Sharp Read | The real Ramaphosa remains obscured

A new book on the SA and ANC president is useful in some respects, but it covers too short a period of his reign and sheds almost no light on the internal workings of the man himself.

The cover image of Susan Booysen’s latest volume on the ANC, Precarious Power: Compliance and Discontent under Ramaphosa’s ANC, is more telling than she might realise. It shows Cyril Ramaphosa vanishing into a dense, midnight-blue backdrop, almost invisible except for the cusp of his upper lip, the pouches below his eyes and his bald spot. The obscured face reveals almost nothing about the man and what drives him. And that is one’s main quarrel with Precarious Power.

It is a useful book that sets out – not always in the most lucid prose but with clarity of vision – the dilemmas of a leader trying to heal the terrible wounds inflicted by Jacob Zuma on the ANC and the South African state over “nine wasted years”. As one would expect from a seasoned political scientist and prolific writer on contemporary South African politics, Booysen’s case is well sourced and argued. One would describe it as solid and compendious, rather than startlingly original or inspired.

It highlights the external brakes on Ramaphosa’s exercise of power. But those looking for dramatic new insights into South Africa’s inscrutable first citizen may feel disappointed.

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Booysen’s thesis is that the ANC “flounders yet survives”: it has lost the overwhelming supremacy it enjoyed in the immediate post-1994 years while continuing to command fragile – her terms are “precarious” and “porous” – majority support.

Ramaphosa was central to the party’s recovery in 2019 after the setbacks of the local elections three years earlier. The ANC succeeded in arresting its electoral decline by projecting him as a bringer of “renewal” and ethical governance, much as Zuma initially rekindled the faith of members alienated by Thabo Mbeki’s centralising high-handedness. In this way, criticism of the ANC as a movement was deflected to an errant leader and his cronies, while the mythology of the party as umbilically connected to the people and intrinsically “self-correcting” was kept alive. 

Centrally, Ramaphosa was portrayed to the faithful as the revived embodiment of its historical struggle for African liberation. “The ANC’s historical legitimacy, and its continued assurances that it was organisationally united and had firm intentions to improve policy and governance … helped citizens to continue suspending disbelief in [it] as a viable political force and to continue granting sequential second chances,” Booysen writes.

Internal party limitations

But the divided mandate delivered by the ANC’s 2017 conference at Nasrec in Johannesburg, and Ramaphosa’s subsequent commitment to rebuild the unity of the party – its platform in the 2019 poll – has limited decisive presidential action to disinfect the Zuma-era cesspool. In particular, any frontal attack by the president on delinquents of the former regime is vulnerable to the charge that he himself is undermining reconciliation through factional behaviour. His response has been to move against them obliquely, using the institutional cover of commissions of inquiry and the courts – a slow and uncertain battle plan.

The ANC benefits from default mass support as the party of liberation – given half a chance, disenchanted voters will forgive it and flock back to the fold. Because of this, popular anger at ANC inertia, broken promises and corrupt self-enrichment has not translated into steady gains for opposition parties. Instead, there has been a continual rise in street-level protest: payment boycotts, school and university disruptions, the torching of public and private property, road blockades, land occupations and xenophobic violence.

The aim is to extract concessions from the authorities in what, Booysen argues, amounts to a form of parallel, de facto policy-making by those at the bottom of the power structure. But the brick has not replaced the ballot. As shown by the frequent surges in protest actions at the time of elections, they are often harnessed together in a dual strategy to apply pressure on the ruling party. A bar chart in Precarious Power highlights this trend: protests at or around election time more than doubled from 107 in 2009 to 218 in 2019. Booysen characterises these options, and their combinations and permutations across South Africa, as a “repertoire”.

February 2021: Susan Booysen’s Precarious Power is well sourced and argued but is neither strikingly original nor inspired. 

A valuable insight of Precarious Power concerns the ANC’s soft reaction to popular lawlessness and violence to force change – its reluctance to crack heads, in the manner of Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe, and press charges. This is despite an escalation in the scale, planning and seriousness of some recent protests. Booysen turns a spotlight on the truck-burning episode at the Mooi River toll plaza in April 2018, arguing that it signals a growing move “beyond actions about community services and into more general issues of employment and poverty”.

The incident saw the convergence of three strains of popular action: by truck drivers angry at the employment of people they called “foreigners”; by impoverished people living on the margins of major arterial roads; and by opportunists using protest as a cloak for looting. The police showed some initial enthusiasm for law enforcement, warding off the attempted plunder of a supermarket and arresting more than 50 alleged looters after house-to-house searches. But most of the charges were dropped for lack of evidence and the prosecution of six suspects who did appear in court seemed to fizzle out.

ANC’s collusive populism

To underscore the ambivalence of a government that “could not be seen as acting against poor people”, Booysen quotes the muted, almost apologetic complaint of the KwaZulu-Natal member of the executive council for transport, Mxolisi Kaunda: “People must understand that we are still a country with laws, so we can’t break them and expect that nothing will be done. We are calling on the community to make sure that we calm the situation…”

This was partly about police incapacity – the looters and arsonists are described, using Mao Zedong’s famous metaphor for guerilla fighters, as “fish in the water” of their labyrinthine settlements. But Booysen suggests it also reflects a strong element of collusive populism on the part of the ANC, guilt-ridden over its failure to give citizens the quality of life they deserve, and indulging outbreaks of collective anger and “self-help” in exchange for continued support at the ballot box. The result is a “hybrid political system” accommodating both a constitutional democracy with all its formal processes and rituals, including multiparty elections, and a parallel groundswell from below.

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Booysen’s analysis is provocative but not entirely convincing – it lends political purpose to what in some cases is spontaneous or opportunistic, and lumps together different forms of collective behaviour. The Hermanus land occupations of 2018, which she dissects in detail, were a clear instance of calculated direct action by the impoverished and landless aimed at forcing the hand of the authorities. 

The Gauteng e-toll boycott, by contrast, involves vehicle owners – who by definition are not the poorest of the poor – and seems to be fuelled by “safety in numbers” opportunism, rather than need or principle. The same could be said of the electricity payment boycott. It serves the entire socioeconomic spectrum, and far from venting frustration at ANC delivery failures, it has been an immovable feature of township life since Nelson Mandela’s presidency. 

Important future tests

One of the weaknesses of Precarious Power is that, partly because of Covid-19, which effectively froze political activity in South Africa after the March 2020 lockdown, it only really covers about 18 months of Ramaphosa’s period in office. A number of processes with a vital bearing on the Zuma-Magashule “fight-back” campaign and future direction of the ANC will only take shape later in 2021. An obvious weathervane is the ANC’s national general council, set for the end of July. Intended as a mid-term stocktake, it is not an elective meeting. But fight-back pressure groups are reportedly planning to use it as an anti-Ramaphosa platform.

The local government election, set for late October, will serve as another important test of his standing and whether the electorate still buys the idea of ANC regeneration under his leadership. Historically, local elections have been a side issue for voters. But the ANC losses in the 2016 poll – including the Johannesburg, Pretoria and Nelson Mandela Bay metros – sent tremors of alarm through the party and hastened Zuma’s demise.

Booysen points out that some of Ramaphosa’s allies have been embroiled in Covid-19 procurement scandals. He has also been targeted by the schismatic public protector, Busisiswe Mkhwebane, for receiving campaign donations from the compromised government contractor Bosasa and, initially, may have lied to Parliament about the funding relationship. 

18 December 2017: Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa at the ANC’s elective conference during which Ramaphosa was elected president of the party. (Photograph by Ihsaan Haffejee)

The unresolved question is how much of this mud clings to him? Booysen suggests that his image as a new broom and restorer of the ANC’s emancipatory mission may have been tarnished. “As Ramaphosa’s term proceeded and many of his deployees also turned out to be corrupt, the gap between the factions (and Ramaphosa’s power to re-legitimate the ANC) grew smaller,” she writes.

On the Bosasa imbroglio, the ANC accepted that Ramaphosa’s misleading disclaimer in Parliament was not intentional, while the courts upheld his challenge to the public protector’s report. But he has been silent on the question of whether the company was buying influence with one eye on future state business. “The mood was one of popular doubt in [his] abilities to overcome the afflictions of the ANC,” Booysen argues.

Crucial to the president’s game plan is the progress of Zuma’s corruption case, which is back in court. From the outset, Zuma’s method has been to appeal over the heads of the ANC grandees to the branches, which have long proved susceptible to his peasant-worker self-projection and incessant wails of victimhood. He has undoubtedly been weakened by the case against him and his repeated refusal to testify at the Zondo commission. Graft charges against his most important party ally and link with branch members, ANC secretary general Ace Magashule, followed by the latter’s suspension from the party, have been further heavy setbacks. 

Zondo commission’s influence

The implications of the commission on state capture – presiding chairperson Judge Raymond Zondo must produce a final report by the end of June – are also unclear. Will Zondo’s findings unambiguously strengthen Ramaphosa? And will the president act on them, or will they be left to gather dust like the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? That will still depend on the state of play in the ANC and the risk of a debilitating schism.

In his testimony at the commission, Ramaphosa insisted that he is “a party person, a party animal” – one of his essential qualities that arguably receives too little attention in Precarious Power. A lawyer and a suited tycoon, he is sometimes seen as rather out of place in the brutal hurly-burly of politics, like a stockbroker in a bar brawl. This is a mistake: he is a politician by preference and an ANC man to his fingertips. He certainly believes that only the party can address South Africa’s multiple crises, but that is not the heart of the matter. 

In their deep loyalties, he and Zuma – who once drew furious criticism for saying he put the ANC’s interests above those of the country – are not too distant from each other. The difference is that Ramaphosa accepts the party has lost its way and must remake and redeem itself. 

Ramaphosa’s overriding concern in the 2019 election campaign was to arrest the ANC’s electoral slide, for which at least the appearance of unity was essential. In a speech at trade union federation Cosatu’s 13th congress, which Booysen quotes, he made the following passionate plea to his opponents: “Our people want to see a united ANC; we have to focus on renewal and unity. Even those comrades who did not love one another, it is time to unite now … We cannot go to these elections with a divided leadership … Any attempt to divide the ANC will be counter-revolutionary. Let us move forward as a united army.”

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The “fight-back” grouping saw the sense of the argument: for the duration of the election there was a partial truce in the ANC’s uncivil war. Booysen’s unpacking of the 2019 poll is one of the strengths of Precarious Power. She shows that although the ANC increased its share of the national vote for the first time since 2004, and held Gauteng against expectations, it was a precarious victory marred by low registration levels among new and young voters and a reduced turnout.

“In many respects the ANC was shrinking but consolidating its power,” she writes. Post-election surveys highlighted continuing voter scepticism: trust in the ANC fell below 40%, while fewer than a third of those who voted for the party felt “close” to it.

Also on the positive side of the balance sheet, Precarious Power is a highly serviceable reference work on the tangled initiatives of the Ramaphosa era, including the proliferation of what the British call “quangos” – quasi non-government organisations. The president’s extensive use of advisory bodies, ministerial task teams, summits and indabas is set out in a table under the heading “cooptive, consultative and supplementary leadership structures and events”. For those who confuse their Nugents with their Mokgoros, Booysen also provides useful charts listing recent commissions of inquiry and court cases with important political implications.

Deciphering motives and strategy

Ramaphosa has simultaneously been accused of being a faltering and painfully indecisive leader and praised for playing a long, patient game, driven by calculation and strategic nous. There is a third possibility: that he is more preoccupied with the crisis in the ANC than with matters of state and government, a charge that has been laid at his doorstep by the parliamentary opposition. It is a question that Precarious Power considers at length, in a section titled “Ramaphosa’s Long Game or Weak Game?” 

Booysen tends to favour the latter view – that his “manifest weaknesses of leadership” and “exasperating caution” are the malign fruit of chronic party divisions; dismal and worsening economic conditions; governance crises, including xenophobic violence and the near collapse of the parastatal sector; and systematic attacks on his leadership by Mkhwebane and others bent on restricting him to one presidential term. “Appeasement and spinning [out] problems … were the lifeblood of much of his governance”, she writes, coupled with a tendency to shelter behind institutional actors such as the courts, commissions, cabinet clusters and parliamentary committees, rather than boldly taking the lead.

In particular, she takes aim at the timid orthodoxy of his economic policies and “slow and tentative” change in the revamping of state enterprises. In one sense, “long or weak” is a false dichotomy: effective leadership includes knowing what objective circumstances permit. Ramaphosa’s creeping offensive against the fight-back crowd may seek to avoid Mbeki’s blunder of moving too soon against his rivals and sparking off a sympathetic backlash in the ANC, as happened at its 2005 national general council. 

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But it is also temperamental: in economic matters Ramaphosa is a conservative with a  pronounced preference for stability, who seems to shy away from risk and policy experiments. 

Associated with this is a talent for balancing opposites, illustrated by his successes as a former constitutional negotiator and National Union of Mineworkers general secretary. Booysen appears to disparage his “reputation for ‘resolving’ problems and demobilising opponents by pegging them down in endless deliberations, negotiations and consultations”. 

Defending himself, he told the media last year: “I build consensus. Some people would like me to be a dictator, and it is not in my make-up to be a dictator … I have built a number of organisations without being a dictator, working very well with people and making them feel worthwhile …”

Plain English matters

Precarious Power invites comparison with Anthony Butler’s highly readable 2007 biography, Cyril Ramaphosa: The Road to Presidential Power. Booysen’s academic approach – there are, for example, 40 pages of footnotes – and often technical vocabulary do not make for a particularly easy read. 

She has a fondness for neologisms such as “fractioning”, “de-alignment” and “de-institutionalisation”, and a habit of tacking polysyllables together in gluey clumps: “hegemonic predominance by consent”, “cross-factional delegitimation by the ANC’s metamorphosing factions” and the like. Sometimes the metaphors are mangled with comic effect – we are told of emasculated networks, surfing bots, torn and tainted anchors (of state power), and stabs at an opaque morass.

In his classic essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell provides some mock examples of such writing – “The fascist octopus has sung its swansong”, “The Nazi jackboot has been thrown into the melting pot” – arguing that it is a sure sign the writer is not thinking clearly about what he or she is saying. On occasions, Booysen’s English is definitely wrong. One should not make a fetish of grammatical and idiomatic correctness; it is presumably a second language for her, as it is for most South Africans. But the old journalist’s saw still applies: good English is plain English. 

23 June 2017: Then-deputy president of the ANC and South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, during an interview in Johannesburg. Susan Booysen’s book gives little insight into the internal life of the leader.  (Photograph by Moeletsi Mabe/ Sunday Times/ Getty Images)

Butler’s biography scores not just because of its vigorous and limpid prose; it also makes extensive use of anecdotes and interviews to shed light on its subject. His analysis is built on numerous conversations over the years with Ramaphosa and his friends and associates. Has Booysen interviewed the president since he took office? There is no obvious sign of it. In fact, she seems to rely largely on “literary” rather than human sources: media reports, statements, statistical surveys, academic articles, books…

Combined with the language, this gives her volume a rather abstract quality, like a souped-up doctoral thesis. Ramaphosa the human being and flesh-and-blood “chief of men”, with his vices and virtues, is obscured by a blizzard of political vectors and statistics. Booysen may object that she has not attempted a biography but a work of pure political inquiry. But as Butler shows, the two are not mutually exclusive. Precarious Power would be more readable – and revealing – if it opened a small skylight on the president’s soul.

Hints of the man

An example: Ramaphosa can turn on enormous charm and bonhomie, but he remains famously “enigmatic”. Two anecdotes in Butler’s book that stay in the memory hint at the coldness and intense privacy at the president’s core. In one, he reacts to Butler’s announcement that he is planning to write his biography by warning him off with the threat: “I’ll have your house!” In the second, he tells companions that friends are like teabags – once used, they can be discarded.

Butler’s anecdotes should serve as a warning to his enemies about the man they are up against. Much tougher than many realise, he was perhaps hardened by his 11-month spell in solitary confinement and under torture in 1974, which, by all accounts, was a defining experience.

He has ridden out the Marikana disaster and declining approval ratings as Zuma’s complicit deputy. Covid-19 has been kind to him: in the latest ratings, 80% of respondents thought he was doing a “good” or “very good” job.

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It seems unjust to accuse him of weakness and vacillation. He has mucked out the stable of Zuma’s cabinet, with some minor symbolic concessions to the other side, and started to take on the rot in the state and semi-state sectors. Notable achievements include the removal of Tom Moyane, the captured tax boss, and Lawrence Mrwebi and Nomgcobo Jiba, Zuma’s stooges in the National Prosecuting Authority. By insisting that Magashule stand down, despite the political hazards, he has made a loud statement about the ANC’s culture of impunity.

Ramaphosa says that he models himself on Mandela – another visionary who could, when the occasion demanded, mutate effortlessly into a deal-making pragmatist. His enemies’ efforts to tar him with scandal are unlikely to succeed. One is not comfortable with a rand billionaire ruling a poor country, and some of his followers have sold him short. But like Mandela and unlike Zuma, he is not fatally drawn to the honeypot of state resources.

There is no worthier pretender to his throne; in fact, he towers over the field. After the lunacy and chaos of the Zuma years, he offers some blessed sanity. As Precarious Power makes clear, Ramaphosa’s misfortune has been that he has risen to the highest office when South Africa faces a superstorm of concurrent crises – and when he has so little room to manoeuvre.

Precarious Power: Compliance and Discontent under Ramaphosa’s ANC is published by Wits University Press.

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