South Africa: Can President Cyril Ramaphosa Survive Backlash By Jailed Ex-President Zuma’s Supporters?

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President Cyril Ramaphosa. Photo: ITU Pictures/WIkimedia Commons

A week is a long time in politics. From the moment that acting Chief Justice Sisi Khampepe handed down a judgment sentencing former president Jacob Zuma to prison for 15 months for contempt of court, South Africa has swung like a pendulum from a high of an enlivened mixture of excitement and speculation to a low. The giant African economy is teetering on the brink of anarchy.

After a long wait, Zuma finally handed himself in last week to serve 15 months imprisonment despite a number of other charges he still faces. The Constitutional Court (ConCourt) stood firm and unequivocal in stating that should his contempt of court go unpunished it would undermine the rule of law.

This decision has triggered a backlash. Zuma’s supporters took to the streets protesting his imprisonment, burning trucks and commercial property and blocking major roads in KwaZulu-Natal province, Zuma’s ancestral area. As many as six people were reported dead. Zuma’s staunch supporters are demanding that he be released from prison. The protests are threatening to spiral out of control. The magnitude of destruction of property has been huge and loss of lives is picking up.

It’s certainly not a trigger that President Ramaphosa expected given the economic and Covid -19 crisis facing his country.  Ramaphosa is facing mounting criticism for his response to the coronavirus pandemic which his opponents say has been haphazard, inadequate and biased against the vaccines from Russia and China. In addition, discord within his ruling African National Congress (ANC) ranks has mounted woes for his leadership.

With his back to the wall, Ramaphosa’s leadership is facing a litmus test of unprecedented levels. Fiery Economic Freedom Front (EFF) party leader Julius Malema is also pouring more fuel to the burning crisis facing Ramaphosa. He has accused Ramaphosa of being captured by the titans of business in South Africa and the West.

Confronted by the looting by supporters of Zuma, widespread violent protests threatening to spread to other parts of South Africa, discontent and discord within the ANC, opposition from the combative Malema, and Covid–19 cases exceeding 2.1 million infections, with a total of 64, 289 deaths, President Ramaphosa desperately needs strategies to dig himself out of this hole that could easily sink him.

Ex-president Zuma still enjoys respect from the ANC war veterans and supporters largely drawn from his Kwa-Zulu Natal home and the disgruntled masses facing mounting poverty and unemployment. Many of them value Zuma’s contribution to the revolution. Zuma’s grassroots support is quite threatening to Ramaphosa’s political survival.

Zuma’s arrest has had a destructive and polarizing impact on South Africa’s politics –threatening to tear the nation along tribal lines as well as the unity and social cohesion of this giant economy. Ramaphosa now needs to summon courageous leadership to the front line to tame the rising protests and discontent within the ANC ranks.

The fragile alliance between the ANC, Cosatu, and the South African Communist Party (SACP) also faces a huge test. Ramaphosa has to take bold steps that will not rock the boat of this tripartite alliance. Any step that he takes, must strengthen this alliance, a key pillar of his political survival.

Also any bold moves to quell the destructive and violent protests must not bring back memories of the Marikana massacres which put a serious dent on Zuma’s leadership. At the time he was on the board of the mining company that controlled Marikana mines and the company ordered armed guards and South African security forces to suppress work action. Thirty-four miners were killed. 

Mishandling of the current crisis can easily send the economy into free fall, force mass closures of business, key institutions or potentially put the lives of many people at risk. With all this, the acid test of Ramaphosa’s calm, resilient and consultative leadership has finally come. His true leadership skills will be carved out by how well he will roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty during times of difficulty.

For status, Ramaphosa has shown us his resilient side by remaining positive and calm in the face of a deadly pandemic and rallied all South Africans to support the initial lockdown of the country. But will he watch South Africa burn, without the use of force to quell the violent protest? All this demands answers.

Despite the odds weighing against him, Ramaphosa will have to bank on the dislike of the so-called Zulu “nationalism”–a notion that tends to ridicule other ethnic groups and largely believes that Zulus are superior to people from other ethnic communities. But given deep seated anger in informal settlements, Ramaphosa will have no choice but to use brute force to quell the violent protests which have wider and regional implications.

South Africa has a history of terrifying episodes of violence and if the current situation is not handled with care, it can seriously undermine Ramaphosa’s rule and the peace and security of the SADC region. The violent protests will feed on the stagnant economy, high levels of inequality and a decay of trust between the grassroots and Ramaphosa’s leadership.

There is a warning here – current frustrations are now threatening to erode the gains of South Africa’s democratic project and the aspirations of those who fought for the country’s liberation. The political space between Justice Sisi Khampepe’s ruling and Zuma’s arrest that torched violent protests is quite menacing.

Will President Ramaphosa remain holed in detached silence? Even though Ramaphosa has found it prudent to let the law deal with his political opponents rather than be accused of using organs of state to purge them, it is the violent and destructive protests that will test his penchant for the long and drawn out political game.

Sifelani Tsiko is a veteran journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe. He can be reached via sifelani11@gmail.com 

 

 

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