As President Jacob Zuma, like the Cheshire cat, vanishes steadily from public view, leaving behind (so far) only his trademark grin, his deputy is filling the vacuum.
Both domestically and internationally, Cyril Ramaphosa is becoming ever more visible as Zuma becomes ever less so. The intriguing question is whether or not this substitution process is being deliberately masterminded by Luthuli House.
The symbolism seemed too perfect to be accidental when Ramaphosa intervened in Parliament this week to broker a deal between the African National Congress (ANC) and the main opposition parties to restore some order to the chaotic proceedings.
Zuma’s refusal to fulfil his constitutional duty to take parliamentary questions was the cause of the disturbance. And so Ramaphosa was not just deputising for Zuma; he was there to sort out Zuma’s mess. Even if the deal later started to fall apart, Ramaphosa made the effort. The same could be said about his intervention, ultimately unsuccessful, to prevent the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) splitting from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).
The symbolism seemed too perfect to be accidental when Ramaphosa intervened in Parliament
‘He came out smelling like roses,’ says Ray Hartley, journalist and author of Ragged Glory, an assessment of South Africa’s first three democratically elected presidents. ‘He at least rolled up his sleeves and tried to resolve the problem, while others were playing factional politics.’
Zuma has also been noticeably absent internationally of late, while Ramaphosa has become more visible. Earlier this year, Zuma missed an important memorial service for Nelson Mandela at Westminster Abbey.
A few months later he boycotted the European Union summit in Brussels over Belgium’s refusal to give Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s wife Grace a visa to attend.
Zuma did attend the United States-Africa leaders’ summit in Washington in August even though President Barack Obama had not invited Robert Mugabe, far less his wife. It seemed that Zuma had to overlook Obama’s neo-colonial behaviour because he was persuaded of the importance of being in the United States (US) to lobby for South Africa’s continued participation in the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which has brought considerable benefits to South Africa by letting billions of rands worth of exports into the US market duty-free.
Nevertheless Zuma did miss some important events on the sidelines of the summit, raising concerns about his health. The following month he was more absent from South Africa than present in Russia, where he travelled for several days of ‘rest,’ as his office said, at an undisclosed location, before meeting President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
And then in October he pulled out at the last minute from a trip to London to address several important investment promotion events, evidently because Britain could not guarantee him a meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron.
He was not just deputising for Zuma; Ramaphosa was there to sort out Zuma’s mess
Meanwhile Ramaphosa has been busy abroad as the special envoy to South Sudan, Sri Lanka and especially Lesotho. When he got the first two of those assignments just before the elections this year, some political commentators wondered if Zuma was trying to get his deputy out of the country and off the campaign trail, to prevent him stealing his own limelight. But Hartley suggests instead that Ramaphosa himself was probably delighted to be absent from ANC election rallies, where he would have had to defend Nkandla and other Zuma follies.
If there was any doubt about his role then, those doubts have since been dispelled, he believes. Ramaphosa has been increasingly ‘looking presidential,’ as the Americans say, both at home and abroad. In Lesotho he has just pulled off a deal between the squabbling parties, which had eluded both Zuma and Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba both before and after a short-lived coup on August 30.
Some of the Lesotho parties and observers were sceptical at first, suspecting that Ramaphosa was rushing for a quick fix solution to the deep-seated political and security tensions in the country. But the deal seems to be holding, passing its first major test when Parliament, which Prime Minister Tom Thabane had shut down to avoid a vote of no confidence in his government, reopened without the opposition calling for such a vote.
Ramaphosa also defied the critics by addressing the underlying tensions between the security agencies, sidelining the warring security chiefs. Of course anything could still go wrong in volatile and unpredictable Lesotho, but Ramaphosa is staying the course, visiting the country every week or so to keep everyone’s feet to the fire.
Ramaphosa’s work in South Sudan and Sri Lanka has been less visible. In South Sudan, he is essentially representing the ANC rather than the government in what might be called ‘interparty, intraparty’ negotiations.
Ramaphosa himself was probably delighted to be absent from ANC election rallies
Interparty in the sense that the mediators are not only the ANC, but also Ethiopia’s ruling EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) and Tanzania’s ruling CCM (Chama Cha Mapinduzi) parties, rather than the governments of those countries. ‘Intraparty’ in the sense that they are trying to mediate among the factions within South Sudan’s ruling SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) party, because it is their fallout that has plunged the country into war.
These talks are secondary to the main, official talks being conducted by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) led by the Ethiopian government. Ramaphosa’s Sri Lanka mission is even vaguer, it seems, as the terrible conflict between the government and the Tamil Tigers is over and the aim is now post-conflict national reconciliation.
The Sri Lankan government is tapping into South Africa’s experience in that area. And, because of his prominent role as the ANC’s chief negotiator in the South African negotiations – mainly with the old National Party, for South Africa’s first democratic dispensation – Ramaphosa is particularly suitable for that job.
And if Ramaphosa can pull an unlikely rabbit from the hat in South Sudan especially, that will be a major boost to his presidential reputation.
Some officials from the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) downplay Ramaphosa’s diplomatic missions, saying they each came about through different circumstances and so there is no guiding hand from Luthuli House or elsewhere giving him these assignments.
Other commentators believe that in fact Ramaphosa is being given peripheral foreign assignments deliberately to distract him from the task of consolidating his support in the party to try to ensure he succeeds Zuma as ANC President in 2017 and then, almost automatically, as national president in 2019.
They say Zuma does not want Ramaphosa to succeed him, as he does not trust him to protect him against the arms deal corruption charge that remains hanging over him.
But Hartley dismisses the conspiracy theories explaining Ramaphosa’s growing visibility, saying that ‘sometimes the obvious theories are the right ones.’ He believes Ramaphosa is indeed being groomed by the party for the presidency by getting ever more presidential assignments.
And if not, his detractors are increasingly being silenced by his successes.
‘Ramaphosa didn’t stay this long out of politics, only to return at last, to be thwarted,’ Hartley says. ‘He is smart enough to realise he has an opportunity because of Zuma’s absence.’
Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa