My baseline scenario is that President Cyril Ramaphosa is the frontrunner in the presidential race of the ANC. He may, therefore, be re-elected its president for a second term.
But, as matters stand and given the Farmgate scandal, my baseline scenario seems to be in tatters. The proverbial Fat Lady is still clearing her throat and only a fool can make firm predictions about who will be elected president of the ruling party at its national conference in December. At the moment, Ramaphosa seems to be inexorably hurtling towards an ignominious end to his political career. We must be open to the possibility that he will not finish his first presidential term.
An article in Business Day this month gave an ominous view of the Fitch ratings agency regarding prospects for the president. According to the article, “Fitch has warned of the risk that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s economic reform agenda could be derailed by the Farmgate allegations and the damage these could do to his authority and electoral prospects. Fitch, which in December upgraded its outlook on SA’s rating from negative to stable and reaffirmed this on July 7, said its core view was that Ramaphosa would retain the ANC presidency at December’s elective conference.”
At face value, this article constitutes a warning by the ratings agency that the South African economy is heading towards even stormier waters. In my view, a deeper reading of the article reveals something else: Fitch is concerned that Farmgate may compromise the capacity of the president to implement his economic reform agenda. Obviously, the president is not the primary concern of the ratings agency. Its primary concern relates to the possibility that SA’s economic woes are likely to worsen and may do so precisely because of the scandal.
In attempting to decode the hidden message in the statement by Fitch, it is not unreasonable to surmise that a view is developing within the markets in general that Ramaphosa must step down.
Two forces will determine whether Ramaphosa steps down as president of the republic. First, the balance of forces and support within the ruling party; second, the threat assessment of global and domestic capital.
With regard to the ANC, we must bear in mind that those who defend the president primarily do so in defence of their own interests and not because they want to prioritise the interests of the president. As these interests are aligned, they will continue to support him. The moment they realise Ramaphosa may cost them their jobs or even their careers, they will abandon him. If Ramaphosa’s image crisis worsens and the antipathy towards him among South African citizens deepens, the number of ANC leaders and members who are worried about how his image crisis may exponentially damage the ruling party’s electoral prospects in 2024 will grow.
What should matter to him is the damage his image crisis is causing to his party and the country
In this scenario, the majority of ANC leaders may want Ramaphosa to step down as president to obviate another scenario — in which Ramaphosa’s image crisis worsens at the expense of the ruling party and, as a result, the ANC falls below 50% in the 2024 general election. The majority of ANC leaders and members will foreground their personal interests.
We must not forget that, a few days before the 2019 general election, The Economist appealed to South African voters to give Ramaphosa a chance and vote ANC. By no stretch of the imagination can it be said that The Economist is an ideological ally of the ANC. The Economist must have recognised that the interests of global and domestic capital would be better served if the electorate gave the ANC a fresh mandate in 2019.
Again, it is not unreasonable to surmise that The Economist, then, wrote in defence of the interests of global and domestic capital and that the Fitch ratings agency, today, is speaking in defence of the same interests. My assumption, therefore, is that the sentiment is growing within the markets as well as global and domestic capital that Ramaphosa must step down since the alternative presents a danger to those whose economic interests are the dominant reality in this country.
In my view, the ANC as well as domestic and global capital would be justified to act in their interests if they were to ask Ramaphosa to vacate the Union Buildings. I do not see how Ramaphosa can survive the scandal. I need to be persuaded that he can finish his first term. While I am open to the possibility he will not remain head of state for long, I am, however, persuaded that he may survive beyond the December national conference. I suspect, though, that his survival will not be a function of variables within his control. If I am right about the political instincts of ANC leaders and members, as well as the economic instincts of global and domestic capital, I am possibly right in thinking that discussions about an exit plan for Ramaphosa have begun.
If I were part of these discussions this is what I would say: revolutionary discipline, which is not always consistent with revolutionary morality, dictates that in the narrow context of the ANC’s principle of democratic centralism, Ramaphosa must put his party, the ANC, first. But it is not for this reason that Ramaphosa must resign as president of the republic. He must do so because of what revolutionary morality demands of him.
Revolutionary morality dictates that Ramaphosa must subordinate his interests to that which is good for the people. For the people to truly govern, those who are put in leadership positions must be governed by political instincts, choices and decisions that seek to promote the interests of the people as something that is of higher value than state and national security. This calls for the same spirit of selflessness which impelled Ramaphosa to join the liberation struggle. Revolutionary morality calls on Ramaphosa to sacrifice himself for the sake of the ANC and the country even if, in narrow legal terms, he is deemed innocent. What should matter to him is the damage his image crisis is causing to his party and the country.
He must, therefore, subject himself to an exit plan. First, he must announce that he is not available for election in December to give the ANC a chance to look for another presidential candidate. After the national conference, he must announce a date on which he will depart as president of the Republic so that this presidential candidate —a man or woman who will enhance the party’s electoral fortunes and save it from the ignominy of falling below 50% in the 2024 general election — can be put forward.
But history teaches us that leaders who find themselves in Ramaphosa’s position will do everything in their power to stay in power. Ramaphosa must be careful not to find himself in a position where the means by which he tries to retain power becomes the means by which his political demise is delivered.