President Cyril Ramaphosa appeared before the Zondo Commission of inquiry into corruption in South Africa on Wednesday, and it comes at a delicate time. A great deal hinges on it.
When a sitting President appears before a Judicial Commission of Inquiry it is always a significant moment.
Sometimes a Commission will be concerned with a failure or with misconduct that has taken place under the particular head of government’s own watch. But other times, it may be that it is the mistakes of a previous administration or President that are under scrutiny.
Ramaphosa’s case is unusual as it is neither one nor the other. The Commission’s terms of reference are focused clearly on events that took place while Ramaphosa’s immediate predecessor, Jacob Zuma, was President, between 2009 and 2018. Ramaphosa was elected president in February 2018.
But, from 2012 until his election at the party’s five-yearly national elective conference in December 2017, he was deputy president of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). And from 2014, Ramaphosa served as deputy president in government, appointed by Zuma.
And therein lies the particular rub of his evidence.
Major contrast between Ramaphosa and Zuma
A substantial volume of evidence has been adduced against Zuma. These include allegations of abuse of power and constitutional duty. The allegations are summarised over 15 pages in the Zondo Commission’s heads of argument in related constitutional court proceedings.
It is Zuma who must answer to these grave allegations, not Ramaphosa.
The juxtaposition with Zuma is coincidently well-timed for Ramaphosa. In contrast to the slippery Zuma, Ramaphosa has consistently made it clear that he will readily appear in front of the Commission. His original affidavit was sworn and delivered in mid-2019.
Ramaphosa will be eager to communicate his position that no-one should be above scrutiny and that all parts of society, from government to the private sector, and including the ANC, should be examined by Zondo for their role in permitting or enabling the state to be captured.
So unless he departs drastically from character, or unravels under the pressure of the moment or from cross examination, Ramaphosa will come across as a measured, decent and reasonable. And in the light of his strenuous efforts to rebuild state institutions decimated from the Zuma years, an ethical reformer who has steadfastly held his finger on the reset button in both government and the ANC since securing power three years ago.
In short, as a constructive, helpful, open and credible witness – in sharp contrast to many other witnesses from the Zuma era of government.
As if he was limbering up to play this role, at Freedom Day events this week Ramaphosa spoke bluntly about the failures of the ANC and of government, inviting citizens to vote out councillors who steal money or fail to deliver services.
Again, the contrast with Zuma – who on more than one occasion said that the “ANC will rule until Jesus comes” – is striking.
Clearly, Ramaphosa is now sufficiently confident of the strength of his position within the ANC to speak over the heads of his troubled and divided organisation to the broader electorate.
Tricky job for counsel
Ramaphosa will appear as president of the ANC. He will then return to the commission wearing his other presidential hat, as head of government.
Such has been the electoral dominance of the ANC, winning all six national elections since 1994 with never less than 57% of the popular vote, that it’s internal political machinations have a huge impact on government. When one individual controls both centres of power, they wield vast power.
Cadre deployment, the ANC policy of appointing party loyalists to key state positions, is likely to be an important topic. Ramaphosa was chair of the ANC’s deployment sub-committee during a critical period of the Zuma administration.
How and why did certain people get appointed to government? Or, on the other hand, how and why did the ANC leadership apparently lose so much control that according to some witnesses, nefarious outsiders – in particular the family at the centre of the allegations of corruption, the Guptas – were driving cabinet reshuffles?
And, relatedly, to what extent did the ANC’s top brass – of which Ramaphosa was a part from 2012 onwards – know about the levels of corruption? And what did they – and Ramaphosa specifically – do to stop it?
Next month, when Ramaphosa returns to the Commission, it may get even trickier. Zuma was president. But Ramaphosa was at the cabinet table when at least some of the most dubious and problematic decisions were taken. Moreover, he was head of the “war room” set up to try and stabilise the state power utility Eskom, one of the main centres of corruption.
This is the downside risk for Ramaphosa. That there is no satisfactory or credible answer to such questions, other than ones that either make him look weak and unprincipled, or hapless and ineffective.
How much did Ramaphosa know?
All legal proceedings have inherent uncertainties and unpredictability, although Ramaphosa’s risk is less one of legal liability and far more one of political discomfiture and, perhaps, accountability.
How much did Ramaphosa know and what did he do about it?
Sometimes the best questions in cross examination are the simplest. And it is important that Ramaphosa’s evidence is sufficiently robustly tested. It must ensure that no-one can credibly say Ramaphosa has been given an easy ride.
In this sense, the credibility of the Zondo Commission is as much in the spotlight as Ramaphosa.
The truth is that Ramaphosa, with a few other thick-skinned souls -– chief among them the current minister of public enterprises Pravin Gordhan -– made a strategic choice. They decided to stick it out as long as they could, doing everything possible to limit the damage. They did this recognising that if they resigned on principle it would give Zuma even greater freedom to asset strip the democratic state.
In Ramaphosa’s case, his decision was clearly to play the long game. By staying as deputy president he was in pole position to succeed Zuma in 2017 and launch the difficult process of organisational renewal and institutional rebuilding.
But this is probably not an approach that be easily sold or spun. Nor can he dodge responsibility behind the veil of ‘collectivism’, in the case of the ANC, or demarcated portfolio authority in cabinet.
Awkward moment, or opportunity?
Ramaphosa’s best bet is probably to ‘own it’. This would mean presenting himself as South Africa’s version of Franklin D. Rooseveldt, America’s reform-minded president of the 1930s – a level-headed man fit for a time of great national crisis and speaking over and above the ANC to a society lamenting a lost sense of decency in public life.
In this vein, Ramaphosa has an opportunity to turn a delicate and potentially awkward moment into an opportunity. There are potential rewards as well as risks for South Africa’s president.
Rather than duck, dive or divert, Ramaphosa can choose to err on the side of candour and openness, and use the power of presence and the force of example to deliver a compelling narrative about political reform and ethical renewal that may one day come to be recognised as a defining moment in his leadership and a moment of hope for a beleaguered nation.
Richard Calland, Associate Professor in Public Law, University of Cape Town