[OPINION] Ramaphosa’s desperation to woo Zuma’s KZN supporters will cost him

If President Cyril Ramaphosa had diagnosed his predecessor Jacob Zuma as a political headache who could be managed until the elections, after this week he must upgrade the former president to a migraine – threatening his election campaign.

Ramaphosa is not only desperate to win over Zuma’s KwaZulu-Natal supporters, he is also gripped by the fear of the unknown, including being booed come Saturday when he delivers his ANC January 8 statement.

Ramaphosa is leading the ANC leadership in KZN, not only to celebrate the party’s birthday but more crucially, to kickstart its election campaign.

The party is desperate to project an image of a renewed ANC, ready to start delivering on the hollow promises of the past 25 years. With predictions of a further lower governing majority and coalition governments in some provinces, the ANC faces its most difficult election yet.

Ramaphosa and his team were hoping to reignite the waning 'Ramaphoria', but instead have spent an inordinate amount of time appeasing Zuma and his supporters and begging them to come to the party.

On Tuesday, Ramaphosa managed the puppet show, sharing champagne with Zuma as they celebrated 107 years of Africa’s oldest liberation movement.

The pictures we saw were a desperate attempt at masking the divisions by holding hands, smiling and laughing loudly – again the façade of unity.

The orchestrated silence when Ramaphosa was introduced, juxtaposed with the shouting and ululations when Zuma’s name followed seconds later, was a not-so-subtle message to Ramaphosa that: "you are not our person".

This forced Ramaphosa to speak in a forked tongue, backtracking on the broad swipe against Zuma’s disastrous nine-year rule, and now vowing to work with him and not sideline him.

Other leaders in the ruling party were also desperately papering over the deep cracks of the 2017 presidential race, rather than doing a soft launch of key campaign issues and speaking about improving people’s desperate lived reality.

Secretary general Ace Magashule was quoted warning members to “keep quiet” on Saturday when Ramaphosa delivers the ANC election promises at Moses Mabhida stadium.

“The programme director must not say: ‘Hey you comrades there, sit down.’ Your conscience must tell you that we are now being addressed by the leader of the ANC and you must keep quiet…” Magashule said. You would imagine that should be a given, but history has taught them that it is not.

There are fears that there might be an attempt to embarrass Ramaphosa on Saturday. The fears include a repeat of the 2016 birthday celebrations, where the party failed to fill the Nelson Mandela Bay stadium. This time the task is bigger, filling Moses Mabhida Stadium which has an 85-000 seater capacity.

The other fear Ramaphosa faces is the same humiliation meted out to former President Thabo Mbeki at least twice within months. Mbeki was humiliated in front of the then Indian Prime Minister while attending the launch of the Mahatma Gandhi Satyagraha Movement. It was at the height of their battle for the ANC presidency in 2006, and Zuma supporters unleashed more humiliation months later during the Moses Mabhida funeral.

There are all sorts of plans to preserve Ramaphosa’s dignity instead of confronting Zuma to speak to his people. The stage management includes inviting Mbeki to attend the Saturday event and ensure that Ramaphosa, Zuma and Mbeki walk in together to avoid booing or silence when Ramaphosa arrives.

The ANC might find it valuable to stage-manage Zuma and his faction, but elections are not about ANC members and their internal politics. The 11-million people who voted for them are not active party members, but rather South Africans looking for workable solutions to extract them from the dehumanising, vicious cycle of poverty.

Ramaphosa earned his popularity (sometimes higher than that of the ANC) by speaking hard against corruption – the ticket that allowed him to cross the goal line in Nasrec in 2017.

The 6-million unemployed South Africans wasting away want to hear about practical steps to restart the economy, and the middle class wants to know how government will unburden the heavy load sinking them into the abyss of debt. Business and investors are looking for reassurance that Ramaphosa is fully in charge and can deliver on his plans to boost the economy.

Yes, some inside the ANC argue that KZN - as the most populous province and its lion’s share contribution to the national figure during the polls - warrants the kid gloves they are using to manage Zuma. According to the IEC, by January KZN had over 5 million registered voters. But Gauteng is also a bigger contributor to the national vote, with over 6 million registered voters. The smaller provinces carry it over the line.

The 2016 municipal election lesson should be one that is painfully fresh - the ANC’s failure then to speak to and rein in Zuma cost them power.

Gautengers rejected the ANC and punished them by refusing to vote. As a consequence, the party lost control of the two most important metros in South Africa to the DA coalition government. This replicated itself even in the smaller towns outside Gauteng.

Those who stayed away or voted for the opposition will not be warmed by the image of Ramaphosa standing alongside the president who tanked our economy, used taxpayers' millions to build Nkandla and was captured by a corrupt family who looted our cookie jar.

The message from Gauteng and beyond has been clear – jail the corrupt.

Either the ANC takes a firm decision on what image they want to project – or again they will weaken their own dominance.

Mahlatse Mahlase is group editor-in-chief at Eyewitness News. Follow her on Twitter: @hlatseentle