANDF) are shortly about to deployed to gang-plagued areas
of the Western Cape province after a recent spike in killings.
of the predicaments facing Ramaphosa are undoubtedly not of his own doing, but
rather the damage wrought by what he has previously dubbed ‘nine wasted years’ under Zuma.
among these are the corrosive undermining of key institutions through ‘state
capture’, including the country’s law enforcement and anti-corruption agencies.
taking office 18 months ago, Ramaphosa has begun to repair their functions, with
a newly installed head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) bolstered by
a new anti-graft unit.
an overhaul of the South African Revenue Service (SARS), once a shining light
of South African governance but gradually decimated during Zuma’s tenure, should
gradually help overturn declining tax returns and help to improve currently
subdued growth prospects.
after the May election, Ramaphosa appointed a new streamlined cabinet, trimming
the number of cabinet ministers from 36 to 28, with an avowed goal of more
effective governance and service delivery, and giving long overdue policy
certainty in key sectors.
undoubtedly cognisant of his still precarious hold over his party and forced to
placate the ANC’s alliance partners, Ramaphosa was forced to keep the same
number of deputy ministers, in addition to retaining several poorly performing officials
(including Zuma allies) in the interests of increasingly illusory party ‘unity’.
tainted ANC figures pervade parliament, with several of those implicated in
ongoing state capture revelations recently selected to head up various
legislative committees, reaffirming public perceptions of a largely
pushback and attacks from within
while core state institutions can, over time, be repaired, perhaps one of the
most problematic legacies of the Zuma tenure is the stifling of South Africa’s
policy space replete with a populist resurgence.
all the goodwill that Ramaphosa still has both at home and abroad, even as the
hopes of quick post-election reforms have largely been dashed, this pushback
represents a dangerous long-term challenge.
only does it threaten to derail Ramaphosa’s reform programme but, in the
worst-case scenario, it could leave openings for his ouster and space for a populist
figurehead to ascend to the ANC leadership once more.
infection of public discourse has been evident in the recent (largely redundant)
debates over the the South African Reserve Bank (SARB), with Magashule and others resurrecting
the trojan horse of altering its scope and mandate, including a
potential policy of quantitative easing, which sent markets reeling and the
South African rand tumbling.
a renewed clash between Public Protector Busisiwe Mkwhebane and Public
Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, a key Ramaphosa ally, reflects the latest
deflection tactics on the part of the Zuma-aligned elite.
a July 5 report on alleged maladministration at SARS, Mkhwebane accused Gordhan
of creating an illegal ‘rogue unit’ during his time as SARS commissioner
(1999-2009), and separately that (as minister) he lied over meetings with the
controversial Zuma-aligned Guptas, after previously stating that he had not met
members of the business family, but later clarifying that he may have on one
mandated the president to take disciplinary action against Gordhan within 30
days; the latter has lodged an urgent court
to interdict the report and its remedial findings.
While Mkhwebane’s charges against Gordhan may come to naught, amid apparent investigative failings and questionable understanding of both the law and her constitutional mandate, they are an unwelcome distraction for Ramaphosa given the host of pressing political issues currently facing him.
Mkhwebane is viewed as a Zuma surrogate after repeatedly erratic and
politicised findings, she has received the backing of the populist Economic
(EFF), who have long tried to sideline Gordhan.
week, EFF legislators called Gordhan a “constitutional delinquent” and
attempted to disrupt his budget speech, before they were removed from
bitter contrast, Mkwhebane’s predecessor, Thuli Madonsela, showed just how
South Africa’s Chapter 9 institutions (eg, independent electoral commission,
human rights commission) could hold the executive to account, when led by a
the ANC stood firm behind Zuma as
graft and state capture allegations proliferated
during the end of his tenure, it was Madonsela who shone a light on the unconstitutional upgrades to Zuma’s personal homestead
at Nkandla, and later the problematic state capture allegations
involving Zuma, his associates and the Gupta family.
approach thus puts Ramaphosa and his allies in a substantial institutional and
public relations bind.
Should the president push for her ouster by the ANC in parliament, something backed by several opposition parties, Ramaphosa will be accused of the very kind of executive overreach perpetrated by his predecessor. Similarly,
given Mkhwebane is shortly expected to release a report into donations to
Ramaphosa’s 2017 ANC leadership campaign, such a move could be portrayed as
his State of the Nation Address last month, Ramaphosa outlined key strategic
goals for a prospective two terms and ten years in office, including tackling
hunger; getting 2 million more young people into employment; raising economic growth
above that of population growth; halving violent crime; and improving child educational
like so many of the government’s stated aims over the past decade, the problem
is not for want of ambition, but rather governance and implementation. While
Ramaphosa has taken steps to halt the rot across national government,
corruption pervades at the provincial and municipal levels: only 18 of 257
municipalities received a clean audit in fiscal year 2017/18.
allies speak to a calculated long game in the president’s cautious and
methodical approach, arguing the consensus-seeker and pragmatist will
ultimately (indirectly) sideline many of his enemies as the capacity of law
enforcement agencies are gradually restored, and anti-corruption cases gain
while the deflection tactics of Magashule, Mkhwebane and the EFF may be
transparent to most outside observers, they are successfully muddying the
waters and distracting the president’s focus.
leader Julius Malema has suggested that Mkhwebane’s forthcoming report into
Ramaphosa’s leadership campaign will damage the president and could even prompt his replacement by controversial Deputy
President David Mabuza, a provincial powerbroker and former Zuma ally with a questionable past.
continual whittling away of Ramaphosa’s pro-investment mantra and overall authority,
coupled with still dormant economic growth, ongoing insecurity and high
unemployment, risks ever increasing voter apathy and disillusionment with
government over Ramaphosa’s first full term in office.
the while, Ramaphosa’s enemies will be circling, hoping to undermine his good
governance mantle and hasten his downfall.
Jason Robinson is a Senior Africa Analyst at Oxford Analytica. All opinions
expressed are his own.