William Saunderson-Meyer says it was striking how the President failed to name names before Zondo
As was the case in the fantasy worlds created by Lewis Carroll, South Africans are accustomed to stepping through the looking glass into surreal wonderlands. We can with aplomb, like the White Queen, “believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast”.
But when a rotund, elderly, billionaire politician who is easily shocked, describes himself in terms more appropriate to the Hollywood rendition of a dashing resistance fighter sowing mayhem behind enemy lines, it gets to be just too much. Crossing the impossibility threshold at this level would challenge even the White Queen.
This week, President Cyril Ramaphosa explained to the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture that when confronted with the shenanigans that were rife in former president Jacob Zuma’s administration, he chose to do nothing, say nothing. It was, he explained to a visibly sceptical commission, not cowardice but a canny strategy.
He remained in the post of deputy president to “resist” the looters and “turn things around”. This meant “staying in the arena .. with all the challenges, limitations and frustrations inherent in doing so”. This was the course of action with the greatest likelihood of thwarting state capture and restoring and defending democracy, although any “resisting abuses” had to be calibrated so as “not to be confrontational”.
The course he took was better, Ramaphosa said, than any of the four alternatives. These were “to resign; to speak out; to acquiesce and abet; or to keep quiet and remain silent”.
Subsequent events have shown that Ramaphosa the Resistance Rambo wasn’t very successful at his mission. As he explains, this was because he mostly knew nothing about what was happening. In military parlance, this is known as the “fog of war”. In politics, it’s called “plausible deniability”.
The Cabinet worked “in silos”, so even though he was the second highest-ranking person in the country, he couldn’t see what was happening. Most of the time, he “knew no more than anyone else”. In fact, he said, generously relieving his doughty comrades of responsibility, “nobody had line of sight” of what exactly was going on.
This, rather ominously, is “the case even today”. “Few people, even at the best of times, have had line of sight of everything taking place in the state … particularly with respect to activities deliberately hidden from view”. Especially, one can deduce, if one’s eyes are firmly shut.
There was apparently nothing in the state or party intelligence, information and oversight apparatuses that cut through the fog of ignorance he faced. He only became aware of state capture in the same way that did every other citizen in the country — through the work of journalists, civil society organisations, and institutions such as the Public Protector and Auditor General.
Once his eyes had been opened, however, Rambophosa acted decisively and with exemplary courage. He recounted with appropriate modesty the only two “mentioned in despatches” moments that he could remember from his four-year war of resistance.
He “threatened to resign” upon the appointment of Des van Rooyen as Finance Minister in December 2015. Fortunately for our intrepid underground fighter, it turned out that he didn’t have to break cover. The currency markets let loose their own bombardment and “Weekend Special” Van Rooyen barely lasted four days.
On the second occasion, he told Zuma that he would “publicly speak out” if Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas were fired. This, indeed, he did, saying that the firing was “unacceptable”. Then, ever the pragmatist, he accepted the unacceptable.
The probing by the commission’s evidence leaders was persistent but always respectful. Nevertheless, the president often looked uncomfortable, squirming in his chair, repeatedly licking his lips, and at times looking evasive. He confided, somewhat melodramatically, in his closing address, that he had come to the commission with “trepidation” and left with “several scars” and “blood dripping below my clothes”.
But in his ability to deliver platitudes with an air of someone uttering words of great wisdom., Ramaphosa differed not much from Zuma. In his case, however, these bromides were at least in coherent sentences and we were spared the unnerving, falsetto giggles that his predecessor was prone to when under pressure.
Ramaphosa managed not to attribute any blame to any specific ANC politician or functionary, not ever. It was always “some people” doing bad things “sometimes” or “on occasion”. There were “lapses”, “errors” and “system failures”, but not a single name attached to a single person, not once.
The gist of Ramaphosa’s testimony was that the truth should not be sought from him, the president.
Instead, it remained yet to be divined through the use of his favourite governing tools: sundry “investigations”, “inquiries”, and that other ANC favourite, “the process of getting to the bottom of what happened”. Ultimately, it was the commission itself, Ramaphosa said, that would have to decide what happened and be the “washing machine” to erase the stains of misgovernance and malfeasance.
This week was Ramaphosa’s second round with the Zondo Commission. The first was as president of the African National Congress. This was as President of the Republic of South Africa.
The relative weight Ramaphosa attaches to his competing presidential personas can quickly be assessed from his Twitter entry. Who will be surprised that Ramaphosa — like every single other ANC flunky who holds posts in both party and government — lists his ANC rank above his national honour? In third place of his brags-sheet, he records his chairpersonship last year of the African Union.
So it should then be no surprise that this week’s testimony as the nation’s president carried through the leitmotif of the earlier sessions as party president. This was that state capture was a momentary aberration in the generally smooth path of ANC governance but soon all would be rectified.
As he explained at that April session, the party recognised that “some” in the ANC were “advertently and inadvertently complicit” in corruption. However, this did not mean that “the ANC is itself corrupt or uniquely affected by corruption”.
He concluded then: “We acknowledge … yes, things went horribly wrong, but we are here to correct that. We do that with humility and our heads bowed.”
This time around, Ramaphosa said that part of the ANC’s “renewal process” is ridding itself of the corrupt in its ranks. He said he believes the renewal process is “going well”.
At this point in the proceedings, there was chaos and consternation. The White Queen had dropped stone dead.
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