South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa
Opinion & Analysis

Ramaphosa’s dithering over

by Paul Hoffman

IN SOUTH Africa there are still groups and individuals, perhaps not numerous enough though, who strive for the enhancement of constitutionalism and for the proper implementation of the rule of law.

There are too few in politics, the management of the police and in the criminal justice administration in general who operate on the basis that the Constitution and the rule of law are supreme.

None of us pay much attention to the popular myth of Emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

The myth illustrates poor leadership, but it is just that — a myth. The phrase is used to criticise someone who is doing something trivial or irresponsible in the face of an emergency. Nero was blamed for ignoring a serious matter and neglecting his people while they suffered.

In the summer of AD 64, Rome was devastated by a huge fire that lasted six days. Half the city’s population was made homeless and the blaze destroyed 70 percent of the buildings. The Romans wanted someone to blame, and they looked to their already despised emperor.

In the winter of AD 2021, an “attempted insurrection” (to use the presidential terminology) took place over eight days in KwaZulu-Natal, spreading to parts of Gauteng. Many buildings were burnt down and much destruction was wrought. More than 330 people died violently and looting was widespread. No one has been held to account for the attempted insurrection.

Is President Cyril Ramaphosa suffering from the same dysfunction that was attributed to Emperor Nero all those years ago? Judith February has, in exasperated anger, called upon him to “Lead, Mr President, Lead!” 

Modern clinical psychologists confirm that dithering in the face of an emergency is a symptom of what they call the avoidance syndrome. More generally, a fear of conflict situations is what drives the avoidant personality type. An inability to seize the nettle in difficult situations manifests itself in the behaviour of those who dither when strong action is required.

The dithering that has characterised the Ramaphosa presidency is already the stuff of legend. Elected by a narrow majority, which was secured with the help and support of a palpably crooked deputy president in DD Mabuza, the platform upon which the leadership of Ramaphosa is based has two mutually contradictory main elements.

The first is Mabuza-inspired. It seeks to secure the unity of the ANC in the face of waning electoral support, factionalism, widespread corruption and failure of service delivery.

The second is the presidential renewal agenda for the ANC: the “new dawn” in which it cleanses itself of the corruption and the inefficiencies or lack of capacity currently manifesting widely in SA. These symptoms are often caused by cadre deployment, which practice the contrary-wise president wishes to retain despite the damage done.

Choosing renewal and unity as the main planks of his presidency has given him the opportunity for dithering between implementing the reforms required and keeping the fragile unity of the faction-riven ANC in place by delaying the necessary reform process. 

Unity sees too many cadres, from Cabinet to branch level, enjoying impunity. Renewal risks seeing too many donning orange prison garb to maintain unity.

The dynamics of his dithering were brought into sharp focus during the last round of evidence the president gave to the State Capture Commission. The suitability of Mabuza (and Zuma) henchman David Mahlobo for a Cabinet position was under scrutiny:

President Ramaphosa: I am waiting for the Commission’s report in this regard to be able to make my judgment. [12 August 2021 — Day 428, Page 58 of 183]

Adv Pretorius SC: Well, sadly we will come back to that because it is a central part of your explanation for the events and your own relation to those events over the past 10 years.

Chairperson: Well, let me add this, Mr President, I think it is almost certain that when this Commission has completed its work and handed its report over to you and the report has become public, as I take it, it will be at some stage that there will be review proceedings and I would not be surprised if even before it finishes its work papers are being drawn to take some of the findings that it will make on review. 

At that stage people might say but, Mr President, you cannot do anything, you must wait until the outcome of the review process, so will you wait for that as well?

— DM

Despite the directness of the admonition from the learned chairperson of the commission, the president continues to insist on dithering, even in his reply, which is best summarised as a “Yes” to the last question put to him in the quote from the official transcript of his evidence set out above. This is not the stuff of which decisive leadership (in a time of national crisis around electricity and water supplies, joblessness, Covid-19, crime, poverty and inequality) is made.

A slower-burning issue is the need for the reform of the criminal justice administration to enable it better to deal with the rampant serious corruption blighting the future of the economy and indeed the state itself.

On 4 August 2020, the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ANC let it be known publicly that it had issued an urgent instruction to the national Cabinet to establish an independent, permanent and stand-alone entity to deal with corruption without fear, favour or prejudice.

There is absolutely no evidence in the public domain that the president and his Cabinet have paid the slightest attention to the instruction given by the NEC, despite its obviously urgent nature.

The ditherer-in-chief instead made a nonsensical announcement during his State of the Nation Address (Sona) of February 2021. Here is what the president said:

“We will shortly be appointing the members of the National Anti-Corruption Advisory Council, which is a multi-sectoral body that will oversee the initial implementation of the strategy and the establishment of an independent statutory anti-corruption body that reports to Parliament.”

The envisaged advisory council, if it is ever appointed, will be no more than a vehicle for further dithering. No announcement in relation to appointing its members has followed. There is no proper advice such a council could give other than that the courts have already, in binding terms, set out in the Glenister cases what the criteria are for the anti-corruption entity that is required both in terms of the Constitution and in terms of the international treaty obligations of the state. Implementing the court findings fully and effectively are all that remains to be done. For obvious reasons, these steps were not taken on Jacob Zuma’s watch.

by Paul Hoffman SC is a director of Accountability Now in South Africa. – DM