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EDINBURGH — Many are pinning their hopes on Cyril Ramaphosa being able to pull South Africa out of a deep dark hole of corruption and economic decline. He is business-savvy and his charm cuts across the racial divides. But Richard Poplak, columnist for the Daily Maverick, has looked beyond the headlines that paint a picture of the ANC sowing the seeds of change. Behind Ramaphosa stand very crooked individuals. With Ramaphosa winning by only a whisker, and with the way ANC decision-making is structured, Poplak expects at best more of the same we have become used to under Jacob Zuma – unless there is some luck sprinkled over South Africa. Poplak cuts through the myth that the ANC is a democratic party, underscoring the dealmaking that went on behind the scenes as the ANC NEC installed its new leadership. This article is republished here with the kind permission of Daily Maverick. – Jackie Cameron
COMMENT: Jacob Zuma once swore that the ANC would “rule until Jesus comes”. Well, according to the mainstream press, Jesus has indeed returned for a threequel in the person of Cyril Ramaphosa, the African National Congress’s newly anointed president. And so here we are, at the counter-intuitive moment of inflection: as the Magi of White Monopoly Capital lay gifts at Ramaphosa’s feet, the ANC is about to go the way of the second temple. Apologies to the faithful across all denominations, but this is not a revival. It’s a ravaging.
By Richard Poplak
A long long time ago, Cyril Ramaphosa was destined to become the second president of the African National Congress. Some stuff happened, but not the right kind of stuff, and he was instead “deployed to business” by Nelson Mandela, who was determined to install cadres into South Africa’s air-conditioned boardrooms, the very aeries from which blacks had been excluded for the duration of colonialism and its various derivations. Unsurprisingly, Ramaphosa found the moneyed life to be absolutely bloody awesome. Alternately ruthless and avuncular, and despite the occasional dark whisper about his Black Economic Empowerment vehicle Shanduka, he drifted through the South African maelstrom on a cloud of forex, seemingly unsullied by the muck and the slime. Even his involvement in the Marikana massacre didn’t put a wrinkle in the punditocracy’s admiration.
Still, a tantalising chunk of his biography remained unrealised. With the forces of evil lined up against him in their numbers, would Ramaphosa ever be allowed to fulfil his destiny? Hours before Jacob Zuma’s successor was announced in Nasrec Expo Centre’s plenary hall on Monday evening, no one in South Africa could answer that question with any certainty.
When Ramaphosa won the “election” by 179 votes over Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, my mind gravitated to other long-in-the-works projects that were supposed to happen, never happened, then suddenly happened. Naturally, this got me thinking about hard rock megastars Guns N’ Roses, and their sixth studio album, titled Chinese Democracy. Which, just as naturally, got me thinking about Chuck Klosterman’s legendary review of the record, which was published in the AV Club in 2008, and remains one of the better pieces of rock criticism ever written. (Some backstory: Chinese Democracy was the band’s first de factoalbum since 1993, and the 15-year wait had driven fans around the bend.) Here’s what Klosterman had to say:
“Reviewing Chinese Democracy is not like reviewing music. It’s more like reviewing a unicorn. Should I primarily be blown away that it exists at all? Am I supposed to compare it to conventional horses? To a rhinoceros? Does its pre-existing mythology impact its actual value, or must it be examined inside a cultural vacuum, as if this creature is no more (or less) special than the remainder of the animal kingdom? I’ve been thinking about this record for 15 years; during that span, I’ve thought about this record more than I’ve thought about China, and maybe as much as I’ve thought about the principles of democracy.”
Similarly, analysing the newborn Ramaphosa presidency is like writing about fairies. How are we to properly, and responsibly, consider the properties of a magical creature whose existence we never truly believed to be possible? Thankfully, unlike Chinese Democracy—which was essentially a solo album crafted by Guns N’ Roses front-man, Axl Rose—we are impelled to understand Ramaphosa’s presidency not as a individual project, but as the effort of the entire ANC band.
And the band is unequivocally shitty.
For one thing, the real band master remains in play, and is in no rush to hand over the conducting baton. Despite the ecstatic pronouncements of the business community and the recent exertions of the rand, the president of South Africa is not Cyril Ramaphosa, who in fact serves as Jacob Zuma’s deputy. Come to think of it, Ramaphosa’s not even the Axl Rose in this story.
He’s his roadie.
* * *
Anyway, destiny duly fulfilled, how have the first days of Ramaphosa’s CEO-ship played out? Not so well, actually. The ANC’s new Top Six is comprised of three provincial warlords, a recycled golden oldie, a spy, and a man who has published an R850 coffee table book about an artisanal cow. As the ANC Women’s League recently noted with some disdain, the congress’s most powerful decision-making body is dominated, as always, by Y chromosomes. But until the party produces female candidates who are more than just proxies for their male comrades — which is to say, until women are allowed to start buying their own provinces with the resulting delegate armies — there is little chance for gender parity.
After all, the ANC is not a charity. It’s a syndicate.
And like any syndicate, it needs a cover story to afford it a veneer of legitimacy. In this case, the ruse is that the ANC is a political party that operates as a democracy within a democracy, and that the process by which it chooses its leaders is a fair and free. Once again, Nasrec has proved this to be a spectacularly ridiculous act of nonsense-making. Dominating the latter half of the conference was the issue of 68 missing delegates, in the main voters from Ramaphosa ally Senzo Mchunu’s KZN district. Had their votes been counted, these ghost delegates probably would have won Mchunu the Secretary Generalship over the supernaturally corrupt Free State premier Ace Magashule. Somehow, with all of the histrionics regarding the watertight, independently run election process, the 68 were not on the rolls, and their votes were quarantined in case of an emergency.
Ace Magashule is a big fucking emergency.
How to unrig the rigging of the rigged—screw it, I’ve lost my place. Extra-democratically, out of sight of the 5,000 or so comrades lolling about the Nasrec grounds, the steering committee decided that only 17 of the missing votes would be counted and that Ace, we learned, would stay on as Secretary General. Regardless of the eventual justifications, this is the very essence of corruption. The palace intrigue has become boring — the gruesome quid-pro-quos this deal will eventually be laid out in a bestselling book, and good luck to the author. The point, however, is that inside a committee run by Gwede Mantashe, (the ANC’s new national chairperson), Cyril Ramaphosa and his new team agreed that it was better to keep Ace as Secretary General than it was to collapse the conference and re-pantomime democracy.
Deals, deals, deals and deals.
Perhaps Ramaphosa imagines that he will get rid of Ace through the courts. This is unlikely. His other options are limited: outside of the Electoral Conference, the road to firing a member of the Top Six goes through the ANC’s integrity commission, which is heavy on integrity and light on being able to enforce it.
And yet Ace, gangster that he is, functions as a red herring: the arch sleazebag in the Top Six is the new ANC deputy president, David “DD” Mabuza. The Mpumalanga don is the head of the premier league, one of Zuma’s prime enablers, and a man with seriously plus-sized ambitions. Is there a scenario in which Mabuza dumps his old benefactors and goes clean in order to straighten up his party? Not a chance. Watch how DD flips to Ramaphosa’s faction in order to future-proof his criminal enterprise by getting rid of the competition. He will now undertake a great political laundering operation—go in a provincial crook, come out the other side the future president of the ANC, cheered by Business Leadership South Africa, and invited to functions serving very small fish-based pastries.
It helps that Mabuza is a security kingpin: he plays mentor to former State Security Minister David Mahlobo (now running the energy portfolio), and his successor, Bongani Bongo. If there’s a theme for the whole conference, it’s the ascension of DD from provincial dictator to national king’s hand. He is the 54th National Electoral Conference’s MVP, and by a long shot.
Ramaphosa’s political life comes down to how successfully he is able to unlock the security cluster; indeed, everything in South Africa hinges on this. (As an adjunct, Jackson Mthembu, who has been beloved by liberals for his vigorous backing of the Ramaphosa campaign, promised in the communications commission to deliver a media tribunal, a kangaroo court for the court straight out of the Putin playbook.) That said, Ramaphosa will have other issues to negotiate. For one thing, the restless, populist zeal in the movement does not fit with Cyril’s “New Deal” economic proposals—Ramaphosa’s gentle neo-liberalism is currently out of fashion not just in South Africa, but around the world. No, the global winds are not blowing with reasoned Cyril: in a wild, spirited and mildly violent series of commissions, the ANC endorsed Zuma’s free-ish education package, the expropriation of land without compensation, and a downgrade of the Israeli embassy into a liaison office — all of which has horrified Cyril’s business base.
(As former Democratic Alliance leader Tony Leon noted in a catty Tweet: “I know of one big property owner who donated R30-million to CR17 campaign who now might have second thoughts given his approval of amending (section) 25 (of the Constitution).”
Ja well, Ramaphosa didn’t become a billionaire by giving money back. So good luck with that EFT, Mr Property Mogul.
* * *
The hall was by no means empty, but nor was it full when the clock struck midnight and it came time to hear Ramaphosa’s maiden address. Members of the NEC were no longer on stage but were sitting among the delegates — an exhausted Ramaphosa danced alone, eyes red, belly swinging languidly.
Ace Magashule stepped up to the lectern. “Aaaaaaace, Aaaaaaaaace,” roared the rump of the crowd. Where was DD?, wondered the journos assembled at the feet of the mighty. This did not look like a united front, but diarrhoea was doing the rounds. Was DD on the loo, purging? History has a way of squeezing in these little moments of poetry before it twists the knife.
But the speech: as one wag noted, after 10 brutal years of Zuma mangling his addresses in both English and isiZulu, it was a treat listening to someone who could read. Ramaphosa’s delivery has been spotty on the campaign trail, but he was in fine form for the biggest speech of his life so far. His sentences opened up like looped footage of flowers blooming: tricks within elisions within feints. Observe how he dealt with the land issue:
“As we leave this Conference, we are resolved to pursue with greater determination a radical path of socio-economic transformation, premised on growth, job creation and equitable distribution of income, wealth and assets.
“The issue of land has been a matter of great concern to our people whose land was taken from them.
“We will accelerate our programme of land reform and rural development as part of our programme of radical socio-economic transformation.
“This conference has resolved that the expropriation of land without compensation should be among the mechanisms available to government to give effect to land reform and redistribution.
“It has also resolved that in determining the mechanisms of implementation, we must ensure that we do not undermine the economy, agricultural production and food security.”
That does not mean anything, and it serves as a masterful dodge. There were many such moments. He praised Jacob Zuma for bringing sweets to meetings; he gave Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma a verbal hug. But the speech, for all its little revelations, was not the big event of the morning. At 3.05am, the list for the National Executive Committee was read out. Daily Maverick reporters had pored over the warring slates in detail, and it was immediately clear that if the 80 NEC positions weren’t exactly split between the two factions — we’re talking 40 for Ramaphosa and 40 for Zuma and Co — then it was close enough. When it comes time for big decisions that can only be taken by the Top Six and the NEC — AKA the Big Zuma Recall Vote — it’s impossible to know how things will flush out. There are two centres of power.
Which, of course, brings us back to Guns N’ Roses Chinese Democracy. The record’s title, however ironic, presents us with a paradox: China, by dint of being an authoritarian regime, cannot practice democracy. The ANC is similarly paradoxical—how can it behave decently in a constitutional democracy when it subverts its own democratic processes so crudely? The final alignment of the Top Six and the NEC was the result of deal-making, not an elections process. We spent five days in Nasrec watching an elaborate farce, a giant R6-million-a-day confidence game. What the fuck was the point of any of this? Why not just work it out over Blue Label and cigars in Luthuli House, and save us all the trouble?
The ANC Electoral Conference was a scam. The policies that result from it — whether neo-liberal or radical — are scams. The Ramaphosa era will be defined by scammers colluding with scammers in order to further scam the people of South Africa — and whether those scammers happen to be Cyril’s business buddies in Stellenbosch or Mabuza’s gangster pals in Dubai hardly matters anymore. Some good may come to the people of South Africa purely by accident, and that must be welcomed. But can this divided, deal-drunk ANC really pull us from the mire?
As Axl Rose once put it: “Ya gotta keep pushin’ for the fortune and fame, it’s all a gamble when it’s just a game.” The song was called Paradise City. Ironically, of course. DM
Cyril Ramaphosa: The Audio Biography
Listen to the story of Cyril Ramaphosa's rise to presidential power, narrated by our very own Alec Hogg.