Times SELECT 10 July 2019

Who or what is the “Cyril Ramaphosa faction”?

Many people refer colloquially to “Cyril’s faction” without knowing who exactly they are talking about.

Logically, this ought to be a group of ANC leaders with significant constituencies in the party and the alliance who form the circle of power around the president.

They should be part of a power bloc in the ANC national executive committee (NEC) who dominate discussions and have formidable influence in provinces.

They should be Ramaphosa’s eyes and ears on the ground, and his wall of defence within the ANC and outside.

As leader of the party, Ramaphosa should be the dominant force with his supporters prevailing from branch to national level.

The reality, however, is that no such power bloc exists. It is difficult to identify the president’s surrogates – other than those who backed his campaign for the presidency in 2017.

Even then, those who were at the forefront of the “CR17” campaign ahead of the ANC’s 54th national conference at Nasrec cannot explain what the president’s thinking is now and where he is heading. They cannot say who has his ear and who helps to inform his agenda.

As president, Ramaphosa obviously enjoys the support of the vast majority of the membership of the party. But he does not appear to have a solid base, and certainly not a circle of political heavyweights and surrogates who represent him in structures across the country.

The president’s traditional constituency was in Cosatu, stemming from his roots in the trade union movement. But if the tide shifts again in the ANC, as it is bound to, it is not clear who will stand by Ramaphosa and shield him from attack.

The May election results reflected that Ramaphosa is popular across the country, even outside the ANC membership. But the president’s popularity outside the ANC will not help him when the chips are down.

Next winter, the ANC is set for a major showdown at the midterm national general council (NGC). It will matter greatly then who his supporters are and whether his “faction” – whoever that might be – can carry the day. 

There is anticipation in some sections of the party about the NGC as they see it as a gathering where power will swing and fortunes will change.

Since the Nasrec conference, when Ramaphosa won the presidency by 179 votes, his opponents pegged the NGC as the platform to reclaim power.

It seems rather ambitious to aim to dislodge Ramaphosa before he has even served out one term.

But the stakes are high, and the opposing faction knows that in order to regain dominance, they need to mount the fight back now.

Several high-ranking people in this faction are implicated in corruption and could face arrest. In addition, the faction that was in the pound seats while Jacob Zuma was president has been displaced, endangering the patronage networks that sustained them. Without power, their access to resources remains constrained.

So for those who have aligned themselves to ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, Zuma’s successor as the figurehead of the anti-Ramaphosa faction, it is necessary to mobilise immediately.

The NGC is not an elective conference so unless the president steps down voluntarily or is incapacitated, he cannot be removed from his position.

The ANC constitution states that the NGC has “the right to ratify, alter or rescind any decision taken by any of the constituent bodies, units or officials of the ANC, except the national conference, including the evaluation of the performance of members of the NEC”.

Decisions taken at Nasrec therefore cannot be altered or rescinded, including the outcome of the elections.

However, Ramaphosa’s opponents are seeking to put him under pressure through an evaluation of his performance and implementation of resolutions taken at the last conference.

This has never happened previously, even though one of the biggest failures of the ANC government is implementation of policies and programmes.

But Ramaphosa is easier to target than previous ANC presidents.

Until 2007, there was no contestation for the ANC presidency.

After the Polokwane conference in 2007, the losing faction broke away from the ANC to form the Congress of the People. Zuma therefore did not face major pressure within the ANC for the duration of his term as the party leader.  

The situation is quite different now.

Not only is the losing faction still present in the ANC, it has mounted a formidable fight back campaign. Its base is the ANC headquarters.

Through the office of the secretary general, the faction has the ability to influence sentiment and activities in every ANC structure.

Ramaphosa’s strength should be his programme of action in government. But from the agenda he set out in the state of the nation address, it is not clear whether the president will have anything to show in year in terms of tangible progress and results.

Two figureheads of the Ramaphosa presidency are his finance minister Tito Mboweni and public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan. Both are under enormous pressure – in Mboweni’s case some of this is self-inflicted through his Twitter timeline – from the Magashule faction and from the EFF.

Mboweni has earned further wrath from the ANC in Gauteng over his backing for e-tolls.

It is quite revealing that neither Mboweni nor Gordhan seem to have any tangible backing from the ANC in their battles. There is no visible support for Mboweni’s mission to stop wanton spending by government or Gordhan’s clean up of state-owned enterprises. He is also on his own in his struggles with public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane.

This is reflective of the weaknesses of Ramaphosa’s “faction” and the failure to join the dots between the onslaught on his key ministers and the coming attack on the president.

In a year, the offensive against Ramaphosa’s chief lieutenants will have mutated into a full-blown assault on the president.

The president needs to see through the façade of “party unity” and pay attention to building a strong support base to face down the fight back.

Next winter will be severe and he cannot face it alone.

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