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[ANALYSIS] SA holds its breath as Ramaphosa solidifies his grip on ANC power

In the month since Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was elected leader of the ANC (by only 179 votes), the most important question has been around the solidity of his mandate. For the ANC, and South Africa, everything else flows from that: whether Jacob Zuma can remain as president, whether corruption will truly end, what deputy ANC leader David Mabuza and ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule can, and will, actually do; all these crucial, tectonic plate level issues get resolved once the answer to the underlying question is known. It appears that the answer is becoming well known.

So balanced, it seemed, was the national executive committee (NEC) when it was elected in December that it rendered any predictions almost impossible. Now, after a weekend in which the first Zuma supporters rolled over on the question of whether he should stay, the ANC’s national working committee was elected, and finally dramatic strides were taken at Eskom and in the Free State, we need doubt no more. Ramaphosa is firmly in charge. And you might not need more than the fingers on both hands to count the rest of Zuma’s days as president.

There is a certain gravity associated with political power. It is hard to get even a little bit of it, but once you have it, it makes it just that much easier to get the next bit. It can, of course, slip away, but if you win an election legitimately, real power can actually come rather easily. Most people have no other option but to follow your lead; couple that with the fact that Zuma’s misgovernance and the theft he sanctioned have created a series of crises from which it could take years to recover, along with impending 2019 elections, and people in the ANC may have no choice but to swallow the inevitable.

And so it came to pass that the question of whether Zuma should stay or go was brought up. By all accounts, there was almost no opposition. So obvious is the answer to that question that it should come as no surprise. Now it is in the hands of the national leaders, the Top Six. The real issue here is how it will be done, or more accurately, the price of the deal with Zuma. It seems that the big card Zuma still has to play is a peaceful transition. But there still seems to be no legal deal on the horizon that would see him avoid prosecution. Obviously it’s hard to have sympathy with him on this, but it does mean he may have not much choice but to play hardball. Speculation about whether he will deliver the State of the Nation Address abounds, but it does seem now that power is literally leaving him moment by moment.

In the end, this is going to come down to a negotiation between himself and Ramaphosa, which is already well on its way. At some point they will finalise that deal, hands will not necessarily be shaken, but Zuma will step down, and many will pop the champagne corks.

And then came the elections to the national working committee, the 20-person body that manages the ANC between NEC meetings.

Working out how people will behave in political bodies is contested terrain; you examine their histories, who they have backed in the past, and your personal knowledge of them. But people can also change as the facts on the ground shift. The NEC that was elected with Zuma in Mangaung in 2012 was strongly behind him. By the end of its term, it came very close to voting Zuma out of the Union Buildings. Which means any analysis has to be updated regularly. However, by going through the new NWC it seem obvious that it will be firmly in the hands of Ramaphosa.

Some people are obvious supporters of Zuma, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma will presumably back him when and where she can. So, we know, will Water Affairs Minister Nomvula Mokonyane, fresh from picking up the rand. Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa has spent some of her recent time defending Zuma, so she might find it difficult to change now. Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa has defended Zuma vociferously many times, all the way through the attacks on him from Julius Malema to Nkandla, and presided over the non-removal of Richard Mdluli from the police all those years ago, as well as the Marikana Massacre.

Dakota Legoete is someone almost unknown to those who consume their politics from the urban bubble; he is the provincial secretary of the ANC in North West. In 2017 he was instrumental in ensuring that events where Ramaphosa spoke while campaigning in that province were not “official ANC events”. Ramaphosa got around that by speaking at events hosted by the SACP and Cosatu, but surely he didn’t forget the snub. It seems likely that Legoete would follow the lead of Mabuza in many situations.

Tony Yengeni is back on the ANC’s NWC, providing more proof that a criminal conviction and a reputation for drunken driving, breaking parole conditions and driving Maseratis while claiming to speak to the poor is no barrier to a high political office in the party. It is breathtaking that he is back there. Yengeni can be the brazen proof that the ANC is simply not serious about corruption. The only positive is that at least Carl Niehaus didn’t make it onto the NEC.

And then, finally, in the Zuma camp, there is the Social Development Minister, Bathabile Dlamini. A woman who almost broke South Africa in 2017. A politician who thinks it’s okay to spend government money on a two-hour puff interview with her, and is so obviously in the pay of Cash Paymaster Services that nothing more need be said here.

There is quite a lot that should be said about some of these people. First, several are incredibly loathed or the objects of fun in popular culture. Dlamini and Mokonyane are not seen as leaders, but at best as a bad joke, at worst as dangerous criminals that could potentially ruin South Africa. This may distress them and their families, but they have brought it upon themselves. They are also both vulnerable to the situations within their ministries, and could find themselves thoroughly delegitimised if, say, social grants are not paid, or taps run dry in Cape Town or the entire Eastern Cape. This weakens them and helps Ramaphosa. Others, such as Yengeni, simply have no moral authority, and still others, like Mthethwa, could find themselves even more high and dry when Zuma goes.

And, of course, the case of Dlamini Zuma is in itself fascinating. Often, when people lose a close contest, they exit the stage. Not her. It will be interesting to see if she still has political fight left in her, especially if someone other than Jacob Zuma delivers the State of the Nation Address.

Turning our attention to the other side of the NWC is to see a group of people who now appear more powerful.

Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor are both strong and tough, and will try hard to stop corruption. Presidency Minister Jeff Radebe has always sat on the fence, but is likely to simply go with the flow and follow Ramaphosa, while Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga (who had supported Zuma for many years) bucked the rest of the ANC Women’s League to proclaim her support for Ramaphosa during the leadership race. Derek Hanekom, the man who lost a Cabinet post because of his opposition to Zuma both publicly and in the NEC, is obviously with them, while Thoko Didiza was named as a possible deputy secretary-general on Ramaphosa’s ideal slate. Ronald Lamola has done a wonderful several year-long pivot from Malema’s deputy leader in the ANC Youth League to strong and forceful Ramaphosa campaigner. Senzo Mchunu was obviously Ramaphosa’s first pick for secretary-general, while Zizi Kodwa said publicly, as voting started, that he was backing Ramaphosa. Deputy International Relations Minister Nomaindia Mfeketo appeared keen for Zuma to leave office last year, while Gauteng Finance MEC Barbara Creecy is one of those who will always fight corruption where she can. National Council of Provinces Chair Thandi Modise also appears to be on the Ramaphosa side, having been named by branches in the Eastern Cape as someone they would like on his slate.

In case your maths isn’t quite working right now, that means 12 people on our list are presumably for Ramaphosa and seven are for Zuma.

You’re right. That doesn’t quite add up to 20.

The person missing is Tina Joemat-Pettersson. And this is a curious case. She was first the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister and then Energy Minister under Zuma. Certainly the corruption claims against her are strong, ranging from the amount of money spent flying her family around to a farm sold in the Northern Cape to claims around the nuclear deal and, particularly, the sale of South African strategic oil reserves. At one point even ANC MPs threatened to “clean up her department” if she failed to do so (this was long before that kind of thing became fashionable). But she was then fired by Zuma amid suggestions that it was because she was not driving the nuclear deal quickly enough.

Which means her behaviour could be difficult to predict.

It is also important to remember here that the real analysis to conduct is not to ask whether people were for or against Zuma or Ramaphosa in 2017, but whether they are for or against corruption. In this case, it is probably safe to say that support for Zuma can be viewed as a proxy for a vote for corruption. This applies to members of the Top Six too, in that while Ramaphosa and ANC national chair Gwede Mantashe are against corruption, Secretary-General Ace Magashule and Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte may be vulnerable to claims they will protect corruption. That leaves deputy leader David Mabuza and Treasurer Paul Mashatile. They seem to be working together, but Mabuza could certainly be seen as supporting corruption. Which makes predictions all the more difficult.

At the same time, however, it should not be forgotten that the law enforcement agencies could soon be acting with more vigour. Writing in City Press on Sunday, the always informed and insightful Professor Mcebisi Ndletyana suggested that a “nasty showdown is looming” between Ramaphosa and his supporters on the one side, and Mabuza and Magashule on the other.

Never forget that it was Magashule who ensured Mosebenzi Zwane was appointed Mineral Resources Minister and engineered the looting of the Free State provincial treasury for the Guptas. Anyone who helps Atul Gupta get R10-million that was set aside for the poor surely has a special place reserved in hell. This Sunday’s headline about the Estina dairy project in the Free State could well be the end of both Zwane and Magashule. And while Duarte could be acting secretary-general for a period, delegates at a special conference or national general council would surely elect someone like Senzo Mchunu to that post. It goes without saying that all of this would change the balance of power more than significantly.

If all of this over the weekend were not enough evidence of how the gravity of power can move quite quickly, Ramaphosa has also had the power to enforce his will in a matter of state for the first time since becoming ANC leader. He has now forced the appointment of a new board at Eskom, and ensured that Jabu Mabuza, the man who helped save Telkom, can now do the same at Eskom. Of course, Ramaphosa had the opportunity of the crisis that was presenting itself, after banks were going to refuse to lend Eskom more money.

But it is also incredible that people like Zuma and Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown allowed it to get to this stage. It is surely impossible for Brown now to claim to have no knowledge of the massive corruption that has festered at Eskom for years. Despite all of that, Ramaphosa’s instruction that not only a specific board be appointed, but that corrupt people like current acting CEO Matshela Koko and suspended Chief Financial Officer Anoj Singh be removed, is a demonstration of that power. It is almost unheard of for a politician to order the removal of a particular person, as that power is usually only confined to the board.

Then there is the specific choice of Phakamani Hadebe, the person who turned around the Land Bank, and is seen as a big troubleshooter within the Treasury. Bluntly, we’re lucky to have such people to turn to at these moments. One wonders how long it will be before he asks former Eskom CEO Brian Dames to return to Megawatt Park – Dames was fired after he rebuffed attempts by the Guptas to order him around.

Ramaphosa’s supporters will now be able to claim that he has ended a crisis that threatened the whole of the economy, because a default by Eskom could easily have ended in a downgrade by ratings agencies. And that he should now be given more power to do what needs to be done.

It was this week last year that Ramaphosa announced his campaign to unseat Zuma. It was in Davos, that small town to which he is headed this week. There he said, “I am sleeping in the president’s bed... because the president is not here”. Now, finally, he is actually acting, almost already it seems, as the president. The Eskom crisis is now likely to be resolved; Ramaphosa seems to have the upper hand in the ANC. It’s now just a matter of waiting for Zuma himself to go.

This column first appeared on Daily Maverick. Go to www.dailymaverick.co.za for more comment and analysis.

Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of 'SA Politics Unspun'. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes

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