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Will Cyril Ramaphosa be SA's next president?

May 4 '16 | By La Afrique Media | Views: 257 | Comments: 0

Bosso ke mang? (who is the boss?), asked Cyril Ramaphosa at least three times while on an outreach programme to Kuruman in the Northern Cape last Friday. This was part of the ANC and SA deputy president’s charm offensive, as he interacted with people hired through government’s public employment programme — one of the areas he oversees as the country’s number two boss. A charismatic politician, Ramaphosa sought to validate the supervisors of the groups who make bricks or pave roads in the economically depressed town. In a charming tone, he often called them to the front of the groups they oversee with the phrase bosso ke mang? This proved to be a useful icebreaker.

The "who is the boss" question crops up persistently as many in SA increasingly wonder if Ramaphosa (63) himself will in fact rise to become boss of the country.

Ramaphosa has the status of the "chosen one" in SA’s politics, having come so close in the past to ascending to the throne during the 1990s. He was Nelson Mandela’s chosen successor, but that ended in tears when African National Congress (ANC) veterans vetoed the global icon’s wish. They insisted Thabo Mbeki should take over, and just like that, Ramaphosa was elbowed out of the succession race at the time.

Mandela would have noticed and appreciated Ramaphosa’s many skills and talents. He is considered to be an astute negotiator and visionary pragmatist. Also, his background as a trade unionist, and a prominent part of the Mass Democratic Movement and the United Democratic Front in the 1980s, meant he had a solid grasp of SA’s political dynamics.

And to add to the complex mix of considerations, the ANC needed to be careful of tribal politics.

In that instance, Mandela would have sought to manage the perception that leaders of the Nguni grouping had been the most dominant in the party for decades, and that as Ramaphosa is Venda, his presidency would help to dissolve potential ethnic tension.

Two ANC veterans who were part of the ANC national executive committee at the time say the party elders vetoed Mandela’s choice because they felt Mbeki was better placed to lead the party and government, given his experience and the mentorship he’d received under the guidance of party stalwarts like Oliver Tambo in exile.

That rejection seemingly scarred Ramaphosa deeply, as he checked out of top-flight politics, effectively resigning as ANC secretary-general — the party’s third-in-command. He ventured into business as part of the first group of politically connected leaders to carve a path of wealth creation, part of the Mandela era drive to create a black business class. He amassed a lot of wealth — becoming one of the country’s dollar billionaires.

Ramaphosa made a serious return to the front stage of SA politics in 2012 when he became ANC deputy president at the Mangaung conference, paving the way for him to become the country’s number two in 2014.

The express expectation was that he would help give credibility to the leadership team elected at the conference, as it lacked authority and the savvy required to market the party to middle-class voters and the business world.

On the day Ramaphosa was elected as deputy to Jacob Zuma, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe noted that the number two position in the party and in government was powerful. It had the status of a "de facto prime minister", he said. Mantashe waxed lyrical about Ramaphosa’s recently acquired business skills: "Cyril Ramaphosa has acquired many new skills that I have no in-depth understanding of — as a businessman that will give him an edge and open up avenues for the ANC to interact with business and maybe reduce the suspicion on the part of business about the relationship with the SA Communist Party, which is supposed to be hostile towards business."

Mantashe went further, saying Ramaphosa would not be a lame-duck deputy to Zuma. "I think that will add value to what we are doing. Secondly, he is an experienced leader in the ANC, having played many roles, and a negotiator who can unblock bottlenecks. That skill is quite important. He doesn’t like ceremonial roles — he loves doing work. So that’s another advantage."

Fast forward to 2016 and the relationship between the government and business sectors is at a low ebb. The investment world is anxious, with ratings agencies warming up to condemn the country’s sovereign rating to "junk".

And Ramaphosa — the much vaunted saviour of the Zuma ship and supposed explainer of economic policies has slid back into his enigmatic shell with no-one able to say with absolute confidence they know what his role is and, most importantly, what his long-term game plan looks like.

Veteran labour and political analyst Terry Bell is blunt in his assessment of Ramaphosa’s prospects: "He has virtually zero chance of becoming president."

According to Bell, Rampahosa, despite his high "media profile", has no grass-roots support, and therefore no solid constituency to push him to the top. Though he became a powerful trade unionist in the 1980s, Ramaphosa did not come through the ranks — his last job before becoming general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was at the Urban Foundation, an organisation started by Harry Oppenheimer.

Also, tribal politics would make it difficult for him. "We still suffer from the feelings of ethnicity, and you will always have tension, primarily between Zulu and Xhosa speakers, and the outsiders will always be the Vendas [like Ramaphosa]. That will weigh against him."

Ramaphosa’s role in the build-up to the Marikana massacre — where 34 mineworkers were gunned down on August 16 2012 — has compromised him too, says Bell.

He says Ramaphosa and others, including Mantashe, known not to be in favour of Zuma, have been "outmanoeuvred" by the president in the aftermath of the constitutional court judgment on the Nkandla scandal. They got themselves "beautifully comprised" by having to say they are unanimous about supporting Zuma and his continued stay in office.

On Friday Ramaphosa told the Financial Mail, as he interacted with recipients of Expanded Public Works Programme jobs in the Northern Cape, that he is happy with his role in government. "I am enjoying this (role). I can do it for a very long time, for as long as my health holds."

Ramaphosa says SA faces many headwinds. "The economic challenges that we face are huge and many."

The mining industry, for example, is in the doldrums "because of the collapse" of commodity prices. But a lot is being done to improve the situation. "We are putting together quite a lot of pillars in place as government, so that when the upturn comes around, we are able to have people who have skills, who have certain capabilities, who will then be able to fill a number of places."

Government initiatives such as the National Development Plan — which he helped craft — and other measures like the nine-point plan, are proof that government is serious about improving the economic situation.

"Government is not sleeping on the job. Government is working to see how best we can crank this economy back to life. And that is what we are doing. All these initiatives we are involved in are about that."

As the country’s deputy president, Ramaphosa is the head of government business: theoretically, this means overseeing cabinet clusters. In 2012 Mantashe said the role entailed "following through on the work of the ministers and making sure questions are answered and doing everything that makes government effective." The deputy president also chairs a number of institutions such as the SA National Aids Council. Zuma has also relied on Ramaphosa’s diplomatic skills, making him the special envoy to Lesotho and Sudan.

But Zuma has also assigned him some truly awful tasks. Whether this hospital pass was a calculated bid to weaken him politically is unclear.

For example, in a governmental curve ball, in 2014 Zuma assigned Ramaphosa to oversee the turnaround of SA Airways (SAA), Eskom and the SA Post Office.

Two years later, SAA is still in trouble, and a clear casualty of the politics of "9/12" – the dismissal of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister last December is one of Zuma’s most capricious (and economically damaging) moves. Nene had clashed with SAA chair and Zuma associate Dudu Myeni over the expansion of the airline’s fleet.

On SAA, Ramaphosa seems to have had no impact. Though government has announced that a new board will soon be assembled to guide the national carrier, that has yet to happen, and the organisation remains just another badly run parastatal that can’t even submit its annual report to parliament on time. On the Eskom side, the lights have been on for a long time, which has been attributed to management of demand, improvement in strategic maintenance and operational efficiency.

Ramaphosa told a Northern Cape government fund-raising dinner in Kimberley last Thursday that Eskom brings in good revenue, and makes a profit.

But despite this positive spin, Eskom, at least according to its 2015 results, remains in a precarious position, with all major performance metrics worsening to their lowest levels yet. Also, the completion of its three major capital projects that will bring new power to the grid, have all been delayed a further two years. The energy generator has pushed back completion of the Ingula pumped storage facility to the second quarter of this year, from an initial target of the end of last year. The completion of Medupi has been revised to 2019 from 2017 and Kusile to 2021 from 2019.

At the post office, Ramaphosa was instrumental in the process that led to the appointment of businessman Mark Barnes as CEO. Barnes says his appointment to head the state-owned enterprise was testament to Ramaphosa’s attempts to get business leaders more involved in turning the country around. "He forms an interesting bridge between business and government because he straddles both sides of that divide."

Barnes believes Ramaphosa’s skills set makes him a good candidate to replace Zuma, especially at a time when the discourse needs to move away from a narrow political one to one focused on the economy. "I think he has done extraordinary work about starting to marry some of the principles of business, some of the mixtures of economic power and the skills set."

Would the business sector be happy with Ramaphosa becoming president? "Oh hell yes," Barnes replies.

But, true to his enigmatic character, Ramaphosa has tended to keep his cards close to his chest, while focusing on his primary task of deputy president. And he continues to display an upbeat attitude when on public platforms. He told the guests at Thursday’s dinner: "I am filled with a great deal of hope, a great deal of hope about our future, about our country, as I look at our past record, where we have come from and 22 years into democracy, I see a great deal of hope for the future.

The negative sentiment, he says, is temporary. "If you are maybe going through cloudy weather right now, it is cloudy weather that is going to disappear because the sun is just around the corner, this country is going to be sunny again. We are going to have an economy that pumps, that works, that creates jobs, that makes us all happy, an economy that works for all of us ."

This statesman-like tone, together with his many other skills and attributes, are some of the factors that make Ramaphosa appealing to the business world. But there is no guarantee that ordinary ANC members and the influential provincial barons will share the same view when the ANC holds elections in December 2017.

Bur Ramaphosa is not yet actively campaigning to succeed Zuma. He has the support of the Gauteng province, the first one to openly call for Zuma to resign following the dramatic drubbing the president received from a full bench of the constitutional court. At this stage, he is likely to go up against Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (66), who will return to SA after four years as chair of the African Union Commission (see page 19). Dlamini-Zuma has been touted by politicians associated with the "premier league" — a loose coalition of premiers with ambitions for national office — who also operate in Zuma’s interests. These provinces — Free State, Mpumalanga, North West — are working closely with KwaZulu Natal, the ANC youth and women’s leagues, and its Military Veterans Association. Other provinces, like the Eastern Cape, are fragmented.

The premier league appears at this stage to be the most dominant faction, meaning it would be difficult for Gauteng to build a successful campaign for Ramaphosa, especially when the candidate himself is not getting his hands dirty.

Déjà vu! This could develop into a carbon copy of the 2012 Mangaung conference, where Gauteng broke away and campaigned for Kgalema Motlanthe — without him taking part. The result was that Zuma got about 75% of the votes. Those who have followed Ramaphosa’s career closely say he is not likely to actively campaign or openly show his interest: at least not yet.

Years ago, at the height of the disillusionment with Mbeki, Ramaphosa ignored the bait. Former minister Kader Asmal proposed his name, but Ramaphosa did not budge.

But it was easier to ignore the calls at the time because he did not hold a powerful position. This time around he is the incumbent deputy, and being pushed out of power may force him to operate differently.

Political analyst Ralph Mathekga says Ramaphosa’s chances are slim as he was not "his own man" when he was elected Zuma’s deputy at Mangaung in 2012.

That could come back to haunt him, as he has yet to build a strong constituency within the party. "He was brought in as a vote against Motlanthe in Mangaung ... Within the ANC he has been battling to have people who will choose him over others, instead of choosing him as a proxy in a battle where others are involved."

Mathekga says Ramaphosa has also not been able to forge a meaningful connection with the middle class and business. "He has not been forthright in striking a rapport with the middle class. I find him to be someone in the wilderness, who is not really sure who he is with. You can’t be with everyone."

He says Ramaphosa could succeed only if other candidates were weak. "It’s not about him being strong and emerging on his own. Can he find his way through the cracks where you have too many deficiencies? Can he become president in the same manner he became deputy president? It’s not impossible, but the chances are slimmer. It’s not very clear what Ramaphosa stands for."

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