President Cyril Ramaphosa is caught in an intricate game of political chess as he seeks to stamp his authority on the government while maintaining a semblance of party unity before elections next year.
While his finance minister and political ally, Nhlanhla Nene, resigned Tuesday after lying about meeting with businessmen under investigation for looting state funds, other ministers with worse track records remain. Following a razor-thin victory for control of the ruling African National Congress in December, Ramaphosa still faces staunch opposition among supporters of his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, to a wholesale clear-out of the government.
“This is a careful, difficult strategic game that Ramaphosa is involved with,” Daniel Silke, the director of Political Futures Consultancy in Cape Town, said by phone. “We have seen a very softly-softly approach from Ramaphosa, which may not be to everybody’s liking and might create additional frustrations, but I suppose the long game is for the survival of the Ramaphosa faction.”
A lawyer and former labor union leader who helped negotiate an end to white-minority rule, Ramaphosa took office in February after the ANC forced Zuma to quit following a scandal-marred tenure of almost nine years. Since then, he’s vowed to eradicate corruption and woo $100-billion in new investment to help rebuild the economy -- plans that may hinge on his ability to eventually cement political control.
While Ramaphosa fired a number of Zuma allies from the cabinet, others have retained their posts. They include Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba and Women Affairs Minister Bathabile Dlamini, who’ve been found to have perjured themselves in court. Another, Communications Minister Nomvula Mokonyane, has been accused by opposition parties of mismanaging the Water and Sanitation Department’s budget to the point of bankruptcy in her previous portfolio.
Nene’s departure may have cheered both Zuma supporters and the Economic Freedom Fighters, a radical opposition party that had pushed for his removal, Darias Jonker, an Africa analyst at risk-advisory firm Eurasia Group, said in an emailed note.
“By forcing Ramaphosa to replace a key ally, both the EFF and the Zuma faction have won a significant round in their fight to undermine his reform agenda and eventually remove him from power,” he said.
Within the ANC, Ramaphosa’s biggest headache is Ace Magashule, who as secretary-general oversees the day-to-day running of the party. Magashule, who had campaigned for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to lead the party, met with Zuma and other ANC leaders last month in what the Johannesburg-based Sunday Times newspaper described as a plot to oust the president, without citing anyone. Magashule denies the allegation.
Ramaphosa’s weakness stems from his tenuous control over the party and the fact that he’s never led it to an election victory, according to Tinyiko Maluleke, a political analyst at the University of Pretoria.
“The party is a complex machine and every ANC president has to juggle and negotiate,” Maluleke said. “After the elections, he will certainly have more scope to appoint a cabinet that is entirely his and not have to take over cabinet ministers from a previous president, but it’s not as if even after the elections he will have free rein. ANC presidents never do.”
While the ANC has won every election outright since it took power in the country’s first multiracial elections in 1994, disgruntlement with Zuma’s rule saw its support slump to a record low of 54 percent in a 2016 municipal vote when it lost control of several of the biggest cities.
An Institute of Race Relations poll of 978 registered voters conducted between Aug. 22 and Sept. 4 indicated the party’s share of the vote has slipped further to 52 percent, or 10 percentage points less that it captured in the last national elections in 2014.
In the short term, Ramaphosa’s appointment of former central bank Governor Tito Mboweni as his new finance chief should limit the fallout from Nene’s resignation, according to Silke.
“He’s secured a victory from the jaws of defeat in that he’s been able to replace a relatively highly regarded finance minister with Mboweni,” Silke said. “The appointment of Mboweni brings a real anchor to finance and to the Treasury at a critical time for the country and I think ultimately this is a win for Ramaphosa.”