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A long road ahead for South African President Cyril Ramaphosa

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File picture: Jairus Mmutle/GCIS – President Cyril Ramaphosa has become a heroic figure, lauded for his willingness to fight corruption. But recently, he has become a victim of political persecution, says the writer.

By Professor Sethulego Matabesi

We are a few days away from the 55th national elective conference of the ANC. It is going to be a long, thorny road. However, the few days will feel like months for South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who received the most branch nominations to lead the ANC for a second term.

At the heart of the long days – or should I say sleepness nights – for Ramaphosa is the damning section 89 parliamentary report on the Phala Phala farm scandal. The scandal relates to the failure of Ramaphosa to report the 2020 crime involving foreign currency at his Limpopo farm to the relevant authorities. As a result, the independent panel found that the president might have violated his oath of office. This is quite a serious finding that can lead to the impeachment of Ramaphosa.

However, it should have come as no surprise that the decision the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) took would be to give its full support to Ramaphosa and instruct its members in parliament to vote against the parliamentary report or impeachment proceedings.

This was not the first and not the last time the ANC decided to protect its leaders. The party has not been remarkably sophisticated about such matters, hence the ease of predicting the outcomes of the meetings of its national structures about scandals relating to its leaders. In what should be public knowledge is that the views of the dominant faction often prevail. The role of factional dominance as a gatekeeper for support has given rise to an increasing leadership cult phenomenon within the ANC.

My sociological imagination tells me there is nothing wrong with this phenomenon as long as the leader is celebrated for being exemplary and a symbol that informs how we perceive morality.

Ramaphosa, who has spearheaded the renewal and rebuilding plan of the ANC, has become a heroic figure, lauded for his willingness to fight corruption. But recently, he has become a victim of political persecution by some of his own party members and slandered by opposition parties for the Phala Phala scandal.

What lies ahead for Ramaphosa?

From being convinced against resigning by his allies, receiving the support of the ANC NEC, and taking the parliamentary report on Phala Phala on legal review, a two-pronged approach will unfold for Ramaphosa: legally and politically.

Regarding the legal process, the timing of the delivery of the Constitutional Court judgement is crucial. Still, it can also be more damning than the very report Ramaphosa aims to have set aside. In that case, it will be hard for Ramaphosa to stay on as president of the ANC and the country.

If anything, the political proceedings present an interesting scenario. Parliament has agreed to postpone the debate on the section 89 panel report on the Phala Phala saga to Tuesday next week. And since parliamentary members are to vote in person and the Speaker of the National Assembly declined the African Transformation Movement’s (ATM) request for a secret ballot, the results will favour the ANC.

All things considered, it simply does not follow that Ramaphosa will receive a warm welcome from all delegates at the national elective conference of the ANC. We already have a precursor of what to expect at this conference after warring factions displayed either their support or disdain for Ramaphosa.

But can we blame the ANC for their decision to vote against the section 89 panel report on Phala Phala?

The mere fact that Ramaphosa has a case to answer does not imply that the ANC took the wrong decision to hold its president accountable. Nevertheless, there are some important lessons here. There are double standards in politics.

First, people generally tend to regard a single process (the section 89 panel investigation) as conclusive of an entire process (the impeachment process initiated by ATM). The reality is that the ANC is often blamed for using its numerical supremacy to push through decisions in parliament. I wonder how many ANC leaders implicated in the State Capture Inquiry’s report should have resigned by now? It will also be equally evident to Ramaphosa and his backers that using the ANC’s majority to shield him from impeachment cannot be sustained indefinitely in the face of further damning reports by other state and independent authorities investigating the Phala Phala farm robbery.

Secondly, as the ANC is no worse now than they have always been with some of its leaders, morality and ethics should become a conditionality for party leaders going forward.

It is up to ANC members to realise that the future of the organisation does not depend on leaders who decide when to be silent – as was the case during the Jacob Zuma era – or vocal when it suits them, but ethical, political leadership that can restore public trust in the party. Meanwhile, it only time that will tell how many thorns Ramaphosa will have to deal with.

Matebesi is the head of the Department of Sociology and an Associate Professor at the University of the Free State.