The Cyril Ramaphosa model

The election Monday night of Cyril Ramaphosa as president of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) – with a razor-thin 51% majority of nearly 4,800 delegates – displaced but did not resolve a fight between two bitterly-opposed factions. On the one hand are powerful elements friendly to so-called “White Monopoly Capital” (WMC), and on the other are outgoing ANC president Jacob Zuma’s allies led by Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, his ex-wife and former African Union chairperson. The latter faction includes corrupt state “tenderpreneur” syndicates, especially the notorious Gupta brothers, and is hence typically nicknamed “Zupta.” (Zuma is still scheduled to serve as the country’s president until general elections scheduled for mid-2019.)

South Africa’s currency rose rapidly in value after Ramaphosa won, for he is celebrated by big business and the mainstream media. But he has also gained endorsements – due to quirky local political alignments – from the South Africa Communist Party, ANC-aligned trade unions and most centrists and liberals who despise the Zuptas. With this base and some nominal prosecutions of corruption, Ramaphosa will likely relegitimize the fast-fading ANC in time for a 2019 electoral victory. However, given the narrowness of his win, he probably cannot engineer Zuma’s early departure as many hoped, in the way Zuma had ousted Thabo Mbeki nine months before his term was due to end in 2009.

Moreover, Ramaphosa’s much-anticipated attempt to clear Zupta muck from the corrupt stables of several parastatal organizations and government departments will fail. Too many ANC patronage systems have become cemented. And three other leaders elected at the congress are high-profile Zuptas with corruption-riddled reputations, including secretary-general Ace Magashule and his deputy Jessie Duarte, as well as ANC deputy president David Mabuza. A new slur, “Ramazupta,” may emerge as the epithet for the coming regime.

Ramaphosa was a heroic mineworker leader during the 1980s, a crafty ANC secretary general under Nelson Mandela during the early 1990s when he led negotiations on many crucial semi-democratic deals with the outgoing apartheid regime, the main drafter of the country’s liberal constitution in 1996, and then – after losing the deputy presidency job to Mbeki in 1994 – a black-empowerment billionaire thanks to joint ventures in mining, banking and food franchises McDonalds and CocaCola. He became ANC deputy president in 2012 and in government, became the national deputy to Zuma in 2014.

By the 2000s, Ramaphosa had earned a reputation for seeking profits at any cost. The worst incident was at the Lonmin platinum mines at Marikana, two hours’ drive northwest of Johannesburg. On August 15, 2012 Ramaphosa emailed a request to police – for which he weakly apologized only a few months ago – demanding “concomitant action” against “dastardly criminals,” against whom police should “act in a more pointed way.”

He was referring to 4,000 desperately underpaid miners who had been on a wildcat strike the prior week, during which six workers, two security guards and two policemen had died in skirmishes. Neither Lonmin officials nor Ramaphosa wanted to negotiate. The day after the revealing emails, as strikers peacefully departed the strike grounds for their homes in nearby shantytowns, 34 men were shot dead by police, and 78 wounded.

Ramaphosa’s role was especially unconscionable given his struggle history. In the Emmy Award-winning film Miners Shot Down (from minute 13’), director Rehad Desai reveals the class-loyalty U-turn. In 1987 in the midst of a legendary strike, Ramaphosa accused the “liberal bourgeoisie” of using “fascistic” methods. Thirty years later he had become the main local investor in Lonmin, and within five years was a “monster,” according to local activists, playing a familiar role described by the workers’ lawyer, Dali Mpofu:

At the heart of this was the toxic collusion between the SA Police Services and Lonmin at a direct level. At a much broader level it can be called a collusion between the State and capital… in the sordid history of the mining industry in this country. Part of that history included the collaboration of so-called tribal chiefs who were corrupt and were used by those oppressive governments to turn the self-sufficient black African farmers into slave labour workers. Today we have a situation where those chiefs have been replaced by so-called Black Economic Empowerment partners of these mines and carrying on that torch of collusion.

With Ramaphosa’s rise, Lonmin’s demise

As for Lonmin, its London and Johannesburg investors are now witnessing what seems to be the firm’s certain death. Born as the London and Rhodesian Mining and Land Company Limited in 1909, it languished through the 1950s but then became one of the world’s most degenerate corporations thanks to managing director Tiny Rowland’s corrupt deals across post-colonial Africa. By 1973 even British Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath labeled Lonrho “the unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism.”

One reason for its demise in a takeover last week was the backlash against the Marikana Massacre which empowered the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), a breakaway from the ANC-aligned National Union of Mineworkers, once led by Ramaphosa. Amcu became sufficiently strong to wage a five-month strike in 2014.

The Massacre also humiliated a high-profile Lonmin booster, the World Bank. Its 2007-12 poster-child treatment of so-called “Strategic Community Investment” at Marikana attracted persistent complaints from a community group, Sikhala Sonke (“We cry together”). These grassroots feminists have rebuffed several bogus Bank “dispute resolution” efforts and their stinging legal critique was deemed valid by an internal Bank ombudsman earlier this month.

Lonmin is being purchased in a fire sale by a local South African company, Sibanye. But with 38% of Lonmin’s 33,000 jobs on Sibanye’s chopping bloc, protests are threatened by Amcu’s Joseph Mathunjwa: “We are prepared to join forces with communities around Lonmin to ensure that the interests of mineworkers’ mine-affected communities are defended. We want to warn the new owners and current shareholders that we will fight and not sit quietly as our members’ future is destroyed.”

Sibanye CEO Neil Froneman warned critics to cease attacking Lonmin for repeated violations of its state-mandated Social and Labour Plan: “Communities that are unhappy, the Department of Mineral Resources that is unhappy – need to stop and allow us to complete this so that in the longer-term we can do more.”

Another Lonmin critic is the Economic Freedom Fighters party, which won a large share of the platinum belt’s vote after an ANC disciplinary committee chaired by Ramaphosa expelled its Youth League leader Julius Malema. His main crime was demanding mining nationalization, consistent with the ANC’s 1955 Freedom Charter.

The Marikana Massacre was investigated by the 2012-15 Farlam Commission set up by Zuma, but the outcome was weak and biased. Judge Ian Farlam blamed maniacal police leadership, but also recorded socio-economic failures by Ramaphosa, who not only failed to build houses with the $100 million World Bank loan. He was also implicated in a Lonmin tax avoidance scandal via his Shanduka firm’s control of the Black Empowerment partner Incwala. According to Lonmin’s lawyer, “Incwala for very many years refused to agree to the new structure” to halt a $100 million outflow to the Bermuda tax haven justified as marketing expenses. As the Paradise Papers recently revealed, Shanduka also retained Mauritius accounts for nefarious purposes and as chair of Africa’s largest cellphone operator, MTN, Ramaphosa suffered continent-wide criticism for illicit capital flight.

So under Ramaphosa’s leadership, we can expect an amping-up of the ANC’s lowest-common-denominator ideology, neoliberal-nationalism, with the worst tendencies of both the WMC and Zupta camps on display in the party’s leadership. Aside from a #FeesMustFall breakthrough when Zuma promoted free tertiary education last Saturday for obviously opportunistic reasons just as the ANC congress began, 2018 will begin with budgetary austerity and a Value Added Tax increase. Meanwhile ANC leaders will continue to talk left (so as to) walk right, with renewed preparedness for a state of emergency if socio-economic protests continue rising.

But amidst undisguised pro-Ramaphosa media bias (e.g. the popular Daily Maverick), even his corporate backers are genuinely nervous about Monday’s “poisoned chalice.” They are now realizing, “Markets got this one wrong – and were pricing in a Cyril slate victory,” failing to comprehend new dangers within the ruling party’s fusion of the WMC and Zupta factions.

Durable liberal-bourgeois concerns about the new leader are also expressed in ascerbic critiques of the “Grand Consensus“ “nothing man” by Business Day columnist Gareth van Onselen. I debated another liberal commentator, Richard Calland a few years ago, in which he was gung-ho pro-Ramaphosa for all the wrong reasons.

Neither the ANC nor Lonmin are going to exit their respective crises in the immediate future. The notion of “crisis” has always implied both destruction and opportunity. Mining tycoons and political elites have generally (except in 2015) avoided the former and are now grabbing the latter.

As for the labor, feminist, community and student activists sure to be frustrated by a Ramazupta regime, the takeaway message is the same threat internet-based satirist “Cyrilina Ramaposer” concluded with, in her haunting Makarena on Marikana: “This shit ain’t over.”

Patrick Bond

Patrick Bond teaches political economy at Wits University in Johannesburg.

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