Why Cyril will be biding his time

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IOL si karima brown2

The election of businessman Cyril Ramaphosa as President Jacob Zuma’s number two in the ANC has the chattering classes in a frenzy – for all the wrong reasons.

Ramaphosa, who was elected in a landslide victory, receiving more than 3 000 votes out of less than 4 000 at the ANC’s elective conference last month has become the new poster boy for those who believe Zuma’s leadership poses a threat to democracy.

Political hacks, newspaper editors, the foreign press, sections of business and analysts have hailed his return to the top six in the ANC as the beginning of the end for Zuma. They are already feeding the rumour mill that Zuma is unlikely to serve out his time. Some have even dubbed Ramaphosa Zuma’s “get-out-of-jail-free card”, while others have hailed him as the man who will steer the ANC out of its rut.

In some circles, Ramaphosa’s election is also a boon for the thinly disguised anti-left sentiment pervasive in the mainstream media.

Before the ANC’s elective conference it was not uncommon to hear an argument that suggested the ANC was “imposing” its leadership choices on the rest of society, wrongly conflating the right of the ruling party to choose its leaders with our party political system, in which the electorate votes for a party and not an individual.

What many fail to point out is that in South African electoral politics, it’s the ANC brand that is the drawcard, not individual leaders. Nowhere was this clearer than during the 2009 general elections when the Polokwane losers tried to cash in on what they thought would be voter disgust with the ANC under Zuma, but failed. It is this same party brand that will be the driving force behind the ANC’s election campaign in 2014.

Yes, individual leaders play a role in shaping the party’s identity, but the ANC trumps individual profile.

Ramaphosa is among the best the ANC has to offer. His leadership qualities are not in question and his ANC pedigree is uncontested. His leadership role in the powerful National Union of Mineworkers in the 1980s, his stint as ANC secretary-general, when Zuma was his deputy, and his role in crafting South Africa’s constitution are all well documented.

Ramaphosa’s status as Madiba’s preferred choice to succeed him in the ANC and the rivalry between him and former president Thabo Mbeki are the stuff of ANC legend.

So, too, is his meteoric rise as a businessman and beneficiary of black economic empowerment. Ramaphosa is chairman of the Shanduka Group, making him one of the wealthiest men in the country. By all accounts Ramaphosa is in the pound seat, with easy access to the party machinery but with none of the governance responsibilities that Zuma is saddled with.

This has led to fierce speculation that it is only a matter of time before he makes his move for state power. But will Ramaphosa mount an early challenge to Zuma’s leadership as some clearly want him to?

I think not. For starters, Ramaphosa only became a contender because Zuma put him in play. His name was floated by Zuma’s inner circle long before it surfaced in the KwaZulu-Natal nominations conference as a candidate for deputy president.

It was also Zuma who appointed Ramaphosa to the National Planning Commission as deputy chairman, and it was Zuma’s 2007 national executive committee (NEC) that appointed Ramaphosa to head the national disciplinary committee of appeals.

This powerful vehicle dealt the death blow to ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, resulting in his expulsion from the ANC at a time when Malema was challenging Zuma’s authority and leadership.

Ramaphosa was also pivotal in that NEC’s decision to recall Mbeki from office, a move that cemented Zuma’s hold in the ANC and strengthened Luthuli House’s grip on the state in that critical interregnum when Zuma was at the helm of the party but had not yet that of the country.

In an interview I had with Ramaphosa, he expressed not only support for Zuma’s leadership of the ANC, but lauded his presidency of the country. “Which other president has put a trillion rand on the table to kick-start the economy? Which other president has commissioned an overarching national development plan to turn South Africa around?” He went on to say Zuma was the face of the ANC’s 2014 election campaign.

Of course there is often a disjuncture between what politicians say and what they mean, and Ramaphosa is no exception. However, to suggest that Ramaphosa is biding his time so that he can pounce for an early ride into the presidency is to disregard the fundamental way in which leadership works in the ANC. Moreover, it presupposes wrongly that Zuma is the one pulling at the short end of the stick in the duo. Zuma is firmly in charge of his party, with the added bonus of state power.

Zuma’s support in the ANC is also not confined to one ideological school wing. He has support among nationalists and the left. For all Zuma’s flaws, it is under his leadership that the NEC broadly reflects a cross-section of leaders from various orientations. This allows Zuma to reconstitute the ANC’s centre that has come under threat in the factional battles in the party.

Perhaps the most compelling reason why Ramaphosa won’t make a move against Zuma now is because he has everything to gain from getting Zuma’s backing and being anointed in 2017 if he decides to run for ANC president.

This route keeps political costs low and allows Ramaphosa to entrench himself not only among the party’s national leaders, but also among the rank and file where it matters most.

While many see speedy action as a sound leadership quality, in the ANC, it is a leader’s ability to wait and have patience that yields the most dividends

- Brown is CNBC Africa anchor for Political Exchange, a current affairs show focusing on African political economy


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