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Whether Cyril Ramaphosa, the new ANC deputy president, can make any difference in the troubled ANC government will depend heavily on how much power, support and freedom President Jacob Zuma, gives him.

In the ANC, the reality is that the position of president is all-powerful, with the deputy serving at his behest, no matter the rhetoric of “collective” leadership by party hacks. For one ANC presidential leadership battles are a no-holds-barred fights, because the winner can bestow dizzying patronage to loyalists – from government tenders to heads of state-owned companies and official commissions, can deny rivals and critics jobs in government and the private sector, or can simply use all-powerful state security agencies to sideline them.

For another, the current ANC leadership collective is loaded with Zuma allies – some who will be very suspicious of Ramaphosa. There is a real danger that Ramaphosa’s voice will be drowned out by those of the pro-Zuma leadership majority.

The tipping point has been reached where the gap between the bling world of the ANC leadership and the daily grind of ordinary members may have now become such a wide gulf that many ANC members who may have deep affinity with the party may now not be able anymore to identify themselves with both the leaders and the party.

If Zuma continues on his scandal-prone, poor public service delivery and autopilot presidency – and ANC voters start to abandon him - Ramaphosa will be damned by association with Zuma.

In the run-up to the 2014 national elections, Zuma desperately needs Ramaphosa, who has a reputation as a dynamic, effective and relatively clean manager, as an electoral crutch to counter-balance his own battered presidential image.

Zuma has brought in Cyril Ramaphosa, the former general secretary of both the ANC and the NUM, and now successful black businessman, to restore strained relations with the business sector and the markets; bring management capacity to government; and to bring an accomplished negotiator to mediate the myriad political, economic and social conflicts the ANC government is and will be facing.

At the ANC’s December 2012 Mangaung conference, Ramaphosa effectively neutralized the threat of former ANC Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe. Because Ramaphosa essentially fishes from the same ANC voter support pond as Motlanthe, those who opposed Zuma at the ANC’s December 2012 Mangaung national conference and who may have considered leaving the ANC after Zuma was re-elected may now be persuaded to stay because of the presence of Ramaphosa.

It is likely that the prospect of an easy path to the ANC and South African presidency was one of the key reasons why Ramaphosa accepted the job as Zuma’s deputy.

Ramaphosa, by agreeing to be part of Zuma’s slate gets a short-cut back into high political office on the back of the constituencies who have lifted Zuma into the ANC and South African presidency. Currently, Ramaphosa on his own, having been out of political action for such a long time, does not have the grassroots networks needed to win an ANC presidential campaign.

The cohort of ANC leaders of Ramaphosa’s generation with presidential ambitions is particularly large: from Tokyo Sexwale, the housing settlements minister, to Mathews Phosa, the ANC’s former treasurer. By attaching himself to the Zuma slate, Ramaphosa was carried beyond the reach of his generational rivals.

In the deal cobbled together between Zuma and Ramaphosa, Zuma will be the face of the ANC in the 2014 national elections, and after winning will gradually transfer power to Ramaphosa. Although there is no firm timetable or detail of how such a transfer of power will happen, the idea is at some point between the 2014 national elections and the ANC’s 2017 national conference, Ramaphosa will be given the country’s presidency, while Zuma retains the ANC presidency. In these Mangaung Zuma slate calculations, Ramaphosa would be elected ANC president at the party’s 2017 national conference – with the backing of Zuma.

If the ANC, led by Zuma, does badly in the 2014 elections (falling to 55% and below – as some ANC leaders fear), perhaps losing another province, there is a real chance that the ANC will ask Zuma to stand down earlier. In such an event, Ramaphosa, as Zuma’s deputy would be the natural successor.

In the mid-1990s, ANC strategists put together a similar arrangement for Ramaphosa with Mbeki, in which Mbeki would succeed then ANC and South African President Nelson Mandela, and Ramaphosa would succeed Mbeki. That deal turned spectacularly sour for Ramaphosa – as Mbeki turned against him.

Many of the Motlanthe supporters have warned Ramaphosa not to trust that Zuma will implement his promises of handing power to Ramaphosa. They point to the fact that before the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane national conference, which saw Zuma oust Mbeki as president, Zuma had promised he would only stay in the presidency for one term. He reneged on this promise.

Nevertheless, Ramaphosa will as deputy ANC president assume the position in the Zuma Cabinet called “Head of government business”. Mbeki, during the presidency of Nelson Mandela, was also the “Head of government business”, and he used the position to great effectiveness. Mbeki turned the position into the equivalent of a Prime Minister.

Mbeki was effective at the time because Mandela as principal, gave Mbeki full control of government and the ANC, backed him on almost every issue – even in instances where Mandela disagreed with Mbeki.
Whether Zuma will handover control to Ramaphosa in the same way Mandela did to Mbeki is highly doubtful.

Zuma has made contradictory promises to a dizzingly wide number of interest groups, owes patronage to an equally vast network of benefactors and will be expected to protect the sprawling business, political and personal interests of a web of allies, friends and family.

Zuma, in his second term will also be trying to navigate the myriad of uncleared corruption allegations against him. To do all this, he will want to have full control of party and government – rather than delegating it to Ramaphosa.

Ramaphosa is in real danger of having very little real power in Zuma’s government, yet share responsibility for Zuma’s failures.


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* Prof William Gumede is author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg). This article first appeared in The Daily Dispatch, 29 January 2013.