Thursday, March 8, 2018

The guard changes

Michael - Thursday

Cyril Ramaphosa
Last month saw a momentous event in South Africa, one that hopefully broke the downward spiral course on which the ruling ANC under its leader, Jacob Zuma, had set the country. Actually, the real event took place in December when rather unexpectedly, and by the smallest of margins, the ANC chose Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa as its new leader over the old guard’s favored candidate Nkosasana Dlamini-Zuma—one of the merry ex-wives of Zuma and an obvious surrogate for the kleptomaniacal Zuma/Gupta axis (sometimes joking referred to as the Zuptas).

Last month, Zuma was finally forced to resign and hand over the reins with what dignity he could muster.  Zuma now faces a variety of charges for corruption. Evidently, Ramaphosa was not willing to rescue him from those, although the possibility of a presidential pardon afterwards remains. That would be widely condemned by South African society, but might be the sensible scenario when the time comes.

I share the broad enthusiasm for Ramaphosa, although I doubt that all will be well overnight.  I had the pleasure of meeting him when we both served on the Council (governing body) of the University of the Witwatersrand - I as an elected member of the academic staff and he as a nominated member from the Chamber of Mines. His interventions at meetings were thoughtful, relevant, and free of political cant. If it was appropriate, he would offer solutions consistent with his approach rather than offer objections without alternatives.  Of course, it’s a long way from being on a university council to running a country, but he certainly has the skills.

Ramaphosa holds up the constitution of South Africa
Ramaphosa studied law at the University of the North (he would have been denied entry to Wits at the time as a non-white) and joined the trade union movement, eventually initiating the National Union of Mineworkers. He rose in the ranks of the union movement, which was one of the mainstays against apartheid internally in South Africa. Eventually he led the United Democratic Front, the heart of that movement. He worked as hard as anyone, always at personal risk because he chose to stay in South Africa and not escape to exile in the north. When the white regime decided to negotiate, he was one of the lead negotiators. The tenets of the constitution show his hand.

Although he was close to Nelson Mandela personally, he did not have quite the same charisma as the exiles or the members of the ANC who had shared Mandela’s imprisonment on Robin Island, and when Mandela stepped down, the mantle passed to Thabo Mbeki. Ramaphosa decided to combine the waves of support for his contribution to the new society with the new black empowerment initiatives to become an investor and businessman.  Unlike many others who followed the same route but added little or no value, his investments were careful and well managed. Over the years, he became one of the richest men in the country.

Nevertheless, he kept his connections with the ANC and worked hard for it in various roles. When Mbeki was invited to leave—having alienated many of his supporters with his aloof intellectualism and killed many with his AIDS denialism, Ramaphosa stood back. Jacob Zuma took over to start the downward spiral. He wasn’t an AIDS denialist, but was so ignorant that having slept with an HIV positive woman (who then accused him of rape), he explained that he wasn’t concerned about catching the disease because he’d "taken a shower afterwards". (This was immortalized in every subsequent Zapiro cartoon featuring him.)

Ramaphosa has baggage too. He was deputy president for Zuma’s second term, and accepted the party view, only publically criticizing the president’s appalling behavior when it was clear that much of the party’s leadership had turned against him. He was involved on the company side of the awful Marakana strike, and accused of complicity in the police massacre of the strikers. And as a parting gift from Zuma, he was presented with ANC policy of acquiring land for landless black people without paying compensation to the current owner.

Land reform is a huge issue throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and it has been poorly handled in most places. Certainly, Zimbabwe is the classic example - white farmers were dispossessed in order to be replaced either by government cronies, or by ill-equipped peasants who were left without support or infrastructure. South Africa has not done well either, and the issue is less to do with compensation and more to do with ministerial incompetence and lack of commitment.

"President Ramaphosa reaffirmed that accelerated land reform will unfold within a clear legal framework and without negatively affecting economic growth, agricultural production and food security," the presidency said yesterday.

This will take all of Ramaphosa’s negotiating skills. The ratings agencies are watching the new administration like hawks; so far it is being given the benefit of the doubt. Wealthy people are waiting to see which way the dice will roll. The leftwing EFF opposition made broad land reform their key policy before the ANC did, and will push hard from the left. The Democratic Alliance (official opposition) will push hard from the other direction. And the constitution will need to be changed, an issue which makes practically everyone uncomfortable. Zuma’s parting gift was a poisoned chalice indeed.


  1. Thanks, Michael, for the clearest explanation I’ve read yet of where things stand in SA.

  2. What Bro Jeff said! Thank you, Michael. When the Obama administration took over from Bush2, they too were faced with many fishy problems tied to the future on barbed hooks. Knowing that Ramaphosa has the right skills gives one hope. Hope is powerful!

  3. Yes, the honeymoon is on, but in doesn't last very long...