When I was an English lecturer at the University of Venda, Prof Ralushai (Sociology) told me that there was no word for “opposition” in the Venda language. Colleagues from other parts of Africa said that the same was true of their languages. There is only the word “enemy.” Government and justice were conducted, they reminded me, on the basis of consensus among elders, who were a single body.
Enter Western democracy, and things become complex. South Africa has a constitution to be proud of, but it is functioning on the African continent and here we will have to let it find its own character. We don’t have to choose between pure Westminster and a traditional indaba. We have the exciting opportunity to discover how the best of both worlds can express themselves as our young democracy evolves.
When I bear this in mind, I find the ANC less baffling. It is a powerful custom to present a united front to the world, while working out differences internally. In fact, if they were not trying to do that – because they are not fooling anyone – we might have had a war instead of an enigma.
And the main player is the enigmatic president, Cyril Ramaphosa. I believe we owe him more than we know. He was President Mandela’s first choice for a successor, but when the party favoured Thabo Mbeki, Mandela advised him to go into business and wait and watch. No one was better equipped to do that than Ramaphosa, brilliant strategist that he is. He has been playing the long game ever since. In the business world he succeeded spectacularly and when the party needed him again, he became Deputy President. What painful years those must have been for him! He saw the workers he had battled for as a Trade Union leader betrayed and indeed all South Africa’s poorest citizens neglected, at best, while the state coffers were plundered by multiple acts of fraud, cronyism and corruption. He and his wife, Dr Tshepo Motsepe quietly continued to donate hundreds of thousands of rands towards education, another field that was left to deteriorate.
A cloud that threatened to darken his reputation was that, as a non-executive director of Lonmin, he had played a part in the shooting of protesting miners in 2014 when he said that they needed to take action. He resigned from Lonmin in February 2015, and the Marikana Commission of Inquiry cleared him of any personal responsibility for orders that had been given. In fact, all court actions that have been brought against him have failed. On the other hand, the state attorney is burdened with the problem of recovering R18.3 million in expenses for Zuma’s court appearances – and he is still eluding the big charges at present. How much rope does he need to hang himself? Yet it is smart to allow all his special pleas to be heard because no one will be able to say (with justification) that he has been denied any of his constitutional rights.
Ramaphosa has always known that to preserve peace and save lives, he had to operate within the ANC, and he had a strong enough following of loyal admirers and wily operators like the corrupt Ace Magashule, who was willing to bet on him, that he edged out Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in an election for the leader of the ANC in December 2017. Since that time, he has been walking a tightrope, steadily turning back the tide of corruption while keeping the ANC intact. If it breaks apart it will be because the corrupt elements decide to leave – he will not be responsible for destroying the organisation that liberated South Africa and that he has served since his youth, even when that meant incarceration.
His list of achievements is long. Imagine where these organisations might have been if it were not for the strategic appointments that have been made on his watch. Eskom, after all the mismanagement and neglect is now headed up by Andre de Ruyter; Moyane at SARS has been replaced by Edward Kieswetter; under Madoda Mxakwe the SABC has shown its first profit for years; Shamila Batohi is the head of the NPA and the days of the Zuma-appointed Public Protector, Busiswa Mchwelane, are clearly numbered. There are many more people of integrity taking up positions in the abused structures of the South African economy. Most of the appointments have happened according to precepts and protocols, and one sees in the background the steady hand of the President driving events.
We need a special reminder about Eskom. South Africa was on the verge of getting a ruinously expensive Russian nuclear power station, and what a relief it was in 2019 when the then finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, announced that the government had scrapped the idea. Now they are working on the long-term Integrated Resource Plan, which supports a diverse energy mix and focuses on renewable energy sources. If we do get another nuclear power station, it will be properly planned and commissioned and benefit only the general South African population. The plan is to decommission 24 coal power plants between 2030 and 2050. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get a battered population excited about such proper, careful, long-term planning.
And battered we are, because on top of all the economic issues, we have had Covid-19. Just compare the two stages onto which Mandela and Ramaphosa made their entrances. Mandela was universally hailed as a hero and given goodwill and every opportunity to refashion South Africa. Ramaphosa entered a stage peppered with thugs who wanted to remain on the take, whom he nevertheless had to keep on board while an orderly clean-up began. I believe it has taken not only intelligence but enormous courage to tackle the challenge. He has to listen to impatient and unrealistic criticism and face false accusations, but he has never lost his vision. He said recently that history would prove him right, and I agree.
Ramaphosa has actually won the terrible battle he had to fight; there is no viable rival to him in the ANC now. This does not mean that he will suddenly start issuing executive orders because that just isn’t his way of operating. I have no doubt that he is keeping abreast of developments around the investigations into the looting, and for example, the case against Ace. I hope he will launch an investigation into the SAPS and why Cele was unwilling to arrest ex-Presidant Zuma when it was clearly his duty to do just that. The Police are not in good hands; indeed, they have recently dismissed one of their best men, Jeremy Verey, with a proven record of dealing with gangsterism on the Cape Flats. If the President deals with issues like these effectively, he will galvanise the country behind him. Most people are hungry for strong leadership.
In the meantime, let’s not be ungrateful. I believe that in time and with hindsight we will realize that this man was actually our sweetheart president.
PS The letter by “Niemoller” that you can read on the link below has many specific recommendations for President Ramaphosa.