With just two televised speeches earlier in 2020, on March 15 and April 21, President Cyril Ramaphosa flew into the stratosphere of public approval. This rarefied plane has been occupied by few politicians, and none of his competitors or predecessors apart from Nelson Mandela.

Ramaphosa was in control of a national emergency; decisive steps were unveiled and he offered reassurance and steely resolve. A panicked and fearful citizenry united across the normal dividing lines of race and class in their approval for “The Man in the Arena”, as he dubbed himself in 2019, with acknowledgment to Theodore Roosevelt.

For those who were sceptical, Ramaphosa offered an explicit assurance four months ago. He said: “We are deeply disturbed by reports of unscrupulous people abusing the distribution of food and other assistance for corrupt ends. We will not hesitate to ensure that those involved in such activities face the full might of the law.”

By August 23 it was apparent that his writ did not run that wide or deep, and his approval ratings fell closer to earth. Instead of another televised address, he chose to write a letter, not to the country but to his party, though in the ANC they are often one and the same.

Ramaphosa bewailed the fact that leading ANC lights, and even his own office leaders and those connected to state power (though no names were mentioned), were accused or implicated in corruption of public processes related to coronavirus relief and equipment. Clearly “the full might of the law” had not been unfurled or had simply been broken. This time, he reminded his party, “The ANC may not stand alone in the dock, but it is does stand as Accused No 1.”

At critical moments in a country or party’s life, unity should cede to other imperatives
Even the most churlish would award Ramaphosa an “A” for candour and reading the tides of public outrage, if for no other reason than that the anger could beach his party at the 2021 polls. But on effectively remedying the problem beyond exhorting a laundry list of party-mandated moves, each of which has failed to interdict this scourge in the past, he deserves a provisional “F” — pending whether for once in his political life deeds follow words.

Ramaphosa has been branded by some in the commentariat a prevaricating and indecisive vacillator, and he confirmed this impression by offering an acknowledgment recently that he would prefer the weak label to leading the disunity and potential disintegration of the ANC.

I have some sympathy, based on my own lesser political leadership experience, for the need for party unity and the core job of the party leader to champion it, unless of course you wish to preside over a narrow sect of true believers. But at critical moments in a country or party’s life, unity should cede to other imperatives. Saving your country and its prospects should feature high on this list.

In this regard, Ramaphosa is not a modern-day Sir De Villiers Graaff, whose decency was coupled with long bouts of equivocation and indecision, always premised on holding the party together, which eventually wrecked the once governing United Party. He more resembles the protagonist in Joseph Heller’s modern fictional classic Catch-22. Captain John Yossarian exemplified the conundrum of the catch: escape is improbable if not impossible because of the contradictions inherent in the situation.

Criminal accused

How, for example, does a party in which the corrupt and even criminally accused are embedded, self-correct? How does it do so without splitting, against which the party leader has already set his face? Yet a united ANC makes purging the party impossible for president of both party and country, and he sees his task and roles in that order of ranking.

The Catch 22 of the immediate situation was exemplified in a parody last week, of which even as imaginative a writer as Heller would have had difficulty conceiving. On Wednesday, the ANC high command in KwaZulu-Natal enthroned criminal accused Zandile Gumede as an “honourable member” of the provincial parliament. On the small matter of corrupting and defrauding a R430m tender of the city council of eThekwini — her previous area of leadership — she was happily out on bail and so could attend her swearing-in ceremony.

Four days later, Ramaphosa bewailed the corruption pandemic that has placed his party in the criminal dock as “Accused No 1”. Of course, corruption might be soul and country destroying, but other highly corrupt countries have managed to navigate economic revival despite its scourge. China is a key example — it embarked on the hard path of economic reform decades ago and has maintained its uneasy mix of “market Leninism” with deeply authoritarian characteristics.

From the outset of his presidency, Ramaphosa offered “new dawn” reforms that have seldom moved from rhetoric to reality, and the economy, currency and growth rate have cratered, largely due to the inaction. But again it is a Catch 22: no reform without splitting the ANC and yet a unified ANC makes reform impossible. Ask finance minister Tito Mboweni.

The much-vaunted unity of the ANC, to the extent it actually exists beyond a mutual survival and enrichment pact for its leading lights, is unlikely to survive the likeliest outcome of continuing down the debt death spiral into a full-blown debt crisis, in which the country can no longer pay the interest and principal on its enormous debt (the interest costs are already gobbling up a fifth of the budget). This would necessitate going cap in hand to the IMF, not for the sweetheart low-interest loan we have already received via a rapid financing instrument (RFI), which required few concessions from the finance ministry other than lofty promises of reform.

The next step was first called by RW Johnson in his 2015 book, How Long Will SA Survive? — the Looming Crisis: a standby arrangement or structural adjustment programme, in which the dread Wizards of Washington (in ANC demonology) would impose the hard reforms the government has refused to countenance, from stripping the public sector to enforced privatisations. Johnson was dismissed by some at the time as an apocalyptic scaremonger. Now, across the board even the most politically correct economists see this as a likely outcome, the only question being one of timing.

But back to the Catch 22, since for the ANC conceding on the myth of “surrendering our sovereignty” would indeed presage the feared party split. Thus, as Claire Bisseker noted in a magisterial article in the Financial Mail, the alternative is a lurch further left into the territory of fantasy economics favoured by many in the party anyway: ‘‘quixotic policies that run down the domestic savings base, or adopt coercive levels of taxation, or force the Reserve Bank to print money to bail out the government”.

Given these lousy choices and intractable dilemmas, the only bold option open to Ramaphosa — against his grain, perhaps — is to go for broke on the corruption and economy fronts. He should be careful though. The most famous axiom from Catch-22 reads: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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