Many are hoping that Cyril Ramaphosa can turn South Africa around, by reforming the government and civil service and inspiring economic growth. But, argues Jason Robinson, the challenges he faces are significant, and early optimism is starting to fade.
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.
Two 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.
Restoring the state
Voters 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.
Key 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.
All 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.
Many 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.
Key among these are the corrosive undermining of key institutions through ‘state capture’, including the country’s law enforcement and anti-corruption agencies.
Since 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.
Similarly, 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.
Shortly 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.
Nevertheless, 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’.
Similarly, 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 unreformed ANC.
Populist pushback and attacks from within
Yet 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.
For 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.
Not 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.
Such 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.
Similarly, 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.
In 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 occasion.
Mkhwebane mandated the president to take disciplinary action against Gordhan within 30 days; the latter has lodged an urgent court application 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.
Although Mkhwebane is viewed as a Zuma surrogate after repeatedly erratic and politicised findings, she has received the backing of the populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who have long tried to sideline Gordhan.
Last week, EFF legislators called Gordhan a “constitutional delinquent” and attempted to disrupt his budget speech, before they were removed from parliament.
In 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 capable individual.
When 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 upgradesto Zuma’s personal homestead at Nkandla, and later the problematic state capture allegations involving Zuma, his associates and the Gupta family.
Mkhwebane’s 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 politically motivated.
Plus ca change?
In 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 outcomes.
However, 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.
Ramaphosa’s 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 traction.
Nevertheless, 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.
EFF 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.
A 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.
All the while, Ramaphosa’s enemies will be circling, hoping to undermine his good governance mantle and hasten his downfall.
Dr. Jason Robinson is a Senior Africa Analyst at Oxford Analytica. All opinions expressed are his own.
Twitter handle: @SpeedTrials
This piece is cross-posted from the Presidential Power website.