Ramaphosa becomes firefighter-in-chief
He might not yet be president but Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has certainly become the go-to guy for just about everything that goes wrong in the ANC, government and even on continental affairs. From mediating the troubles in South Sudan and Lesotho, to the fallout in Cosatu, and even trying to keep Mmusi Maimane and Julius Malema in check in Parliament, Ramaphosa is the superhero to the rescue. On Thursday, Cabinet announced that the deputy president would oversee the turnaround at three besieged state-owned entities - South African Airways (SAA), the SA Post Office and Eskom. If he wants to be a president South Africa will have faith in, Ramaphosa had better get this right.
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was not even in South Africa when Cabinet announced his appointment to oversee the turnaround of the three headline-making state-owned companies, SAA, the SA Post Office and Eskom. He was making his tenth visit to Lesotho to facilitate the process towards free, fair and credible elections in the neighbouring country in February 2015. On Thursday, political parties were signing an electoral pledge in Maseru to create conducive conditions towards the poll. He has handled the process adeptly since the attempted military coup in August and it is another notch on his peacemaking belt.
Ramaphosa has been less successful in trying to mediate the rupture in Cosatu and achieve a working relationship between the African National Congress (ANC) and opposition in Parliament. It is clear that Ramaphosa was facing heat within the ANC for his perceived soft stance and concessions made to the opposition parties in trying to reduce tensions in Parliament. The truce in Parliament collapsed after a day due to allegations of bad faith from either side.
It is not yet known whether Ramaphosa will attempt to resuscitate talks with the opposition to prevent an eruption during the State of the Nation Address in February, but it is inconsistent with his approach to peacemaking efforts, stemming from the Codesa talks, to throw in the towel. The sticking point remains when President Jacob Zuma will return to Parliament to answer questions - information Ramaphosa is obviously not yet privy to. His ability to negotiate with the opposition parties is hampered until he is able to provide this information.
Meanwhile, Ramaphosa, as head of an ANC task team, is already making a renewed attempt to negotiate a resolution in Cosatu, following the expulsion of metalworkers' union Numsa. Seven other unions have refused to take part in the new "political process" facilitated by Ramaphosa's team unless Numsa is a full participant. Numsa said on Thursday that had not yet been invited to participate in the ANC-facilitated talks. Ramaphosa will have his hands full trying first to secure a commitment to the political process, and then negotiate a cessation of hostilities. This will be extremely difficult to pull off with Numsa's hostility towards the ANC and its launch this weekend of a United Front against the ruling party.
Now Ramaphosa has a new load of hot coals dumped on him with the Cabinet announcement that he must oversee the turnaround of three moribund state-owned entities. Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe announced on Thursday that the cash-strapped SAA would now be transferred to the National Treasury from the Department of Public Enterprises. Radebe said Cabinet was concerned about the performance of some state-owned companies, in particular the three now placed in incubation.
"The Presidency will closely monitor the implementation of the turnaround plans of these three critical state-owned companies that are drivers of the economy," Radebe said.
Regarding the power crisis, Cabinet has adopted a five-point plan to deal with the electricity supply shortage. A technical team "war room" has been set up to implement the plan and manage the crisis. The plan includes accelerating the programme for the substitution of diesel with gas to fire up the diesel power plants, and drawing in independent power producers. A diesel shortage at Eskom power plants contributed to the recent spate of load shedding and threats of further power cuts in the coming months.
"Today Eskom will sign a memorandum of understanding with the Strategic Fuel Fund and Transnet Ports Authority so that the country can be assured of a regular supply of diesel. The focus will be given to improve the strategic maintenance and operational efficiency to ensure that the level of efficiency is increased from the 72% currently to the target of 80%. Eskom will present a detailed finance plan to manage its cash flow beyond 2015," Radebe said.
He said co-generation options would also be pursued with the sugar, paper and pulp industries to harness waste energy of about 1,000 megawatts. "There are significant opportunities for the importation of gas. A coal independent power producer programme will be launched by the end of January 2015 with generation capacity of 2,500 megawatts," said Radebe.
Minister of Public Enterprises Lynne Brown said SAA had been transferred from her department to National Treasury because of the financial challenges it was facing. She said the inter-ministerial task team that had been dealing with the national carrier had sorted out governance issues, and now Treasury would work through the financial problems. Brown said the energy utility Eskom had enough money for diesel for the next two months. "I am quite comfortable that to January 2015 Eskom's cash flow will be fine," she said.
Eskom chief executive officer Tshediso Matona had already made it clear on Monday that they could keep the lights on till the end of January but the situation would become critical in February due to financial constraints. Brown said government would work out a financial plan to assist Eskom thereafter. This would be a range of options, and could take the form of guarantees or helping Eskom to garner loans and raise its own money.
So while it might not all be Ramaphosa's responsibility to sort out, he will ultimately be responsible for the success or failure of the entities. Radebe said the deputy president's role would not remove line function responsibility from individual ministers who currently exercise oversight over the companies. "He will be hovering like a hawk to make sure the turnaround takes place," Radebe said.
Government and the ANC have both attributed the strain on electricity supply to their success in connecting millions of households to the power grid over the past 20 years. Cabinet said additional power stations had not been built to meet the new demands for power - as if it was somebody else's responsibility to do this.
Whoever makes up the technical team in the "war room" will therefore be fighting fires for mistakes of previous administrations and the shortsightedness of the current one. It will not be an easy task to manage the situation from month to month, with an agitated nation trying to cope with the effects of load shedding.
So how will Ramaphosa sip from this poisoned chalice and "turn around" three entities that have each staggered from crisis to crisis for several years? It will take all of Ramaphosa's negotiating skills plus his powers of diplomacy to deal with these problems internally and externally. He cannot undo past mistakes and can only put in place emergency measures and proficient people to halt the crises.
For Ramaphosa, this will not only be about carrying out Cabinet's mandate. If he is to prove to the people of South Africa that he could be a worthy president who is capable of straightening out the messes of successive administrations, this is the opportunity to show his leadership abilities. If he fails at the task, this will count against him when the national debate begins in earnest about who South Africa's next president will be.
You have to hand it to Jacob Zuma. It takes real dexterity to be able to escape responsibility for yet another set of crises under his watch. Now keeping the lights on is Ramaphosa's problem. And it will also be Ramaphosa's problem if it all spirals further - both as firefighter-in-chief and possible future president.
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.