Following his return to active politics as deputy president (DP) of the African National Congress in December, the enigmatic former labour leader and politician turned billionaire businessman, Cyril Ramaphosa, has been widely hailed as a kind of political hero who will save South Africa and the ANC. But the hype around Ramaphosa and the assumption about his powers is rather fanciful and way off the mark.
While no-one disputes Ramaphosa’s obvious charisma and excellent capabilities he, like everyone else in the ANC, will be subjected to a firm ANC tradition of collective decision-making, presently dominated by the Zuma cabal. He will have to toe the line of the prevailing 'collective wisdom', or be ousted.
The media hype around his elevation to DP projected Ramaphosa as a boost for pro-business sentiments in the ANC, as bringing 'balance' to the party, and a general Mr Fix-it.
This image does not serve Ramaphosa well if he eventually hopes to become ANC president. It also displays ignorance of the way the ANC functions.
Last week the editor of a leading South African daily newspaper naively assumed Ramaphosa could take action to counter the threats by ANC secretary-general Mantashe aimed at the mining house Anglo American.
“Ramaphosa’s tenure and his effectiveness will be hobbled by thoughtless hacks such as Mantashe and most of the rest of the ‘top six’. He either stops that rot immediately or he will sink like a stone,” the editor wrote.
Ramaphosa will or can do neither. His role in the ANC is at the mercy of others. He was originally recruited as DP candidate by those managing the Zuma's election slate at the ANC’s elective national conference in December to counter deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe’s challenge.
He is also positioned by Zuma and top leadership to engage with a sceptical business community and to sooth investors' fears.
As deputy chairman of the National Planning Commission he is already being used to promote the commission’s National Development Plan (NDP), which is projected as the blueprint for future economic development. It is also likely to serve as an important platform for the ANC’s 2014 election manifesto.
Ramaphosa will also be extensively used during the election campaign and is already travelling the country on a charm offensive.
His role is to be a drawcard for the ANC, wooing business elite and its cash, upwardly mobile voters and the estimated three million first-time voters or 'born frees' as those born after 1994 are commonly called and who are more critical of the ANC and less bound by its historical conventions and sentiments.
Ramaphosa has reportedly reached out to ordinary people with his warm and friendly nature, riding in taxis and mingling among street vendors, tipping them generously.
He has, however, been careful to stress that Zuma is the boss. The message is clear: don’t expect too much of me; I am not in charge; I will be toeing the party line and be guided by the president and the leadership collective.
Ramaphosa will have no special powers or influence as a one-man makeover of the ANC. He was elected to his position by the delegates from ANC branches across the country and had no hand in his own election.
The main factors in his election were Zuma, the provincial ANC in KwaZulu-Natal and the pro-Zuma factions in other provinces. Ramaphosa, like any other elected leader, remains in an elected position at the mercy of this 'electoral college' and the groups that at any given time dominate it.
Although Ramaphosa has a busy schedule ahead and will spend much of his time at Luthuli House and travelling on ANC business, his position as ANC deputy president is not a full-time one and is largely ceremonial. The only full-time positions among the top six ANC officials are those of secretary-general, deputy secretary-general and treasurer-general.
Nonetheless, because of his schedule and potential conflicts of interest, he has already started resigning some of his many company directorships.
ANC’s collective mode
The ANC has always functioned in the collective mode. Individuals do not dictate, save perhaps for Nelson Mandela. But even he bowed to the collective will, for instance when Thabo Mbeki was leap-frogged over Ramaphosa as his successor, despite Mandela personally having favoured Ramaphosa.
The top six leaders of the ANC are bound by decisions of the National Executive Committee (NEC), the highest organ of the ANC between the five-yearly national conferences. The NEC, and its National Working Committee (NWC) in turn must abide by the decisions of the national conferences which are populated by ordinary members delegated by the ANC branches and provinces.
The role and functions of the deputy president in terms of the ANC’s constitution are to “... assist the president, deputise for him or her when necessary and carry out whatever functions are entrusted to him or her by the national conference, the national general council, the president, the NWC or the NEC,” and that he or she shall be an ex-officio member of the NWC.
Ramaphosa’s new position is also not an automatic stepping stone to the ANC presidency. Not all ANC DPs have gone on to become president, Walter Sisulu being the most recent example.
On the other hand, given the long list of troubles Zuma faces, from the arms deal inquiry to the R250-million upgrade of his Nkandla residence which have the potential of unseating him as president of South Africa before the end of his second term, Ramaphosa could well be South Africa’s president sooner rather than later.
Contradictory messages emanate from the ANC on this issue, both claiming to come from solid ANC sources. One has it that members of the NEC are already plotting to dislodge Zuma from the presidency as happened to Thabo Mbeki. The other holds that, while the members of the NEC are mindful of the effect Zuma’s troubles are having on the party, they are adamant that he will remain president. Without confirmation for either story it is best to treat both as mere rumours at this time.
In the aftermath of the original hype, some sobriety is setting in regarding Ramaphosa’s election:
- An article in Insight, a newsletter produced by the investment research company of Dr Denis Worrall, the former politician and South African ambassador to Britain, observes that “putting all our eggs in the Ramaphosa basket will not be enough. One person can do a lot to turn situations around but much more is needed”.
- Jack Bloom, Democratic Alliance leader in the Gauteng Legislature, says it is not guaranteed that Ramaphosa will succeed Zuma. Years of ANC drift will be difficult to reverse. If Ramaphosa continues to be Zuma's uncritical praise singer, his own reputation will sink rapidly.
- Political commentator Moeletsi Mbeki told The Star in an interview that the addition of two new leaders, Ramaphosa and Zweli Mkhize as treasurer-general, would not help the ANC improve its performance with service delivery and protests, or in next year’s elections. Ramaphosa has long been an active member of the ANC NEC and it was a mistake to treat him as "an unknown quantity".
While Ramaphosa has returned to active politics with a big bang and a fresh addition to the national leadership landscape, not too much should be expected of him. He is only one spoke in a rather big and unpredictable wheel.