Their critiques are alarmingly similar. They find the president indecisive when he needs to take a clear position and see the wider leadership of the government as lacking focus and resolution. And that’s before you get to the criticisms of Ramaphosa outside party ranks.
Much of the scrutiny on Ramaphosa is heightened by his government’s lack of progress in tackling South Africa’s myriad crises such as crime, unemployment and corruption.
There are strong partisan motivations behind the critiques. Loud critics of Ramaphosa within ANC come from the so-called Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction which is demanding land distribution and nationalisation of the biggest companies, as well as the central bank.
Loyalty to the RET faction is fluid, but on a good day, they could get support from almost half of the ANC parliamentarians. They are backed by figures such as former Deputy President Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu – both of whom have big-name recognition and have presidential ambitions to unseat Ramaphosa as party leader.
Managing a divided house
Part of the problem is that Ramaphosa’s reluctance to take unpopular decisions means he has failed to define himself as a leader. So, people interpret his actions as signifying he is a weak leader in a divided house.
In the 2019 general election, ANC was for the first time pushed below 60%. Many think it will struggle to win a majority in the 2024 elections and will be forced into a coalition.
Ramaphosa is lambasted for presiding over the ANC’s descent into its worst crisis.
Since he wrestled control of the party from Jacob Zuma and his allies at the elective conference in 2017, Ramaphosa has been battling to rein in the organisation and reform it.
He is among the few presidents of the ANC in recent years whose agenda is seen as distinct from the policies that have made their way onto the party platform.
Ramaphosa has been struggling to reconcile his anti-corruption agenda, which derives largely from the relationships he built as a businessman, with the compromises of running a mass membership political organisation.
That proclaimed agenda earned Ramaphosa a reputation as agreeable and reasonable.
Ramaphosa‘s campaign against Zuma‘s allies at the 2017 conference was financed by business people outside the immediate ANC circles. He positioned himself as the only candidate who could reverse the legacy of corruption that had set in during Zuma‘s tenure.
Enjoying national popularity far beyond the ANC as an honest leader, Ramaphosa found the task of realigning the party away from patronage politics became difficult from the president’s chair.
When it comes to the mandate to govern, it rests with the ANC which then deploys leaders such as Ramaphosa to execute its mandate.
There is a contradiction in the idea that Ramaphosa could succeed as an effective leader in government when the ANC, which holds the political mandate to govern, is not in accord with his ideas.
If there is anything that is holding back Ramaphosa ‘s leadership, it is the state of the ANC. The party has been infiltrated by those who should answer to allegations of corruption. Most are allies of Zuma; many are facing a string of corruption charges.
Whenever Ramaphosa supports state institutions such as the National Prosecuting Authority which are carrying out their task independently without fear or favour, he is hit by a political backlash.
In the recent ANC regional conferences in the run-up to the elective conference to choose the party’s new leadership, many members elected top officials who are facing corruption charges. This blatantly defies Ramaphosa‘s call for senior officials not to make themselves available for positions in the party until they are cleared of criminal charges.
His detractors retort that Ramaphosa is using state institutions to fight political battles in the party, cutting short the careers of comrades by throwing corruption charges at them.
These anti-Ramaphosa tactics are working like a charm.
Senior ANC officials implicated in fraud and mismanagement have mobilised party members against his anti-corruption agenda, forcing him to moderate his stance.
By striking a more pragmatic attitude towards dismantling corrupt networks within the party, Ramaphosa has been characterised as overly calculating in matters of personal authority but lacking decisiveness as a leader.
Taking the ANC reins
There are limits to ANC’s tolerance of Ramaphosa’s reform in the party and in government – whatever the progress he appears to be making in the public domain and state-backed judicial and prosecutorial institutions.
From the beginning, it was unrealistic to expect that a party leader such as Ramaphosa, whose business history labels him as an outsider, could rein in the ANC summarily through state institutions.
The internal decay that Ramaphosa confronts in the ANC is structural and goes back to the Mbeki era, even further to the internal organisational culture that emanates from years in exile.
As the dominant political force in South Africa in the last three decades, the ANC has been shielded from deeper political debates.
A first-order question is whether the traditions of the party, as reflected in its internal mechanisms and decision-making processes, have set it on a path to appreciate the democratic ideals required to govern a complex modern society.
This question cannot be answered by focusing only on Ramaphosa ‘s tenure as the president of the ANC. His presidency has brought these issues to prominence but that’s mainly because he took over the ANC when South Africans were questioning the relationship between the party and the wider society.
The reason for those public debates goes back to the accumulation of dysfunction within the party about integrity and internal democracy.
Those questions cover political ground far beyond Ramaphosa’s qualities, his leadership record and that of any contender seeking to usurp him at the elective conference in December.