JUDITH FEBRUARY: Ramaphosa's credibility rests on his Cabinet
It’s been weeks now since our country was upended by violence and looting in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng.
During that time we have witnessed extraordinary acts of individual and corporate citizenship. We also saw a completely unprepared intelligence and security service and the South African Police Service (SAPS) either hapless or watching things burn.
We have heard a great deal about "rebuilding" and "accountability" for what happened on those fateful days in July. In fact, the president himself addressed us and called it an insurrection. He also told us, "we know who they are".
Immediately thereafter, former Minister of Defence Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula denied it was an insurrection, and subsequently said she misspoke.
Naming things is important. If one is to lead honestly, then that means taking responsibility for naming things and then acting accordingly. Those with dishonest motives especially during a time of crisis seek to obfuscate and deflect. That is what Mapisa-Nqakula was doing.
When Ramaphosa said "we know who they are", he also used those words so loved by South Africa when he said the perpetrators would "face the full might of the law".
Weeks have now passed and the only arrests made have been peripheral ones - including a former Ukhozi FM DJ. The instigators are yet to be arrested even as several individuals who allegedly were part of plotting this insurrection have been named in the media. The Good Party has also handed over a dossier to the Hawks in this regard.
South Africa has a casual relationship with rules and accountability. Very few people actually face the consequences of their actions. We remember when the "foot soldiers" were held to account for the Gupta landing at Waterkloof airbase, yet the politicians escaped accountability.
Individual politicians remain in powerful positions while they face questions about corruption. There is a lengthy list but with the idea of African National Congress (ANC) Member of Parliament and former minister of energy Tina Joemat-Pettersson holding the position of chair of the parliamentary portfolio committee on police, holding anyone to account for the insurrection is rich with irony. She has yet to be held to account for the sale of strategic fuel reserves in 2015. Remember that?
Why did the sale of crude oil stocks (10 million barrels) at $29 a barrel in December 2015 take place at a time when the market was in “contango” – that is, when the current price of a commodity, such as oil, is lower than prices for delivery in the future? It was no time to sell.
By the time the controversy hit, oil reached $50 a barrel. So, whomever bought this oil locked in some pretty decent profits.
Joemat-Pettersson denied that there was a sale, telling Parliament that it was simply a strategic rotation of unsuitable oil stock. When Mmamoloko Kubayi, took over the portfolio, she confirmed, in 2017, that this was not the case and oil reserves were sold off. Kubayi also confirmed to Parliament that the sale was made without the approval of the Central Energy Fund (CEF) board.
On Thursday night, President Ramaphosa reshuffled his Cabinet in an address that was uncomfortable to watch. Ramaphosa looked exhausted and stumbled over his words a few times. The reshuffle reflected the state of the ANC and the lack of depth there is within the party. Where is the next generation of real leaders, one must ask? It also reflected realpolitik, if nothing else.
The biggest "takeaway" must be that the president is centralising security within the Presidency. It tells us how much is at stake and also how uneasily the crown rests on his head. It is perhaps also a logical response to the violent events of July and is permissible in terms of S209 of the Constitution. Ramaphosa has also appointed a panel headed by Professor Sandy Africa to look into the state’s “level of preparedness and shortcomings in [the] response” to the violence in July.
Thandi Modise as the new Minister of Defence will be Parliament’s loss. A capable and fair Speaker, she presided over Parliament at a tricky time. She is a military veteran herself and former chair of the Parliamentary defence committee. She was a formidable opponent to Kader Asmal, who was then the chairperson of the national conventional arms control committee (NCACC) of Cabinet, in their 2002 stand-off on the National Conventional Arms Control Act. Hers is a safe pair of hands.
Enoch Godongwana has moved to Finance and is a well-known pragmatist but arrives with a small cloud over his head, which is deeply unfortunate. Apart from the "weekend special", Des Van Rooyen, post-apartheid South Africa has had unimpeachable finance ministers. There were other changes but the real question is whether there has been true accountability for previous actions?
As minister of social development, has Lindiwe Zulu ever been truly held to account for being present while water cannons were used to spray the elderly in a queue during lockdown? And, has Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, now reshuffled to the Small Business Ministry, been held to account for her incompetence? She was incapable at the Department of Communications and the crucial small business portfolio is now hers. And what of Minister of Police Bheki Cele, who escaped unscathed despite an insurrection and generally clownish behaviour? But Ramaphosa had to take into account the political calculus: to keep KwaZulu-Natal onside, one would need either Cele or Mkhize. Mkhize simply had to go in the wake of the Digital Vibes scandal, and so Cele is saved by party politics. Former State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo simply moves elsewhere, but finally ex-Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula has gone.
Minister of Employment and Labour Thulas Nxesi remains in his position. We have not forgotten that he tried to convince us, while as Minister of Public Works, that the Nkandla swimming pool was a "fire pool" in 2016. And then, of course, there remains Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Aaron Motsoaledi and Maite Nkoane-Mashabane (she of the "hole in the head" fame).
Deputy President DD Mabuza is not known as "The Cat" for nothing. He disappeared while receiving treatment in Russia apparently. Where exactly was he? And why was he receiving treatment in Russia of all places?
The National Security Adviser, the very capable and trustworthy Sidney Mufamadi, will have his work cut out for him because when Ramaphosa tells us we have lived through an insurrection, read: the ANC’s internecine battles are spilling over into the public domain and are in full view. The ANC itself is bereft of vision, in disarray and feeds off its own carcass. There were certain members of Ramaphosa’s Cabinet who were quite prepared to be disloyal and "let it all burn" and there are those within the ANC and outside of Cabinet who would do the same.
It is spine chilling.
Any political party where distrust runs so deep and where individuals are prepared to weaponise poverty and desperation to protect criminal networks is surely unfit for purpose?
The ANC should split for precisely this reason. Instead, though, it will continue cannabalising itself because those who seek so-called Radical Economic Transformation (RET) have only the networks of the state to keep them alive. These networks are accessed via state power at all levels, most notably local government, which are in many parts of our country mini (criminal) fiefdoms.
Their power comes from threats inside the ANC and causing the mayhem they did in July.
The question then becomes, how does Ramaphosa deal with the enemy within? Does he continue to proceed with caution and think that state institutions will eventually bring those responsible for the most egregious acts of corruption (and now insurrection) to account? That should happen, of course, but it does not exonerate Ramaphosa from acting as head of state.
The only way to deal with the enemy within is with a healthy dose of transparency. Let the president provide an honest rendering of where we are as a country after the insurrection. After all, the enemy within relies on operating in the shadows and speaking the coded language in which the likes of Jacob Zuma are so fluent.
The stakes are very high for Ramaphosa and the ‘RET’ faction but, more importantly, for our country and us all too.
Expending political capital aside, Ramaphosa should focus on mobilising the citizenry behind a common cause of inclusive rebuilding of the economy and society. Such mobilisation could provide a societal bulwark against those within his party who want to tear down the edifice of this democracy.
Let Ramaphosa ditch the ANC sweaters and mobilise communities and citizens for good. The leaders are already there, he needs to connect with them assiduously. They are the ones who surrounded malls and small businesses and said no to calls for looting and violence. They are also the ones who took their brooms and swept the streets after the burning and theft. These were powerful non-violent acts of defiance against the mob within and outside of the ANC who would take us down a spiral of violence until there is nothing left (of course, this does not mean that all citizen action should be state-led; that would be counter-intuitive). Can Ramaphosa use greater political imagination to envisage a base more powerful than kowtowing to the corrupt internal politics of the ANC, namely, the people themselves?
Then there is business - big and small - who stand only to benefit from peace and stability. Harnessing their collective power will ensure that we can rise from the ashes of July despite the trepidation that is understandable. There are many South Africans who have contributed now to the discussion on a universal basic income grant. It is time for government to listen and expand on the set of interventions the president recently announced. Those were welcome; for instance, the extension of the R350 grant to unemployed caregivers. But we need more. There is no shortage of intellectual capital to fix things if only those in power were listening.
Finally, Ramaphosa is in desperate need of a communications adviser who will tell him to step out from behind the wooden podium and truly talk to us. This will mean crafting speeches that are empathetic but also boldly assert the president’s authority by speaking truths, which may be uncomfortable for his ANC comrades to hear. It would also mean taking questions from journalists in real time.
We have had enough "family meetings" that could be short public service announcements. We have had enough of disconnected presidential newsletters read only by political junkies. Information is the oxygen of democracy and Ramaphosa should understand this more acutely than most. He helped write our Constitution after all. The commitment to transparency runs through it like a golden thread.
Political power is only effective if expended on behalf of the people.
Ramaphosa aside, dealing with the current crisis will mean that we as citizens will have to mobilise to protect and defend our democracy. We understand now that we are on our own and cannot rely on politicians to rescue us. But at the same time, we should also expect - and agitate for - better governance at every turn.
Now that Ramaphosa has told us what we witnessed was an insurrection and that he "knows who they are", his rejigged Cabinet will need to act in concert with him. And they will need to act with speed if Ramaphosa himself is to retain his credibility.
Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february