Goodbye To All That was the title of the 1929 autobiography of war-traumatised Robert Graves, the acclaimed writer and poet, which he described as his “bitter leave-taking of England”.
It is a useful obituary note for the presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa. Technically, like Mark Twain’s reported death, this might seem greatly exaggerated. But only in the literal and titular sense.
The swirl of events since the publication of the report of the section 89 independent panel ordered by parliament into Ramaphosa’s possible impeachment have offered the country a host of goodbyes. The first farewell is to the idea that this presidency, in apparent contrast to its predecessor, is helmed by an ethically driven, rules-compliant and unsullied leader.
The best that can be said is that Ramaphosa is not Jacob Zuma, but that hurdle is so low even my miniature dachshund could clear it. For the rest, the notion that Ramaphosa can still lead a plausible fight to clean the Augean stables of the muck of corruption is as dead as the proverbial dodo, or as live as the undelivered buffaloes still roaming, unclaimed and undelivered, on Phala Phala.
One must note that the behaviour and herd instincts of the high command of the ANC these past days, both its national working committee and its national executive committee, are strikingly reminiscent of the wall of steel the same bodies erected around Zuma to protect him from parliamentary accountability and consequences.
Another goodbye is to the notion that accountability and transparency are cardinal features of Ramaphosa’s “new dawn”. This too lies in the dust of Phala Phala. Here the review process launched this week by Ramaphosa’s legal team has been used as justification for the party (not parliamentary) decision to reject the panel report and stymie any further role for parliament in the process.
I have no doubt there are stringent legal reasons for the relief Ramaphosa seeks, and even more compelling political reasons for him to obtain a favourable judgment. But to overturn the panel report — which is what the ANC has in effect done — without awaiting the replying affidavits of the panel itself or even the speaker of parliament, another respondent, and the instigator of the panel itself, suggests that accountability is last on the list of considerations of the ANC leadership. Yet another page borrowed from the playbook of the Zuma ANC.
The lesson any (and there is apparently a waiting list) ANC grandees enmeshed in the nets of state capture need to draw from this is to launch a court application to set aside whichever tribunal or state authority implicates them in wrongdoing, and then the party, based on its recent decision on Ramaphosa, will be powerless to take further steps.
Perhaps that is why Ramaphosa’s first and best instinct was to resign from office and not subject the country and his party to a legal process, which whatever its outcome does not answer questions of substance on the provenance of the sofa-stuffed dollars, the alleged cover-up of their theft and the alleged suborning of state institutions, and allegedly a foreign government, to shield the number one citizen from accountability.
Perhaps the most baleful casualty on the accountability front has been, for at least a week the total public silence of Ramaphosa on the entire matter. He has spoken to his party comrades, he has used surrogates and spokespersons to offer a public explanation (of sorts), but on his key role of accounting to the public for the saga and the reasons for his decisions, not a word. This too goes to the heart of the matter and is not contested in any of the paragraphs of his founding affidavit to the Constitutional Court.
Since the theft of the foreign currency from his game farm on February 9 2020, neither Ramaphosa nor any government official has ever acknowledged that such a huge breach of presidential security and a crime scene on his game farm occurred. Arthur Fraser, a disreputable and discreditable whistle-blower, is the only reason, more than two years after the robbery, the public became aware of the crime and its occurrence. None of this is disputed in Ramaphosa’s affidavit, even if the motives and quality of Fraser’s evidence is precisely as Ramaphosa avers.
The only light relief offered by this sorry saga is the instant conversion of the likes of Lindiwe Sisulu into staunch constitutionalists and admirers of judges she hitherto dismissed as “house Negroes”. Now that two distinguished black jurists have used the same constitution to make adverse findings against her opponent, Ramaphosa, the instrument and those charged with adjudicating it are deemed unimpeachable sources of legitimacy and sagacity.
The second goodbye is the view that Ramaphosa is a credible leader, different in key respects from the shady characters and compromised figures who populate the top structures and lesser bodies of the ANC. That the other contenders for the leadership throne are arguably even worse than an ethically hobbled Ramaphosa, provides him, and to an extent both party and country, with comparative advantage. But nothing more than that. This is hardly the basis for any expectation that somehow Ramaphosa Mark II (after his likely re-election as ANC president) will be emboldened to take decisive action to implement reforms, cull useless and recalcitrant ministers from his cabinet and differentiate his second term from the dither and drift of Ramaphosa Mark I.
On the contrary, Ramaphosa will be so compromised by his reliance on the recalcitrant and anti-reform brigade, and so enmeshed in dodging further investigations (SA Revenue Service, SA Reserve Bank and National Prosecuting Authority) that even if his review application succeeds, much of the next few months, even years, will see presidential focus on his legal travails, not on country needs.
His word on everything going forward, from electricity to foreign investment, will be calculated with his political obligations and legal predicament in mind, and will be refracted by his audiences through the harsh prism of Phala Phala, whatever the topic.
Thus, any victory in the imminent matter at the Constitutional Court will be of the sort achieved by the eponymous win over the Romans by King Pyrrhus of Epirus, defined as “a victory that is not worth winning because so much was lost to achieve it”.
The final farewell is to the idea that our president is either a master strategist or a serious businessman. The uncontested aspects of the panel report suggest he is neither. The entire way in which game sales and cash deposits were handled on his behalf (and presumably with his concurrence) passes neither the smell test nor rules of basic corporate governance.
As for strategy, Ramaphosa is like the chess player who has to make a move but has no really good one to advance, a predicament called “zugzwang”. Any legal move will only worsen the player’s position. That is approximately where both country and president find themselves right now.
• Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs a communications company.