Like every other ‘Cyrilist’, Peter Bruce is in denial - Businesslive

18 December 2018 - It is possible that Bruce empathises so passionately with the glorified that when he looks at Cyril he sees himself, the Cyrilist. And yet the Cyrilist really is under duress, for to change tack now after a year of appeasement would alienate the Cyrilist’s fickle fan base.

Gabriel Crouse

Business Day columnist and former editor Peter Bruce claims to have voted for the DA repeatedly and now, in his Business Day column (Divided DA should tell voters what its policies are to avoid losing ground in elections, December 13), threatens to withdraw support unless the DA votes with the president to amend the Bill of Rights. The DA might thank him if they consider the effect he has on his chosen “allies”.

Bruce enjoyed a high profile last year as the foremost champion of Jacques Pauw’s book, The President’s Keepers, and it is in this context that I came across him first.

Pauw’s book was sadly mis-sold. It’s power lay not so much in revelation as in compiling a bigger picture than any newspaper exposé previously allowed. Emerging from that picture were two almost oxymoronic facts. First, almost every clutch of baddies and every redoubt of goodies were multi-racial. The rainbow cut right across the world of organised crime. Second, in Pauw’s words, the “first row” of the keepers scapegoated “white monopoly capital” while talking up “radical economic transformation” in order to shield the corrupt.

From the moment that Bulelani Ngcuka was falsely branded “impimpi” by Zuma allies and the “100% zulu-boy” toyi-toyi parades outside the pre-presidential court sessions to “first row” keeper Tom Moyane’s evisceration of Sars, corruption and racial politics fit as a key does to a lock. Pauw showed that the race card was the president’s only ideological keeper and, sure enough, when president Zuma was cornered he gave up the card for a deck. Desperate at last, Zuma begged his party to punish whiteness by expropriating boer-farms without compensation and Ramaphosa’s succession came at the cost of heeding this political death rattle.

As Pauw’s foremost cheerleader, I lay some blame at Bruce’s door for the fact that the connection spelt out between corruption and race-baiting was lost to mainstream media channels, in which Bruce ranks tops. If Bruce mentioned it in passing then perhaps he will be so kind as to say it again. Zuma kept himself safe with the race card and Ramaphosa opened his presidency by effectively declaring people with European ancestors the enemy of “our people”. Ramaphosa then let MP Mosiuoa Lekota get schooled by EFF leader Julius Malema who said on behalf of the president that “our people” are “blacks in general and Africans in particular”.

The Cyrilist would have you ignore the “boiling frogs” bit; the “original sin” recitations; the “no farm killings” denial. The president has no choice over what he says or said.

The ‘boiling frogs’ bit

The closest Bruce comes to admitting the profound and distressing continuity between Ramaphosa and his predecessor is this: “His presidency depends on him following the resolutions of the party conference that elected him ANC leader.” Bruce christened himself a “Cyrilist” and the quintessential Cyrilist line is that deep down the president is powerless. “He has no choice.”

The Cyrilist would have you ignore the “boiling frogs” bit; the “original sin” recitations; the “no farm killings” denial. The president has no choice over what he says or said. The Cyrilist admires Ramaphosa for his ability to appease race nationalists, but cannot admit it. Admittedly, Bruce thought “no farm killings” was too much, so he wrote that English is Ramaphosa’s “second language”. All parties should remember how degrading a Bruce compliment can be as he fawns after Ramaphosa as both powerless and the “least worst” man for the job.

The truly galling thing about Bruce, and almost every other Ramaphosa cheerleader, is that they cannot recognise our president’s greatest strength. He is the most popular politician in the country. The asset is invaluable, a product of personal talent, tenacity and good fortune. As a result, Ramaphosa is clothed in immense power.

I make this claim on the basis of eNCA’s political poll at the end of last year, which had Ramaphosa beating Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma handily among ANC voters, and beating her by more than 30% among the poor, the unemployed and those who lack a matric. Across the country, across race and age groups, Ramaphosa was far away the most popular candidate of any party before he got talking about “original sin”.

More recent Institute of Race Relations (IRR) polls show that Ramaphosa has positive favourability among 57% of all voters and more than 70% of ANC voters — and more among those most likely to vote. The DA’s Mmusi Maimane, in contrast, has net negative favourability overall, and positive favourability among only 64% of the much smaller pool of DA voters. Malema is even less popular overall, with nearly twice as many voters taking a negative attitude towards him compared to those who feel positive, though he holds a tight grip over his own sectional party where he is extremely popular.

Ramaphosa’s persistent popularity

Cyril Ramaphosa remained constantly the country’s only majority-popular politician between last December and this one, though in that time something major did change. Ramaphosa became president of both the ANC and the country, institutionalising his power. While Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma were engaged in a party race (with credible polls practically unavailable), it remained possible for the popular candidate to lose on the pretence of not campaigning as well as his opponent among delegates. After the dust settled on Ramaphosa’s victory, in stifled court appeals that logic settled beneath it.

For Ramaphosa to be ousted now would be impossible without pretext. And what kind of pretext would it take? There were ANC cadres desperately machinating to oust an unpopular Zuma on the pretext that the president was demonstrably corrupt; had been censured by the Constitutional Court; and was subject to nationwide #ZumaMustFall rallies. Even then it took until the next five-year scheduled national session (which we will not have for another four years) — and it almost did not work. The ANC is not a party that disposes of its leaders easily.

Yet Bruce would have you believe that Ramaphosa sings “original sin” while Bathabile Dlamini holds a gun to the back of his head giving him “no choice”. Like every other Cyrilist, Bruce is in denial about the fact that the ANC has only one sure way to lose the 2019 election: withdrawing the nation’s darling, Cyril. The ANC could turn off every power generator in the country for a month and not do as badly as they would without him. Ousting Ramaphosa is political suicide for the ANC. But Bruce thinks the ANC is at once smart enough to find the trigger at this late stage, and stupid enough to pull it.

The duplicity of polls

Once the views of people, who lack Bruce’s loudspeaker, are taken into account, the Cyrilists have only three ways to maintain the claim that Ramaphosa is under duress. The first is that “land hunger” is so pervasive it will sway the majority of South Africans against Ramaphosa if he turns his back on no-compensation land reform. You could only think that if you ignored the polls on land.

So second, ignore the polls completely and mumble something about Brexit and Trump discrediting survey science, but every major poll said Brexit would be close and it was 49% to 51%. The FiveThirtyEight online poll master had Trump with a one in three chance to win. Polls weren’t discredited by those elections; precisely those loudmouths who ignored the survey science were discredited by anyone careful enough to notice.

The third way out is to say none of this matters, Bruce just wants the DA to vote for making explicit what is already implicit in the Bill of Rights. Bruce backs this up by saying the “US constitution’s been amended 27 times”, as if that shows amendment is no big deal. A little knowledge hurts. The first 10 amendments are what actually established the US Bill of Right; not one of the subsequent ones was trivial either. If a trivial amendment to our Bill of Rights is really all there is on the cards then there is zero justification for abandoning the process and legislating in the usual way — by passing an act and leaving the Bill of Rights intact.

Under it all, the Cyrilist is short of any reason for wanting the DA to vote against the Bill of Rights, so I will venture a guess. Mcebo Dlamini is racist because he believes that black people “don’t have power”, not even black presidents, in virtue of something metaphysical to do with skin. Bruce has a different reason for seeing the most powerful man on the continent as powerless, I suppose. It is possible that Bruce empathises so passionately with the glorified that when he looks at Cyril he sees himself, the Cyrilist. And yet the Cyrilist really is under duress, for to change tack now after a year of appeasement would alienate the Cyrilist’s fickle fan base.

If the real Cyril stood up proudly for the Bill of Rights then it would stay as it is, word for word. If anyone complained about party loyalties the real Cyril could say it is well established, even by Julius, that sometimes I speak as head of the ANC, sometimes as president of the Republic, and as president I am sworn to protect. His opponents would demonstrate to all the world what it looks like to really “have no choice”, frothing in a bind of powerlessness.

The president would win the kind of landslide in 2019 that Donald Trump, Angela Merkel and Theresa May can only dream of and it would be glorious. The Cyrilists might search for a new mirror in which to indulge sheer vanity, but would you care what they found?

 Crouse is an associate at the Institute of Race Relations.