RW Johnson: Russia, Ramaphosa and SA Election – Putin now backing two horses

Leading political scientist RW Johnson explains what led him to investigate a Zuma-supporting, Kremlin-funded media operation – and wonders at Ramaphosa’s inability to accept the reality of Putin’s double play and the ANC’s sharp decline in the polls. Sobering and scary, Johnson’s analysis reinforces the view that SA’s elections on May 29 are shaking up as a make-or-break for the young democracy. He spoke to Alec Hogg of BizNews.

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Highlights from the Interview

The interview with RW Johnson covered several critical aspects of South Africa’s political scenario:

  1. Coalition Dynamics: Johnson discussed the likelihood of post-election coalitions involving the ANC, EFF, and MK, emphasizing the ANC’s diminished support and the strategic alliances forming among parties.
  2. Ramaphosa’s Challenges: The interview highlighted President Ramaphosa’s predicament, balancing optimistic public statements with lower poll predictions, potential resignation pressures, and the complex task of coalition building.
  3. Business Influence: Johnson noted the business community’s role in supporting Ramaphosa to maintain stability and constitutional governance, despite electoral challenges and factionalism within the ANC.
  4. Political Landscape: The conversation delved into internal ANC dynamics, declining morale among members, and the broader implications for South Africa’s political future, including the possibility of significant power shifts and coalition negotiations.
  5. Strategic Decisions: The interview underscored the critical decisions facing Ramaphosa regarding coalition partnerships and the country’s trajectory post-elections, with implications for governance, stability, and public trust.

Extended transcript of the interview  ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

00:00:12:11 – 00:00:33:06
Alec Hogg:
R.W. Johnson is a political scientist, historian, bestselling author, the most popular columnist on BizNews. But he put his journalistic cap on last week, and boy, did he give us a story.

00:00:33:07 – 00:00:50:02
Alec Hogg:
Mr. Johnson, good to be talking with you again. That story about Amandla.site one, two, three. It really is a fabulous piece of journalistic work. Why did you pick up on this one?

00:00:50:04 – 00:01:21:12
RW Johnson:
Well, I… it’s just that we have an old friend who was quite a senior figure in Umkhonto, and although he ended up being tortured in Quatro, he remains part of that world and is very much associated with a real Umkhonto veteran, not make-believe ones. And he alerted us to this site because it was creating great excitement and stimulus among his comrades and colleagues.

00:01:21:14 – 00:01:27:13
RW Johnson:
And so that’s what made us look at it. And indeed, it was fairly remarkable.

00:01:27:15 – 00:01:30:11
Alec Hogg:
What did you find when you went in there?

00:01:30:12 – 00:02:06:08
RW Johnson:
Well, it’s a curious mix of Putinite propaganda, which is mainly focused on the war in Ukraine and very much anti-Western, blaming, saying the West is to blame for the Ukraine war and so on. And on the other hand, very anti-Ramaphosa and pro-Zuma propaganda and a lot of anti-Semitism, also an odd mix and I mean a very Russian sort of brand of anti-Semitism at that.

00:02:06:10 – 00:02:12:06
RW Johnson:
So it’s a very strange and unpleasant toxic mix.

00:02:12:08 – 00:02:14:04
Alec Hogg:
And how significant is it?

00:02:14:06 – 00:02:43:19
RW Johnson:
Well, as I say, it’s clearly getting through to people in the ANC world, as it were. And no doubt, particularly in the MK world. And, you know, one of the things that I find alarming is that the friend that I mentioned who was an old MK guy is quite a well-educated man, but he was more than halfway to believing a lot of those stories.

Read more: Hartford: SA’s left surges in ‘New Dawn’ for radical ideologies amidst political shifts

00:02:43:21 – 00:03:14:11
RW Johnson:
You know what? It made me wonder was, first of all, I mean, whether these sorts of things are being widely believed. And secondly, what else is there in social media going on that I don’t know about? I’m not really a social media person. I only fell upon this because of the circumstances. All right. But I’m sure there must be much more in the social media world that I don’t know about.

00:03:14:13 – 00:03:36:08
Alec Hogg:
Well, unusually for us, we got this piece and put it free to air, and there have been more than 15,000 people who have read it, including quite a vigorous debate underneath the story in the comment section, including from one person who says that Putin is really a good guy. And all of this is good stuff.

00:03:36:08 – 00:03:51:15
Alec Hogg:
And, and the rest of you are a little bit propagandized by the Western media. If you had an opportunity to sit with this fellow in a, in a room, how would you respond to those allegations?

00:03:51:17 – 00:04:23:14
RW Johnson:
Well, I’m not sure I would. I mean, I, being married to a Russian, I’m very well aware of the sort of Putinite propaganda spokespeople. I have met people from that world, and there isn’t an awful lot to say. I mean, you know, it’s like arguing with someone who claims the Earth is flat. You know, where do you begin and when do you feel that you’ve made a point?

00:04:23:15 – 00:05:02:01
RW Johnson:
I mean, they’re arguing from such a peculiar point of view that it’s very difficult to take it seriously, really. But usually, if you do it, the real passion is an anti-Westernism. Everything else seems to follow from that. It’s a tendency to blame the West for absolutely everything. And one feels that that’s almost become, in Putin’s eyes, a sort of major constituent part of what Russian nationalism or Russian patriotism is.

00:05:02:03 – 00:05:28:16
RW Johnson:
And, that Russia now defines itself as a Eurasian country, which is opposed and different from the West. I mean, that’s part of its own definition. And I don’t really, you know, I can’t see the point in having arguments with people with points of view that have nothing in common with one’s own. I mean, you don’t get anywhere.

00:05:29:13 – 00:05:59:12
Alec Hogg:
I guess from a South African perspective, we really need to be paying attention to this. The MK manifesto came out yesterday, and it looks like something that the Kremlin might have actually written, including expropriation of all land, moving our country away from constitutional supremacy towards unfettered parliamentary supremacy, nationalizing the Reserve Bank, major banks, insurance companies, strategic mines, ArcelorMittal, and Sasol.

00:05:59:14 – 00:06:27:13
Alec Hogg:
And it goes on and on, giving everybody a job and giving them a basic salary of 4500 rand and so on. It just clearly the surprise would be how all of this would be paid for. But it does appear to be very populist and very much a strategy to harvest votes. And MK does appear to be achieving quite a lot of support according to your own polls and others.

00:06:27:15 – 00:06:59:04
RW Johnson:
That’s right. No. Look, I’m not sure how far. I mean, remember that they achieved that breakthrough in the polls long before they had a manifesto, but before any of that was clear. So I doubt whether the manifesto is more than cream on the top, as it were. But I mean, it’s probably true of most parties, but I think that the key is that this is part of this populist left current, of which the EFF, of course, is the prior representative.

00:06:59:06 – 00:07:30:22
RW Johnson:
And they are, to some extent, in competition, although they’re also allied because you have them promising similarly crazy things, like doubling all social grant payments and so forth, without the slightest idea of how on earth to pay for that. One realizes that this is just a sign of complete economic illiteracy. And also, of course, a completely uncaring attitude about what is actually possible.

00:07:31:00 – 00:07:35:05
RW Johnson:
You know, it’s as if they don’t really mind whether their promises are real or not.

00:07:35:07 – 00:08:06:20
Alec Hogg:
But what about the voters? Well, they just wanted this.

00:08:06:22 – 00:08:35:01
RW Johnson:
Well, as I say, I doubt whether the manifestos are themselves mainly responsible for the support that either the EFF or MK get, but some of it will penetrate, will be taken up, and you will find people demanding the expropriation of all land and so forth. I mean, these things do feed through to some extent.

00:08:06:22 – 00:08:35:01
RW Johnson:
One thing which I do think is very odd, peculiar is the silence of the ANC and Ramaphosa because here is this website mounted by people who he thought were his allies, which is attacking him quite frontally, accusing him of all sorts of things. And yet he hasn’t said a word, and nor has anyone else or anyone in the ANC.

00:08:35:01 – 00:08:50:17
RW Johnson:
They must be aware of it. I suppose they’re in a difficult spot because they’re getting money from the United Manganese Kalahari, which is also Russian-owned, but it’s a very curious situation.

00:08:50:19 – 00:09:03:21
Alec Hogg:
Where you’ve got a website that is funded by Russians. Are you, what leads you to that conclusion that it isn’t just some local people who putting money behind it?

00:09:03:23 – 00:09:33:19
RW Johnson:
Well, I don’t really think that’s a viable conclusion. You know, if you look at it and you look at some of the stories that are written from such a Putinite angle and the brand of anti-Semitism, their market is so distinctively Russian. You know, I would I really can’t imagine South Africans coming up with that sort of thing.

00:09:34:01 – 00:09:39:11
RW Johnson:
I think if South Africans had mounted a website, it would read rather differently.

00:09:39:16 – 00:09:59:11
Alec Hogg:
Well, what about the whole Prigozhin and Wagner thrust into Africa? We are, well, we do understand that Prigozhin had many trolls. He had troll farms, even. They were called. Is this out of that playbook? This Amandla site.

00:09:59:11 – 00:10:27:11
RW Johnson:
Well, we don’t know, but of course, Prigozhin is dead. His little empire has been effectively transferred to the GRU, the military intelligence people, because Putin obviously got a very nasty shock when Prigozhin launched an assault upon him. And, I think he may be wondering whether it’s wise to have any private enterprise, military section in the future.

00:10:27:12 – 00:10:37:20
RW Johnson:
So, I think the Wagner empire has been effectively brought under Russian state control. So, I assume that this comes from the same stable.

00:10:37:22 – 00:10:49:02
Alec Hogg:
So these are people who’ve had experience in doing this elsewhere, and they’ve now just applied their skills to the South African market.

00:10:49:04 – 00:11:28:12
RW Johnson:
Yes. But, you know, the Russians are now interfering very widely in elections. It wasn’t just American elections, but a number of places in Europe that have certainly had Russian interference as well. It seems to be something that they’re going in for quite a big scale. But of course South Africa is important to Russia because, you know, this has been a period in which Russia has been losing friends and allies and becoming more isolated and South Africa’s the great exception in which a Commonwealth country, no less, a democracy, has effectively taken his side.

00:11:28:14 – 00:11:34:02
RW Johnson:
And this is a huge feather in his cap and one Putin will not want to lose.

Read more: RW Johnson: Amandla – meet Zuma’s Russian-funded media business

00:11:34:04 – 00:11:50:20
Alec Hogg:
And that does make it really strange for the Ramaphosa ANC or Ramaphosa led ANC. What do you make of that? Is Russia trying to put its bets perhaps on EFF and M.K., to unseat the ANC at the next election?

00:11:50:22 – 00:12:18:16
RW Johnson:
Well, I think it’s a two-sided bet as it were. It’s like somebody at a horse race putting money on the favorite. And then also, you know, doing a combination bet with other things as well so that you hedge your bet. Look, quite clearly, the MKP and the EFF, are to some extent, allies, they’ve even had joint demonstrations and so on.

00:12:18:18 – 00:12:51:07
RW Johnson:
They share the same sort of populist current and much the same demand. What they are both bent upon is a reverse takeover of the ANC. That’s what they would like to achieve, either under Zuma or possibly under Paul Mashatile, who would clearly play that game, who is used to working with the EFF and that is, you know, remember between them now they command about a quarter of the vote, which is a big chunk.

00:12:51:09 – 00:13:15:09
RW Johnson:
If the ANC is going to fall to 37, 40 or thereabouts and they are 25 between them, that puts them in quite a good position. And I think the other point is that, you know, they are full of populist anger and passion, whereas the ANC itself seems to have run out of ideas and to be rather flat.

00:13:15:11 – 00:13:49:08
RW Johnson:
And, I think that that’s also not unimportant that if these people rejoined that, they would probably their sheer passion and momentum would carry them forward and make them more important. I think that that’s what they’re after. And, you know, it’s an alarming thought, but there we are. Of course, the big question is how permanent, MKP is going to be its leader is 82.

00:13:49:10 – 00:14:02:12
RW Johnson:
I mean, will it be around at the time of the next election we can’t possibly know? And it would probably have to be under other leadership. So, you know, that’s sort of just an open question.

00:14:02:13 – 00:14:31:10
Alec Hogg:
So what does a sensible South African do in these circumstances? You look at this election coming up on the 29th of May, you’ve got a very popular former president who’s shown by any judgments to being terribly corrupt, who’s close to Putin, who’s probably going to be drawing South Africa if he has any, how any, say, at the table closer to Putin, who wants to get rid of the Constitution.

00:14:31:12 – 00:14:37:14
Alec Hogg:
What is a sensible South African dude? Take all the money offshore is, hedging their bets?

00:14:37:16 – 00:15:16:04
RW Johnson:
Well, I think a lot of people have been raising money offshore for quite some time. But, look, I think, you know, all one can do is to vote for the party of one’s choice. And we are lucky enough. We do have a working democracy. We have to try and keep on making that work. And, you know, when people say that we are like Zimbabwe, I always feel, look, we’re not because the key point in Zimbabwe is that from about 2001 onwards, there was a clear MDC majority in that country.

00:15:16:04 – 00:15:51:08
RW Johnson:
I was doing polls all the time, and typically in the period between 2001 and 2009, when I stopped doing this poll, on average, the results we were getting was MDC 60. Zanu PF 23. That would have been an average sort of result. So it was quite clear that the opposition was in the large majority, but never was it allowed to get that majority, you know, murder, torture, intimidation, straightforward rigging meant that they would.

00:15:51:09 – 00:16:17:17
RW Johnson:
And of course, they blew up the printing press of the main newspaper, so forth, there was no freedom of the press. There was no freedom over everything else. Now, luckily, we still have free media. We still have proper democratic elections. We are not like Zimbabwe. Thank goodness. over here. If you are going to get a large proportion of the vote like the MDC, I think that you will win the election.

00:16:17:18 – 00:16:30:19
RW Johnson:
You know, I have reasonable confidence in the IEC and, I think that that is a huge difference and one we should be very glad of. And of course, the Constitution is partly responsible.

00:16:30:22 – 00:16:44:10
Alec Hogg:
So you’re putting your hopes, as it were, in the IEC and the South African electorate, the South African electorate not giving two-thirds majority to, those who would change the constitution.

00:16:44:12 – 00:17:07:18
RW Johnson:
I look, I’m a Democrat. You can’t really do anything else as a Democrat. I mean, you just have to vote the way that you want and hope other people will vote freely for what they want and then accept whatever the result is. I look at the moment, as I say, they’re huffing and puffing, but they’re only coming up with about a quarter of the vote.

00:17:07:18 – 00:17:37:20
RW Johnson:
It’s a lot, but it’s a long way from where they actually need to be. But the key question is how the ANC is going to respond to this because I’m sure that there will be moles within the ANC who are really on the side of EFF and MK, and you know, there will be very complicated factional games going on which we don’t know about.

00:17:37:22 – 00:17:40:18
Alec Hogg:
What’s the best-case scenario in all of this?

00:17:40:20 – 00:18:15:23
RW Johnson:
Well, of course, the big alternative I was about to write on something about this look, what we’re heading towards is a showdown in which it looks as if the DA will get somewhere between 20 and 25. The ANC on the latest polls, somewhere between 37 and 41. And then it will come down to Ramaphosa having to decide what he’s going to do, offer a coalition to the DA or accept a coalition with these two populist parties.

00:18:16:01 – 00:18:49:06
RW Johnson:
The only problem to me is this is that Ramaphosa is going around saying we’re going to get 57% because that’s what they got last time. Now, you know, every poll that we’ve had puts the ANC 15 or more percent below that. So I don’t know whether he’s just saying that and he actually believes it or what, but I mean, the result is likely to be something worse for him than he is accepting as possible.

00:18:49:08 – 00:19:16:04
RW Johnson:
Notice that he is hurrying to reprimand members of his own national executive because some of them are not bothering to campaign and are not visibly doing it now. I mean, again, this is factional. Some of those people will probably be Zuma sympathizers, you know, but clearly the morale within the ANC is very bad. And a lot of them don’t feel like backing a losing horse and so forth.

00:19:16:06 – 00:19:35:19
RW Johnson:
But we’re going to have this huge choice, which Ramaphosa is going to make. One, whether he’s going to continue as president or not, having lost a great deal of ground. And secondly, with whom he’s going to make a coalition, the future of the country’s going to depend on those decisions.

00:19:35:21 – 00:19:41:15
Alec Hogg:
And depend perhaps, on him staying or going, because if he goes, I think the way.

00:19:41:15 – 00:20:01:20
RW Johnson:
Whether he stays or goes and then which side he goes for because if he were to resign, at least immediately, the result would be Paul Mashatile taking over. And I suspect that would mean an acceptance of the EFF stroke, MKP, and we would go down that rabbit hole.

00:20:01:22 – 00:20:25:19
Alec Hogg:
Mr. Johnson, if you, positioning yourself for failure or for a resignation coming down, you could hardly have scripted it more than the way Ramaphosa has done it. If he’s going around saying we going to get 57% and let’s just say it comes in at 37%, he has no alternative but to resign, which would then trigger that coalition.

00:20:25:21 – 00:20:33:06
Alec Hogg:
What do the DA call it, the doomsday coalition, but perhaps even worse because you’re now bringing Zuma’s lot in.

00:20:33:08 – 00:21:05:16
RW Johnson:
Well, I think that, look, a key role will be played in all this by the business community, which, after all, backed him quite strongly when he was running for president and which is now cooperating with him across the board to try to improve things, you know, electricity, water, transport, etcetera. I am sure they will be saying, look, for God’s sake, stay there and make sensible decisions.

00:21:05:18 – 00:21:33:12
RW Johnson:
The fact you’ve lost ground doesn’t mean that you should go. You’re still the best bet for a constitutional resolution of all this. So I’m sure he will come under pressure from that group, but that may or may not be enough. Look at what is coming up. This. You see, I think the problem is that Ramaphosa grew up as a candidate, as it were, in the shadow of Mandela.

00:21:33:14 – 00:22:00:10
RW Johnson:
And I think when he was thinking about wanting to be president, he imagined himself playing a Mandela-like role, sort of blessing the people and being popular and doing symbolic things. And of course, he’s out of time. I mean, he’s in a very different period and, the demands are very different and much greater.

00:22:00:12 – 00:22:23:22
RW Johnson:
And he’s had a very uncomfortable time as president, and it looks like it’s going to get more uncomfortable. So I can imagine that he might feel personally inclined to resign. But, I don’t agree that he would have no option. He would still be probably the best person to hold the center of the circle and try to work something out, with other parties.

00:22:24:00 – 00:22:43:00
RW Johnson:
And actually, I mean, Mashatile would certainly like it. I mean, Mashatile is much less popular than Ramaphosa and has very little following outside He’s not a national leader at all, and he’s already embroiled in accusations of corruption, which are ongoing.

00:22:43:02 – 00:22:50:22
Alec Hogg:
Sobering and fascinating. R.W. Johnson, political scientist, historian, and columnist. And I’m Alec Hogg from BizNews.com.

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