By Justice Malaila
Good, hard-working South Africans have long wanted Ramaphosa to do well, but they are beginning to think, with his protracted silence while he is clearly under attack, that he is ‘just like the rest’
President Cyril Ramaphosa should watch the game of thrones that has unfolded this past week at 10 Downing Street carefully. What’s happened to Boris Johnson could happen to him too.
There isn’t much any serious world leader can learn from the UK’s scandal-ridden, dissembling prime minister, who announced his resignation on Thursday.
That said, Ramaphosa may want to watch the bumbling Englishman’s ousting from office with interest because Johnson’s problems are all about trust, truth, covering up and knowing when it’s time to talk to your people.
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On Tuesday evening Johnson suffered a double blow when two of his most senior cabinet members, chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid, resigned from their positions. They were not the only ones. Overnight, as Johnson desperately tried to plug the two “big beast” departures with political lightweights, more junior members of his team started jumping the sinking ship. By Wednesday afternoon several resignations had rocked Johnson cabinet. A day later his authority finally crumbled and he announced that he will resign as prime minister, clearing the way for a successor to be chosen by October.
The drip-drip of minor and major resignations became the biggest threat to Johnson’s premiership. He tried to promote and plug as his appointees, fearful of being contaminated by his scandals, followed Sunak and Javid. The inevitable result, though, was that fewer Tory MPs wanted to serve under him. No-one wants to be the crew on a sinking ship.
For Ramaphosa, what is worth watching is how the resignations came about. Sunak and Javid stuck with Johnson for years despite his lying about parties at 10 Downing Street during the Covid lockdowns while ordinary Brits were prohibited from attending even their loved ones’ funerals.
Over the past week, however, Johnson got caught out in what seemed like a lie to cabinet colleagues and an attempt at a cover-up. The story goes back to 2017. Then, Conservative MP Chris Pincher was accused of sexual harassment. In 2019 he was made to leave the foreign affairs office after more reports of inappropriate behaviour.
Despite all that, Johnson brought him back as a junior minister in 2019. He gained a reputation for being fiercely loyal to Johnson and was rewarded with the position of deputy chief whip. He apparently was the brawn and the brains behind marshalling votes to defeat a motion of no confidence against Johnson last month.
On June 29 Pincher got extremely drunk at a Conservative Party event and groped two men. When the scandal broke the next day, the question was asked: had Johnson known about Pincher’s previous sexual harassment when he appointed him? Johnson and his office, plus a series of government ministers, lined up to deny that Johnson was aware of specific complaints against Pincher.
They were caught out when one of the country’s former top civil servants, Lord McDonald, revealed that Johnson was indeed briefed “in person” about a “formal complaint” about Pincher’s conduct in 2019. This week Johnson conceded that he knew and still appointed the man. Even cabinet ministers close to him could not bear the stench of hypocrisy around him. Javid, one of the first two senior ministers to resign, on Wednesday called on all his cabinet colleagues to abandon Johnson. “At some point we have to conclude that enough is enough. I believe that point is now,” he said.
Ramaphosa must trust the country, as he trusted it to rally behind him during the pandemic
Why does Ramaphosa have to be alive to Johnson’s woes? Since discredited former State Security Agency boss Arthur Fraser, who is implicated in serious corruption during his tenure at the agency, laid a criminal complaint against Ramaphosa about theft of money at his Phala Phala farm, the president has been mute while a storm has swirled around him.
He has failed to take even his closest comrades into his confidence. The effects are there for all to see. Uncertainty and concern about the country’s political future abounds — and it reaches right up to Ramaphosa’s key supporters in the ANC. One of the ANC’s most principled leaders and elders is Mavuso Msimang. When ANC leaders were stuck right up Jacob Zuma’s behind during the 2010s, Mavuso spoke up again and again for the party’s history, principles and values, and for the country’s constitution.
This week Msimang reportedly called on Ramaphosa to immediately step aside from his positions pending the conclusion of the Fraser allegations. To some this may seem like just one individual — outside of the usual “radical economic transformation” suspects such as Tony Yengeni and other Zuma diehards — but, as with Sunak and Javid’s resignations in Johnson’s case, these things tend to lead to a deluge. Msimang speaks on principle, but Ramaphosa needs to be aware that others in the party may abandon him to secure their future with his opponents.
Ramaphosa has a lot on his plate: children dying at taverns, a tanking economy, saboteurs in his intelligence services, an Eskom that’s near collapse, an ANC that is disintegrating fast, and so much else. These conditions make it easy for his detractors to play him as the villain with no consideration of their complicity in handing over the state to the Guptas and the narrow, corrupt, elite that stuffed itself in the 2010s.
Ramaphosa needs to speak, to take his own supporters along with him, instead of seemingly hiding behind the veil of “ongoing investigations”. He must trust the country, as he trusted it to rally behind him during the pandemic. Good, hard-working South Africans have long wanted him to do well. They are beginning to think, with his protracted silence while he is clearly under attack, that he is “just like the rest”.
Confidence is fast ebbing out of his administration. He is becoming the butt of jokes. A reporter called him “Mr Phala Phala” at a funeral on Wednesday. He is the butt of jokes about cash in sofas from New York to Abuja. He should speak.
“If the public is not satisfied with what he says,” says Msimang, “I think the good thing for the sake of the country and for his own sake would be to say: ‘While this investigation takes place I will step aside as long as there is a lack of satisfaction about the answers that he has given.’”
In Johnson’s case, it started with just two resignations. Ramaphosa should not underestimate the power of Msimang’s voice, or the swiftness of what could come next.