Ramaphosa walks a tight rope

FILE PHOTO: Cyril Ramaphosa speaks after taking the oath of office at his inauguration as South African president at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria

President Cyril Ramaphosa today walks a very tight rope.  So tight that it may be extremely difficult for him to successfully steer the embattled African National Congress ship through the choppy waters engulfing it on all sides of a raging factional war. My biggest concern at the moment is how the erstwhile Ramaphosa will manage and arrest the crippling factionalism tearing the party further apart. In fact, deep down it is ANC rule itself which is in the final analysis on trial at the Zondo Commission of Enquiry. 

The top six leadership of the ANC, its national executive committee and Ramaphosa’s cabinet is a rough reflection of the factional divisions which characterised the outcome of the elective conference of the ANC in 2017. This has also roughly determined the staffing of all ministries, government departments and state-owned enterprises. The question perhaps to ask is how does Ramaphosa navigate such potentially treacherous terrain, especially in a party wracked by a crisis? 

What makes the crisis within the ANC so much more daunting and Ramaphosa’s task so much more onerous is that it comes at a time when to many it appears that, wittingly or unwittingly, he is himself involved in this factionalist war. How he has handled the contentious issues between Pravin Gordhan, the Public Enterprises minister, and the Public Protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, to many appears to confirm the perception that he has taken a soft line on him.  

The other blistering criticism he has received, which compromised him much more, is how he has handled the African Global Operations (AGO) debacle, involving the funding of his presidential campaign and monies paid by the company to his son. Ramaphosa must realise that full transparency, in all matters he is involved in,  is imperative if he seeks to instil and sustain confidence in his presidency. He must avoid even just appearing to be defensive of Gordhan or in fact of himself.  His conduct is also likely to influence the NEC of the ANC as well as the cabinet which is filled with members from both factions. 

But the ANC and this country cannot afford, certainly not at such a perilous moment as now, that this factionalist war, which has already claimed the lives of many ANC members and councillors in some regions, worsens. All political parties and the entire country will in many ways suffer its grave consequences. If this continues, all political parties and the entire country will in many ways suffer grave consequences.  

But don’t however forget that we all could have faced a worse situation in this country if he lost the presidential race in 2017. Besides, there are many people eager to opportunistically exploit the inevitable fallibility of leaders for their own ends, which are not always genuinely in the public interest. Today, there are so many nefarious agendas at play, even ones at pains to appear otherwise, that we need maximum alertness.

The question however is not whether the AGO funding investigation by Mkhwebane falls outside her powers, which Ramaphosa insists on, but rather whether it was in itself lawful and permissible for an electoral campaign that was ultimately for his presidency of the country. From what Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng has said it appears that Mkhwebane does have the power to conduct such an investigation.

Ramaphosa is advised to deal with substance of the allegations around the AGO funding, rather than derail or frustrate that process by legal technicalities and dilly-dallying. After all, he himself told the ANC NEC last week that they needed to refine and tidy up the law around such funding. But frankly, the ANC at the moment does not have the kind of leader to guide this country in its darkest moment since 1994. 

The person who has the moral stature and equanimity to make a big difference in dealing with and rising above this combustible and destructive factionalism in the ANC in order to guide it is former president, Kgalema Motlanthe. But the cagey manner with which Ramaphosa has dealt with this major AGO issue suggests that Motlanthe is not one of his key advisers.    

Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer and analyst.