Daniel Silke: Ramaphosa is yet to tame his own party

It hasn’t been an auspicious start to the political year.

Kimberley and ANC108 offered the hope of a fresh approach as South Africa struggled with a further cut to its economic growth forecast and threats of increased load shedding.

Instead, a lacklustre crowd listened to a somewhat sterile address from President Cyril Ramaphosa that visibly failed to ignite any passion among the party faithful, let alone those outside of the ANC seeking an urgent reboot of economic policy and performance.

And, while the sun baked down on a sparse Tafel-Lager Stadium, the first 2020 signs of more internal angst within the ANC were swirling.

Caught up in the larger maelstrom of party and palace intrigue was Pravin Gordhan – a long time target for a variety of competing yet often complimentary political forces seeking to either find a scapegoat for unresolved issues or running scared of the internal policing of malfeasance that Gordhan promises to unleash.

For President Ramaphosa, the first working weekend of January has been tough. Once again, his repetitive and platitudinous remarks and comments have failed to show that the ANC is really ready to confront both the policy and political demons holding it and the country back.

The ANC birthday bash was always going to be an event largely aimed at celebrating the movements historical achievements. But history today is not good enough. In fact, without a current, coherent strategy, it’s all the party now has going.

But, this year was different. The current economic crisis has placed an extra burden on President Ramaphosa. He has presided over a year of further economic decline and large scale business-related depression. The birthday bash was therefore being closely watched by a variety of observes for signs of change. There was none.

It did seem as though the president simply did not wish to confront the more politically charged issues at hand. Structural reforms, public-private mixes, a bloated bureaucracy and government expenditure issues were largely ignored. Perhaps these issues were simply too controversial for a birthday bash audience. Perhaps they were just too divisive to even mention. Perhaps the ANC has become stuck in its own quicksand in dealing with them.

But ultimately, there is a journey the president has to undergo even before reforms are implemented. And Kimberley offered an opportunity to begin 2020 with some tailwinds.

As leader of the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa has to talk to his party. He has the tough and possibly unenviable job of beginning a real dialogue deep with branch and higher structures of the need to accept a different way of doing business.

Unless he can take his own party along on the ride to economic reforms, the president will largely continue to dole out Kimberley speeches with little real practical effect other than a declining economic performance.

The internal re-education of the ANC is, perhaps, the most urgent and simultaneously demanding issue at hand.

With Finance Minister Tito Mboweni tweeting on the side-lines in the wee hours his own frustration with the pace of economic reforms, it became clear that the ANC’s rank-and-file have yet to endorse structural changes – at least those mooted by the National Treasury/Mboweni plan. For these reforms to endure, they will need to filter through the ANC’s congress machinery and into more pragmatic resolution-making which hitherto still represents the past decade of increasing populism under Jacob Zuma.

Perhaps, therefore, the president is caught in a policy trap. Until such a time as the broader ANC makes policy recommendations commensurate with a modern, more social-market economic philosophy, real changes simply cannot be implemented. For any president of any country, the lead has to come internally from the party mechanisms and there is little sign as yet that these are keeping pace with the Mboweni/Ramaphosa/Gordhan axis. Indeed, the contradiction here is that the ANC leadership is ahead of its own party – by leaps and bounds.

This last weekend continued this theme. And, as those increasingly threatened with prosecutions over state-capture and corruption-related malfeasance feel the heat, attempts will be made to weaken the presidency further. Witness the resumption of a broad-based campaign to weaken Pravin Gordhan – and if successful, President Ramaphosa by association.

There are really two concurrent battles now at play. One is related to the ANC’s own economic philosophy which now seems to be seemingly entirely in disarray. The ANC’s still-socialist (perhaps even quasi-populist) flank cannot really move to the centre. Yet, it’s pragmatic centrists surely can. But those centrists represent a political threat to the populists who are now feeling the Public Protector’s heat. The ANC therefore is in a state of both economic and political extremis with ideology and factional survival all intertwined.

Expecting President Ramaphosa to cross his own personal ‘Rubicon’ on the public stage at an ANC birthday bash is therefore probably naive. But the central challenge is whether the ANC’s activists in all its party formations, can begin to tackle the complexity of economic reform. Kimberley would’ve been a start for this – even in a sentiment shift – but it was not to be. Only a confident president relaxed in his own skin can take a lead – and one does now wonder whether President Ramaphosa can muster this with all the skill and risk involved to take the giant steps needed.

Daniel Silke is a political analyst, author and keynote speaker. Views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of Fin24.

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