Why this is not simply a Cyril spring

We are living in incredible times. One day we’ll be able to look back and ask ‘where were you when…’ about the events of the last two months.

That’s literally the length of time it’s taken for Cyril Ramaphosa to get elected as president of the ANC and then president of the country. It’s even more amazing when you consider it took his predecessor – and the party – nine whole months to unseat Thabo Mbeki, and then only off a dodgy high court decision, that wasn’t really part of the judgment, that was duly thrown out by the Supreme Court of Appeal, which tore into the judge who had made it.

You wouldn’t think any of this though, living through some of the media reports and much of the overheated brow furrowing and hand ringing of in the echo chambers of Facebook and Twitter in recent times. According to them, Ramaphosa was variously a vacillating and vacuous leader, ill equipped to deal with a master tactician and political streetfighter like Jacob Zuma, or a lame duck leader tip-toeing across his Nasrec tightrope.

The truth is slightly different. Ramaphosa has stuck to his playbook; keeping to the rules, negotiating, consulting – and all the time drawing the noose ever tighter.

Zuma stood down last week after two very different, very strange media engagements; the first in which he threatened to hint at imposing martial law, the second one of which was his resignation – eventually. He’d held on until it became clear he couldn’t hold on any more. He defied the Top 6, so Ramaphosa got a mandate from the National Working Committee. Zuma defied that, so Ramaphosa got the full 86 member National Executive Committee to agree to recall him. Even then, Zuma wouldn’t budge, so Ramaphosa got parliament convened for an urgent vote of no confidence. Only then did the fourth president of the democratic era cave, not very graciously, but he quit nonetheless.

It was an amazing capitulation for a man who has so much at stake; from his well-documented legal problems to the entire gamut of state capture which will probably take years to uncover and end up in court. Unlike last November in Harare, no tanks had to be dispatched to the Union Buildings. Not a voice was raised.

Instead Zuma stood down and Ramaphosa flew to Cape Town to give the State of the Nation address, managing the rare double these days or writing it himself and delivering it without acrimony in the House. That was last Friday night.

No sooner had he done that than he was off to Kimberley to see the preparations for Armed Forces Day, thank the troops for keeping to the ethos of the constitution during the presidential turbulence, race back to Cape Town then back to the City of Diamonds on Wednesday to take the salute – and then scoot back to attend the budget.

The budget. Let’s think about that for a moment. Austere, but most importantly – and psychologically – the government pushed up VAT by a percentage point, for the first time in two decades.

No one has taken to the streets, nothing’s burning. The only bricks being lobbed are the brickbats of venomous invective in the House (where it should be). There’ll be protests – as the constitution provides for and protects – but the bottom line is that VAT has gone up by a percentage point.

An even stranger reaction has been the response of the opposition Democratic Alliance, long lampooned as the voice of privilege, screaming its outrage at the hike and the perceived impact on the poor, while the EFF have taken – by yesterday at least – to protesting for the workers that used to work on Ramaphosa’s farms.

The question is, what option did Ramaphosa and his government have? There’s a R50billion black hole in the budget in terms of what SARS has been able to bring in (if you read Jacques Pauw’s book, you’ll understand one possible reason why), but there’s also the social timebomb of university fees – particularly after Zuma upped the ante at Nasrec by speeding up the already burning fuze.

The commentariat have been bleak and to the point; VAT said one should be named ZAT – Zuma Added Tax, the price of almost a decade of kleptocracy. Chester Missing, aka Conrad Koch, the most pithy of them, didn’t disappoint: “Zuma’s out, Guptas are on the run, Duduzane is a fugitive from the law, all for just 1% more VAT. We should call it the Voetsek Asshole Tax.”

We aren’t out of the woods yet. The EFF and the DA are going to start fighting hard – as they ought to – to be relevant especially given that there’s the not so small problem of a general election looming in probably just over a year and their greatest electoral tool has been wrenched from them.

But they’re not the biggest problem, we’ve still got the elephant in the room; uBaba and his 40+ thieves. The rejuvenated Hawks are flying about swooping on all the easy state capturers at the moment, which all makes for great headlines and even better optics on TV and digital. Eventually though when the rats get cornered and flight isn’t an option there will be a fightback.

Is this merely our Cyril spring?

I don’t think so, to mangle Churchill, it’s not the beginning of the end, it’s the end of the beginning. There are many reasons to be hopeful – we just have to look back at the last eight weeks and think how different it could have gone to see just how far we have actually come.

Originally published on the 27 February 2020 in the Saturday Star