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JUDITH FEBRUARY: Is Ramaphosa being too deliberative?

OPINION

Has DA leader Mmusi Maimane ever looked as weak as when he waved that ‘thank you’ letter around in Parliament last week? The letter was dated 31 March 2014 and addressed to Bosasa’s now deceased CEO Gavin Watson by former ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize thanking him for the R3 million donation to the ANC. If it was reality television, Maimane might have requested a drum roll.

Since the CR17 campaign leaks have gripped the public imagination, we all knew where Maimane was headed with the letter waving. After all, it was Maimane who lodged the complaint with the Public Protector Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane regarding the R500,000 Bosasa donation to the CR17 campaign. Ironically, it’s the same Mkhwebane who Maimane’s party is trying to urgently remove from her position.

But while the leaks of bank statements and donors have caused a stir and been a very convenient diversionary tactic with which to taint President Ramaphosa, last week’s presidential question time also revealed something else. It revealed an opposition which seems in large measure to have lost the plot. Maimane himself is in Parliament on the back of weakened election results and the DA’s fierce opponent, former Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille, is in a Cabinet position. That was all a little embarrassing. After the May elections there was much talk of replacing Maimane, but who would be a viable replacement in these fraught times?

And so, the DA in a sense is stuck with the insipid Maimane whose chief goal seems to be finding malfeasance and criminality in the CR17 campaign. Maimane is determined to rid us of a 'corrupt' Ramaphosa. So most of his questions were geared towards embarrassing Ramaphosa as regards political donations to his campaign. Strange that, since Maimane himself did not reveal his sources of funding during his intra-party contest with Wilmot James. James incidentally did disclose his donors in 2015. But in politics, duplicity is almost guaranteed and why let that get in the way of some parliamentary theatrics?

Maimane, having started the Bosasa/political donations debate, now needs to continue his crusade in the corner he has painted himself into. Politics is often about optics and the optics of last week’s question time was a leader of the official opposition seeking to paint the President as deeply corrupt and compromised to the point that we should be baying for his removal.

As for the EFF and Julius Malema, well, there is no doubt that Malema and his merry band have a great deal to lose in the state capture clean-up and so their targets of Ramaphosa, Pravin Gordhan and Edward Kieswetter at Sars are as predictable as they are disingenuous.

Ahead of presidential question time there was much hype surrounding the President coming to Parliament for the first time since the CR17 leaks. Ramaphosa was going to be ‘grilled’, the headlines screamed.

And then as these things mostly pan out, it was all a bit of a damp squib. Question time is an important mechanism of accountability. It ought to assert legislative authority over the executive and draw out answers to questions on behalf of us all. Traditionally, however, question time has played out predictably. The ruling party usually puts ‘sweetheart questions’ to its leader – mostly laced with a healthy dose of sycophancy. During the Mbeki years particularly, the nature and character of Parliament changed. That was mostly due to executive interference in the arms deal investigation, which saw Parliament becoming far more deferential in its approach to the executive.

That continued a downward trend in Parliament’s effectiveness. During the Zuma years a new low was reached and Parliament exercised little to no oversight. How else can almost a decade of economic collapse and state capture have come about? While Zuma laughed off every question, stumbled through every Sona and generally ensured that his lackeys did his bidding on the big issues like the Public Protector’s report on Nkandla, Parliament weakened even further. This was a far cry from the short ‘Prague Spring’ seen in Parliament after the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference. Then it promised that legislative deference was a thing of the past. Those were predictably empty promises given the way Zuma came to power.

That’s ancient political history now, but the detritus of those years remains with us.

Maimane’s first ‘salvo’ at Ramaphosa was to ask whether he would initiate a commission of inquiry into Bosasa? Maimane surely could not have been serious in suggesting another commission of inquiry? The Zondo commission, which will be lengthier and more expensive than we thought, must be enough? Just last week we heard that the pointless Seriti commission cost us R137 million. What appetite would corruption-weary South Africans have for another commission dealing solely with Bosasa? Very little would be a good guess.

Malema carried on in this vein, though with less vigour than usual.

The problem for the opposition is that Ramaphosa is not Jacob Zuma. So the theatrical tactics just don’t work. The attempts to paint him as having conducted a corrupt campaign have become an all-out social media ‘war’, with the EFF leading the charge. But while the revelations cast aspersions, their bite is less fierce given Ramaphosa’s rivals who have mostly been implicated in the state capture project.

What we know is that Ramaphosa committed no crime. Ramaphosa insists there was ‘no criminality’ and so we have to take him at his word. However, it would be surprising if there were no ‘slippage’ as his campaign has called it. That is the nature of the beast, after all, and should be dealt with if any evidence of criminality arises.

There was and is no law preventing anyone from raising money for intra-party campaigns. Ramaphosa clearly played to win at Nasrec and that had some pretty unedifying consequences. Lots of cash had to be raised. Doubtless the NDZ campaign did the same and who knows where that money came from - state coffers, money siphoned off tenders? Self-appointed spokesperson for the NDZ campaign, the disgraced Bathabile Dlamini, said nothing would be revealed and the EFF have declared themselves disinterested in Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign because ‘she did not win’. How disingenuous.

So this is not a battle about the principles of party funding and transparency, that much is clear. It is about undermining and distracting Ramaphosa from the state capture ‘clean-up’ operation. That clean-up is slow and painstaking work and so there is plenty of time and space for this issue to gain sufficient traction.

In the wings is the Public Protector providing the legal cover the likes of the EFF, Ace Magashule and his faction need to further undermine Ramaphosa.

During question time Ramaphosa was therefore quite easily able to deflect the unstrategic questions Maimane and Malema put to him by invoking the rule of law - as he did repeatedly - and calling on a broader conversation within his party and outside of it - about party-funding. At that point the sting was comprehensively removed from the tail - in Parliament at least.

All around the world the impact of money on politics has been largely toxic. It has created environments where the wealthy are able to buy influence over policy and legislation, thus drowning out the voices of the poor and marginalised who do not have this access.

The new Party Funding Act needs regulations and perhaps amendments to deal with internal party campaigns. The old and tired saying, "sunlight is the best disinfectant" remains true. The more disclosure there is, the better off we will all be.

South Africans are slowly but surely seeing the disclosure of political donations as a crucial accountability issue. This is important given the hard-slog campaigns run by civil society organisations such as Idasa and more recently, My Vote Counts.

Watching Ramaphosa one could not help but think that he is more suited to the parliamentary setting. It is one of greater formality and the forum suits his deliberative nature. It is also a rather more slowed down process. All around him people are clamouring for him to ‘do something’. Parliament provides a space for him to outline plans and processes in a calm and rational manner.

We know that things are happening. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s growth strategy paper is an example. But given the daily dose of the Zondo commission, Magashule and the ANC’s regular antics and now the death of Gavin Watson, South Africans are becoming increasingly impatient. Admittedly, we always feel on the edge of an abyss and the financial crunch at Eskom and the added crisis of unemployment create a pressure-cooker situation.

This is entirely understandable. The country wants to see the corrupt pay for their crimes. The unfortunate reality is, however, that the turn-around will take time.

And so the opposition would do well to focus on the urgent challenges we face while at the same time themselves leading a discussion on money, politics and transparency. This is crucial ahead of the 2021 local government elections.

The theatrics have become dull and don’t work as well with Ramaphosa as they did with Zuma. Zuma was so patently corrupt, unethical and undeserving of our trust that it was an easy and almost lazy approach to bay for his blood at every parliamentary session.

Now we are in more complex territory and the opposition fell short last week. The larger question which we need to ponder is the way in which this President goes about his business. Doubtless he knows the detail of policy and is on top of the myriad plans that he has outlined. Sometimes they feel like Russian Babushka dolls - a plan wrapped within a strategy wrapped within something else.

There’s much deliberation and rumination about it all. Former US President Barack Obama was famously known as ‘No Drama Obama’. He was known for turning things over and thinking, some may say too much. Obama was regularly criticised for this very reason, be it on foreign policy or domestic issues. Ramaphosa seems to have a bit of the ‘no drama’ in him. Given the corrupt and reckless ways of his predecessor, one would think the country would be relieved. But this is a country mostly given to the capricious. Often thoughtlessness is a national trait because we need solutions quickly, whether on the economy or anything else. We are a nation which struggles with doing the ‘hard yards’.

So the question that came to the fore last week actually was, "Can South Africa deal with a deliberative President at this pivotal moment in its history?"

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy' which is available. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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