At a crossroads

Peter Manson looks at the situation following the election of Cyril Ramaphosa

Readers will know that president Jacob Zuma was replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa as leader of the African National Congress at the ANC’s elective conference in December.

Zuma will remain South African head of state, however, until a new president is elected by the national assembly following the 2019 general election - unless, of course, action is taken by the ANC and parliament to remove him earlier, which is a distinct possibility.

Just before the elective conference, commentator Peter Bruce pleaded to ANC delegates:

The fact is that policy uncertainty is crippling foreign investment ... And try not to think of foreign investors as fat, white capitalists smoking cigars in a club somewhere and deciding which ideological friends to finance ... They’re investing the savings and pensions of people like you ... They need a return on those people’s money, just like you need a return on yours.1

Such commentators wanted Zuma out - and were equally opposed to his replacement as ANC president by his former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who was seen as a mere continuation of the current corrupt regime. Zuma not only stands accused of using state funds to upgrade his private residence, and of allowing the Gupta family to exert huge influence over government appointments - so-called ‘state capture’ - but he still has no fewer than 783 charges of corruption, fraud and money-laundering hanging over him. These are connected to the multi-billion-dollar arms deal finalised in 1999 just after Zuma became deputy president. His financial advisor at the time, Schabir Shaik, was jailed in 2005 for facilitating those bribes and, while Zuma faced charges too, they were conveniently dropped just after he became president in 2009.

During the pre-conference campaign Ramaphosa repeatedly insisted that all those implicated in ‘state capture’ and corruption must be prosecuted. But that does not apply to this trade union leader-turned-capitalist billionaire himself, of course. On the very eve of the Marikana massacre in 2012, Ramaphosa - then deputy president of both the ANC and South Africa - demanded in a series of emails that “concomitant action” be taken against strikers employed by Lonmin, the mining company of which he was a major shareholder and director. The next day 34 workers were shot dead.

Despite that, his victory at the elective conference was welcomed by bourgeois commentators. Ramaphosa, according to Business Report, was “seen as a business-friendly candidate, compared to his predecessor, Jacob Zuma”.2 Following the result, the value of shares on the Johannesburg stock exchange was boosted and the rand shot up by 11% - a phenomenon that almost immediately triggered a drop in petrol prices. Financial analyst Daniel Isaacs stated in the same paper: “What is pushing the stocks is that foreign money has come in. Investors are pleased with the outcome of the ANC conference.” And in the same edition of Business Report readers were urged to take advantage of this new “opportunity to invest”.

Ramaphosa narrowly defeated Dlamini-Zuma by 2,440 votes to 2,261 - a majority of just 179 delegates. The contest for the other ‘top six’ posts were just as close and the leadership ended up evenly split between supporters of the two main contenders. Two other top posts were taken up by people from Ramaphosa’s slate - South African Communist Party central committee member Gwede Mantashe, who up to then had been ANC general secretary, is the new national chair, while Paul Mashatile is the treasurer. But the new ANC deputy president is a Zuma man, David Mabuza, and both the general secretary, Free State premier Ace Magashule, and his deputy, Jessie Duarte, are from the Dlamini-Zuma camp. Magashule, by the way, has been condemned by the SACP in terms just as forceful as those it directs against Zuma for his own alleged corruption and connivance in ‘state capture’.

SACP member Mantashe may be the new national chair, thanks to being included on Ramaphosa’s slate, but, apart from that, the elective conference did not produce good results for either the SACP or the union confederation led by its members, the Congress of South African Trade Unions - both the SACP and Cosatu have been the mainstays of the ANC-led tripartite alliance. When it came to the votes for the new national executive committee, SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande, deputy chair Thulas Nxesi and CC member Slovo Majola were all ejected - marking the first time since the 1970s that the sitting SACP leader has not been on the ANC NEC. Meanwhile Cosatu second deputy president Zingiswa Losi - also on Ramaphosa’s slate - narrowly lost out to Jessie Duarte in the battle for the ANC deputy secretary-general post.


So what sparked the loss of support for the SACP amongst ANC delegates? Well, over the last couple of years the party has been prominent amongst those calling for Zuma to resign, particularly over ‘state capture’, and in November 2017 the SACP decided to stand a full slate of candidates against the ANC in a municipal by-election in the town of Metsimaholo. Three SACP councillors were successful and one of them, Lindiwe Shongwe, was elected as mayor by the new council at the end of December. There is now a coalition running Metsimaholo, consisting of the ANC, SACP and two tiny parties.

But this did not go down well with the Zuma camp. Both the SACP and Cosatu were denied the usual practice extended to alliance partners of expressing their solidarity from the conference platform. Zuma supporters claimed that they would use the occasion to attack the president and try to influence delegates.

What is more, in his speech to conference Zuma himself complained:

In an unprecedented move, in the past few months we saw our alliance partners marching side by side with rightwing forces who are historical opponents of our democratic revolution, calling on the president of the ANC to step down.

SACP deputy general secretary Solly Mapaila called these remarks “pathetic and dishonest”, while general secretary Nzimande explained more recently that contesting elections under the SACP name is “completely different from working against the ANC”.3 The party merely wants a “reconfigured alliance”. Now, says, Nzimande, “there must be democratic, consensus-seeking consultation on all major legislative policy”, as well as on ministerial appointments, between the ANC, SACP and Cosatu. The question of ministerial appointments is a sore point for Nzimande, who was removed by Zuma as minister for higher education last year.

However, the party now seems to be genuinely uncertain as to its next move. When it came to official statements, it was strangely silent for more than a week after the conference. Its first official comment came in its “end of year statement”, which was dated December 27, but only posted on December 30. The statement failed to analyse the new situation following the elective conference (Ramaphosa’s name was not mentioned, let alone the prospects under his leadership discussed) and said nothing about what the party hoped would happen within the ANC.

Two centres

In the build-up to the conference, Zuma tried to win over delegates for his preferred candidate by suddenly announcing the immediate abolition of tuition fees for all “poor” and “working class” students.

This threw university administrations into a panic, as they were just about to start a new academic year and were not informed as to how the new arrangement was supposed to be implemented. They announced that the year’s intake had already been agreed and it was impossible to make room for students who had previously not been accepted because they could not afford the fees. The left-populist Economic Freedom Fighters announced they would picket university premises in support of ‘walk-in’ students, but the establishment was not happy. For example, Owen Skae, director of Rhodes University Business School, condemned “Zuma’s stunning announcement” that will “deliver free education for about 90% of South African students”. He said in an interview:

He announced this populist move against advice that it will place enormous pressure on the fiscus ... If allowed to go through, the negative consequences will be felt for years to come. Ramaphosa must find a way to stop this financially reckless decision.4

Skae is of the view that “Ramaphosa needs to push for Zuma to be recalled by the ANC as soon as possible and then fire all conflicted ministers”.

He is slightly worried, however, by the “question of trust”, given that Ramaphosa “started life as a trade unionist before becoming a billionaire businessman”. True, after Marikana and his ‘inappropriate’ emails, “He did issue an apology, but I think it was not impassioned enough.”

At the conference itself, Zuma supported another populist move - a commitment to change the constitution to allow under certain circumstances the expropriation of land without compensation: part of the president’s package of so-called “radical economic transformation”. That too did not go down well with mainstream commentators, while the opposition Democratic Alliance condemned it in no uncertain terms.

In reality, such moves have been par for the course for the ANC, whoever has been leader, and it is foolish to claim, as some on the left do, that somehow Zuma must be defended as ‘progressive’ - as opposed to the likes of Ramaphosa. The truth is that both are reactionary - which was, presumably why the SACP seemed to pull back from giving its backing to Ramaphosa, as against Zuma’s ex-wife (even though both the Young Communist League and Cosatu had already issued statements calling for Ramaphosa to be elected leader).

In 2008 the ANC recalled Thabo Mbeki as its leader and he immediately resigned as South African president (although he was not legally obliged to do so, as he had been elected to that post by the national assembly, not the ANC). Ironically it was the SACP which was the main force behind the move to replace Mbeki by Zuma.

But now there is much talk of a similar move against Zuma. After all, right now there are “two centres of power” in South Africa, with Zuma still heading the government, while the ruling party is led by someone who is said to be an opponent. In reality, there are no differences of principle between the two main ANC camps, although it is true that the Ramaphosa wing regards Zuma as a liability.

Such sentiments have been reinforced by the likelihood that some or all of the 783 charges against him will now be reinstated. Added to which, South Africa’s constitutional court ruled on December 29 that the national assembly had failed “to make rules regulating the removal of a president”, which it is obliged to do under section 89 of the constitution. Parliament had also failed “to determine whether the president had breached ... the constitution” and now it must allow for impeachment “without delay”.

There was talk of a possible motion of no confidence being moved against Zuma at the January 10 meeting of the ANC’s NEC. This would have been the third such motion he has faced at the NEC during his tenure as president, but it was claimed that this time it would very likely succeed, with members calling on Zuma to either step down or face impeachment. In the event, there was no such motion.

However, there has also been talk of a deal, whereby, in exchange for Zuma agreeing to step down, Ramaphosa would stress his predecessor’s ‘achievements’, as he did at the ANC conference, and refuse to cooperate with legal moves against him, including in relation to the 783 counts. This now seems the most likely scenario l


1. Sunday Times December 17.

2. Business Report December 20.

3. Morning Star January 8.

4. Business Report December 22.