Shortly after Cyril Ramaphosa’s narrow victory , a senior opposition MP offered a vivid metaphor wrapped in a back handed compliment to the new ANC president.

“It’s like a piece of driftwood which you grab with both hands in a stormy sea after a shipwreck”, my informant suggested.

Ten years after the Jacob Zuma tsunami had gusted through Polokwane, salvaging something from this wreckage at Nacrec was indeed a minor miracle. The next few weeks will determine whether the new skipper can right size both the sinking party and listing nation.

But given the choice between the certainty of a collapse under Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma and some hope of resurfacing under Cyril Rampahosa, only a fool would hesitate. And in the mixed results and flawed resolutions flying out of the ANC elective conference, the party proved -at least – that it is not a confederacy of dunces.

When I finished reading Jacques Pauw’s blockbuster “The President’s Keepers” before the conference,  I reached the obvious conclusion that Jacob Zuma and his allies had erected a multibillion Rand criminal enterprise at the heart of the state. I also thought that safeguarding the spoils of looting and plunder would not be surrendered without a fierce fight.

Just how stiff the fightback had been was driven home  by one of Ramaphosa’s key lieutenants who doubles as one of the most admired politicians in this country. At a pre-Christmas lunch we both attended in Cape Town, he advised, “We had the entire state and its agencies against us.” Wonder then not that Ramaphosa’s victory was so narrow, but that it was -in the teeth of such fearsome odds, achieved at all.

Much recent commentary on the path forward has focused on Ramaphosa’s pre conference speech on the economy, delivered in Soweto with a title “the new deal” borrowed, self-consciously it is suggested from Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Of course, Roosevelt, was perhaps the most successful US President in the twentieth century, and in the history books is ascribed a place in the political pantheon alongside America’s founding father George Washington.

Maybe the inspiration Ramaphosa sought, absent of a world war, was that at the height of the great depression in 1932, unemployment crested at 25% and Americans yearned for action beyond the status quo of failed policies. South Africa’s current unemployment rate is actually worse today than America’s gravest economic crisis, some 75 years ago.

The most recent book on Roosevelt “Franklin D Roosevelt: A Political Life” by Robert Dallek offers a lesser known insight which suggest some similarities or paths forward for SA’s new dealer.

While Roosevelt, one of the wealthiest occupants of the presidency, was   acclaimed as the greatest progressive politician of his generation, he also displayed what Dalek calls ‘tactical fluidity’. He projected himself in his first bid for state office in 1910 as a great reformer determined to take on the corrupt bosses who dominated the Tammany Hall politics of New York. Yet, on election to the legislature, “ he quickly demonstrated a capacity to work with both reformers and bosses, shifting back and forth between them as political imperatives dictated.”

We saw this in action directly at Nasrec, where the unreconstructed corrupt boss of Mpumalanga DD Mbuza apparently provided the key to the doors of the Union Buildings to Ramaphosa. Of course prising it open will require even greater ‘tactical fluidity’ in moving out the boss of bosses, Jacob Zuma. And our politics will be transfixed and our economy will be hostage as to how quickly or slowly this occurs.

Opposition leader Mmsui Maimane claimed that Ramaphosa’s new deal manifesto was borrowed from the Democratic Alliance. But that also demonstrates that the opposition’s long political vacation under Zuma has started to end.

One of the least noted features of Ramaphosa’s win is  quite how it changes the trajectory for the country’s opposition forces. He will not leave the government goal post undefended for the opposition to net balls into it as it did during the Zuma decade. He -a child of Soweto and urban sophisticate, will not easily let go and will be a far better defender of the Gauteng goal post in the next election than the rural and corrupt Zuma.

Of course, like our currency’s rapid post Nasrec rally, Ramaphosa might prove to be the harbinger of a false dawn for the ANC.

But while the honeymoon -long or short -lasts the opposition needs to realise that the zeitgeist has changed fundamentally.

As we must these days, the harbinger of the wind of change arrived in a social media post on Facebook just as news seeped out of Ramaphosa’s win. One of my fb friends, a well- known Johannesburg northern suburbs matron and quintessential DA supporter exulted: “Ramaphosa has won – I am weeping with joy.”

So the game has changed. Let’s see who possesses FDR’s ‘tactical fluidity’. Or to quote PW Botha’s famous line to the opposition: “Adapt or die.”


  • Leon (@TonyLeonSA), a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London
  • Featured in The Sunday Times