07.01.2013 | South Africa: a Zuma-Ramaphosa ‘pre-nup’?

​No one should be surprised that Jacob Zuma saw off the challenge from Kgalema Motlanthe for the ANC leadership at the party conference in Bloemfontein (Mangaung) in December. Zuma’s deficiencies in political leadership have long been balanced by natural skill at the dirty game of insider politics, stretching back to his time as an ANC intelligence operative during apartheid.

But for anyone wondering what all this means for South Africa’s trajectory as it approaches its next election in 2014, two key questions remain unanswered.

Was Zuma’s masterstroke in persuading Cyril Ramaphosa to stand as his deputy-president just a tactical short-term move to see off Motlanthe? Or was it a strategic move to smooth Ramaphosa’s succession to the presidency after Zuma wins his almost-inevitable second term in 2014?

In other words, is there a Zuma-Ramaphosa ‘pre-nup’ and, if so, what might be in it? 

One thing is for sure: Ramaphosa is not taking on the deputy’s job with the intention of being a wallflower or remaining number two. He will be itching to exert control over key policy portfolios. And given his experience in the 1990s, when he lost out to Thabo Mbeki in the battle to succeed Nelson Mandela, we should also assume that he has negotiated a bigger role during Zuma’s second presidential term in 2014 that leads him to the top job. At the very least, he will have demanded of Zuma clear assurances about his role to 2014 and his inheritance thereafter.

A pre-nup would be in Zuma’s interests. He is a populist and not a ‘detail man’, as evidenced by his many policy gaffes (in the latest excruciating example, calling pet ownership a race issue). Having Ramaphosa inside his tent could reverse his – and the ANC’s – diminishing public standing, and conveniently provides someone to share the blame if things don’t improve. Once Zuma leaves office after 2019, he will also need high-level protection from investigations into his private life, controversial family members and the money politics that has so consumed the ANC. Only a President Ramaphosa could realistically deliver that protection.

Many still see Ramaphosa as Mandela’s natural heir and the man who tackled apartheid head-on, leading the mineworkers in the 1980s and negotiating the 1994 constitution. No surprise, therefore, that Ramaphosa received more ANC delegates’ votes in December for the vice-presidency than Zuma did for the presidency. The business community – ie, the white minority – love him because he talks their language, as do foreign investors. He has youth on his side: at only 60, he is a decade younger than Zuma. And he hails from Soweto, so can transcend the elite, ethnic and left-right-union factions that have beset the ANC under Zuma, who is himself increasingly dependent on his ethnic base in KwaZulu-Natal. So it would be better for Zuma, Ramaphosa, the ANC and South Africa if Zuma were indeed thinking strategically.

Early on, Ramaphosa can quickly get to work improving public service delivery, reducing barriers to investment, and bringing more business-savvy dynamism to government. A lot will depend on whether he can work with Trevor Manuel, head of the National Planning Commission, and the other South African darling of the markets, along with the able rump in the ANC’s senior ranks. However, Ramaphosa’s biggest challenge – if he wants to really turn South Africa around – will be modernising the ANC and reshaping its relationship with the electorate, while keeping the lunatic fringe in the ANC Youth League in check. 

The ANC rank and file has grown a culture of arrogant entitlement, corruption and lofty separation from those who first elected them in 1994. The language of the party’s intellectuals still resonates more of the 1970s than the 2010s. Instilling a culture of meritocracy in the ANC and rooting out the dead wood is desperately needed, along with shifting the party’s inward focus to external accountability. Only then can public service delivery match public expectations and deliver to the poor the constitutional rights that Ramaphosa himself negotiated. Mbeki failed because he embodied the ANC’s intellectual stasis. Zuma is a product of the system and needed it to defeat Mbeki in 2007. Ramaphosa may be the only ANC figure with the authority and ability to drag the party and its partners in the Tripartite Alliance – the Communists and the trade unions – into the 21st century. He will face a fight. And he will need to pick his battles carefully.

But what if Zuma is playing a tactical game, co-opting Ramaphosa in a short-term bid to see off Motlanthe and his backers, aiming to squeeze back into office in 2014 and then ease Ramaphosa to the margins? That would be the more dangerous move and open the prospect of even greater ANC infighting and economic and political uncertainty. But it is also conceivable: Zuma is an instinctive tactician, notoriously suspicious of his colleagues. He has been sounding more like a Zulu nationalist of late, reflecting the shrinkage in his support base to his home province of KwaZulu-Natal. 

And what if Ramaphosa disappoints? It is possible that the man with the impressive ‘liberation’ credentials has fallen out of touch since devoting himself to building a business empire and making multi-millions in the late 1990s. Yes, he has been on the ANC National Executive throughout. But is he equipped to handle today’s problems, and can he marshal the available talent in the ANC into a unified, effective team? His alleged role in encouraging aggressive police action during Lonmin’s Marikana mine strike in August – in which 34 people died – suggests a preference for blunt instruments when patience and nuance may be wiser. Having a seat on the Lonmin board also tarnished his reputation as a man of the people. Realistically, Ramaphosa’s position seems secure for now unless serious new revelations emerge. But he has some credibility to regain with the trade union rank and file, and the victims of Marikana more specifically. 

So, if Zuma and Ramaphosa have indeed agreed a watertight pre-nup – and stick to it – they could grow into the ANC’s much-needed dream ticket, get to work on the urgent business of reform and hold back the Democratic Alliance in 2014. The joint ticket will at least enjoy a honeymoon period into 2013. The markets and investors love predictability, and South Africa’s poor desperately want to believe in a champion who can deliver for them. We will know soon enough if Ramaphosa is up to the job, or if Zuma will give him the political space he expects. Neither is a racing certainty. If tensions between the two start hitting the media and blogosphere by mid-year, and other ambitious ANC players start muddying the waters, South Africa’s risk indices will begin to rise and we’ll face a rocky run-in to the 2014 elections and beyond.