Calling Cyril: Is anybody home? – City Press, 11 March 2015

The state of the nation address on February 12 was the clearest indication yet of the economic and political abyss into which the current ANC is leading South Africa.

By Frans Cronjé

The state of the nation address on February 12 was the clearest indication yet of the economic and political abyss into which the current ANC is leading South Africa.

If, as heralded, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is South Africa’s great hope, the time has surely come for him to stand up, build a coalition and lead a breakaway.

Time is not on his side and, should he delay until the ANC’s 2017 electoral conference, or the 2019 national election, the economic and political damage suffered by South Africa will be immense.

Do not understate the seriousness of what transpired during the state of the nation address. Streets around the parliamentary precinct were empty amid a heavy security presence. What a comparison to events on those same streets almost 25 years ago, when cheering crowds gathered in the same fading evening light to hear Nelson Mandela speak to them from a balcony at City Hall.

Compared to those heady days, this year’s state of the nation address was a savage abuse of power. The grotesque image of President Jacob Zuma laughing at the mayhem, even as opposition MPs were being beaten by police, initially in the presence of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, reminded me of the brutal scene in Brian de Palma’s film The Untouchables in which Al Capone (Robert de Niro) beats to death a colleague at the dining room table with a baseball bat.

This time, the blows were felt by South Africa’s democracy as President Zuma and his securocrats sent a message that, like Capone, they would tolerate no dissent.

The spokesperson for Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba, Mayihlome Tshwete, summed up that attitude perfectly when he approvingly tweeted: “It is time for us to act as if we govern this country. Being nice and liberal has not worked”.

The damage to South Africa has been immense. Reuters would close its analysis of the state of the nation address with a quote about a “banana republic”.

Ahead of the speech, The Economist, presciently, devoted half a page to what is described as the “smashing” of South Africa’s democratic foundations.

While the department of trade and industry held that the mayhem would not deter investment, our experience of the past weeks has been the complete opposite.

Events at state of the nation address must not be seen in isolation, but rather as the culmination of a trend that has seen things go badly wrong for Ramaphosa since his National Development Plan was adopted by the government.

Analyses conducted by the Institute of Race Relations revealed every major subsequent policy shift by his Cabinet colleagues seemed almost calculated to undermine his plan.

The consequences can be read in the economy in indicators from the rand and the economic growth rate to government debt levels.

Most important of all is the fiscal deficit, which is now at levels that will preclude the government from fully implementing many of its policies.

Yet the ANC benches cheered as President Zuma announced that foreigners would no longer be allowed to own property in South Africa.

The humiliation that Ramaphosa must have felt – after his considerable efforts to drum up investment in South Africa – must have been intense. No wonder that an insider recently suggested to us that Ramaphosa is seen as “the circus donkey of white business” by Zuma’s inner circle.

While the economy stutters, democratic institutions face an onslaught. Virtually every independent institution is attacked when they dare to demand accountability.

The statement issued by the ANC describing the editor of this newspaper as an “opposition mouthpiece” is just one example.

Even state institutions – from the South African Revenue Service to the Public Protector and the Special Investigating Unit – are being stripped of any leader who dares to countenance investigations into official corruption, particularly that involving Zuma or people closely associated with him.

The question before which South Africa has therefore come to stand is whether Ramaphosa will allow Zuma to continue the humiliation.

Here, Ramaphosa’s trouble rests on two fronts. The first is that the damage to our economy and democracy are happening at such pace that he dare not wait until the ANC’s 2017 policy conference to make his run. Secondly, the longer he delays, the more the chatter will grow that his silence countenances our decline.

Already there are whispers. All the while, the securocrats will be fortifying their positions, making a future run ever less likely to succeed.

Ramaphosa has to break away now unless he wants to be seen as complicit – even by omission – in South Africa’s decline.

What he needs to do is assemble a coalition comprised of the better parts of the Cabinet, the many good people still in the civil service and the many ANC dissidents in business, and declare that they will not – in their names or that of their party – countenance the collapse of South Africa’s democracy.

We have a little doubt such a move will generate massive support from within the ranks of the ANC and the political opposition alike. It will draw strong support from foreign investors, business, civil society and the media.

Ramaphosa’s action, heroic as it will be portrayed, may also have the potential to do what no other politician has yet achieved – unite a majority of black and white South Africans behind a single political movement.

His breakaway may also have the effect, perhaps most critically, of isolating Zuma and the securocrats, which may see the president, always a pragmatist, turn to negotiate an exit, thereby saving our country.

Ramaphosa has little choice but to answer the call. His next move may well decide the future of our country. We are looking to him now.

» Cronje heads the Institute of Race Relations.