Frontline Africa Advisory

The President at the Precipice

The President at the Precipice

President Cyril Ramaphosa is a man under pressure. The continuing failure of State –Owned Entities such as Eskom and South African Airways is fast becoming identifiable with his leadership. Where previously we all looked at the failures of former President Zuma and the state capture project, increasingly, more people are beginning to wonder aloud if Nasrec 2017 was not actually a false dawn. Though intractable and difficult to deal with, the problems that President Ramaphosa inherited seem, at face value, to have gotten worse under his watch. Unfortunately for him, the full effects of state capture are becoming apparent under his leadership, trapping his administration in a crisis mode.

The country is on the brink of being declared junk by the Moody’s, which is the only ratings agency to have stayed its hand in this respect. That patience is wearing thin and Moody’s seemingly cannot delay the inevitable any longer. The downgrade, if and when it comes, will make the President’s mission to attract more investment into the country that much harder.

Unemployment is now at 29.1%. On the expanded definition, this is closer to 40%.  South Africa in its longest downturn since 1945. Those who live and visit townships on a regular basis will know the disturbing sight of young men and women walking the streets on working days without any work. With each passing day, news comes out which leaves one with a feeling that things are still going to get worse before they get better, trapping these young people in a cycle of poverty and hopelessness.

Criminality remains a major issue. The criminal justice system is barely managing to cope with the brazen nature of violent crime. At its core, this growing trend reflects a weakened state and a general societal malaise which produces young men who are prone to violence and criminality.

The ANC is in a perpetual fight with itself. Despite periodic hollow declarations of unity and common purpose, only the naïve would believe the ANC is a homogenous entity, driven by a common mission. It has always been known that the President did not ‘have’ the party like his predecessors. On the contrary, delegates at NASREC saddled the President with a leadership that holds vastly divergent views on South Africa’s path to prosperity. On the one hand is the Radical Economic Transformation brigade, which uses race as a proxy for everything. On the other is the New Dawn brigade, which aspires to a liberal economic dispensation. The latter types pay more attention to the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and Sovereign Ratings Agencies, whilst the former pretends that South Africa is an economic giant that can forge its own economic path unbothered by the strictures of the international economic system of which South Africa is an insignificant member.

Quite unfortunately for the President, there is an expectation, across all sectors of society, that he should correct the malaise of the last ten years forthwith. There is perhaps nothing more demonstrative of this foolish belief than the common refrain that nobody has been put in jail for state capture. The last parroting of this misguided view was of course trotted out by Richard Quest of CNN in Davos. This is a short-sighted view which seems to reduce South Africa’s problems to a bunch of criminals who still have their freedom. It ignores the very strict standard that South Africans have always demanded of their leaders; that politicians do not involve themselves in prosecutorial matters. It is also worth noting that it is the very meddling of politicians in prosecutorial matters that weakened law enforcement agencies. The view also ignores the many capacity challenges that the NPA and the Hawks have admitted to and which the President and his team are working diligently to correct.

It is unfortunate that the narrative about the President’s leadership should be turning so early in his first term of office. In a way, Ramaphosa’s early days in office saw him shoot himself in the foot, as he became his own biggest cheerleader, touting about his ability to deliver change quickly. Those promises have now come up against the reality of a weak state, diminished resources and a political base that is not fully supportive of his agenda. NASREC compromises are coming to back to bite him as he cannot impose his ideas on the party. Elsewhere, I have argued that this is a good thing. Nobody wants a President who can rule with fiat. However, society expects that their leader will be given some room to lead. In this case, it is becoming increasingly difficult to express confidence in the President as the system seems too weakened to support his reform agenda.

It is unimaginable how untenable the President’s position will be in another year or two, unless something drastic happens to boost his standing in his own constituency, which has hitherto been the bulwark against the destructive forces within his party who remain hellbent on undermining his leadership role. Should nothing change, members of the African National Congress and South Africans in general may have to start casting about for a successor to a short-lived Presidential career.

Written by Thembinkosi Gcoyi – Managing Director of Frontline Africa Advisory
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