THE election of Cyril Ramaphosa as African National Congress (ANC) deputy president on Tuesday will have many more people smiling than just the delegates who did the voting. For businesspeople in particular, it looks like a development to celebrate.
There is no question that Ramaphosa will bring a much needed dose of reality to the ANC, especially when it comes to thinking about economic policy, the importance of business and understanding how jobs are created. He also brings credibility, intellectual stature, leadership and more public appeal than many other ANC leaders. Even more tantalising is the prospect that he could soon become deputy president of the country, and then president.
But will he survive the political culture of the ANC? And can he — as a single individual without a bloc following — take on the power blocs and vested interests in the ANC and win?
Since Ramaphosa was the secretary-general of the ANC in 1991, it is no exaggeration to say that the political culture of the ANC has undergone a revolution.
For much of the late exile period and in the early days of the unbanned ANC, its political culture was a blend of national liberation ideology, with a strong Marxist-Leninist flavour. This was accompanied by a broad-church approach in which the ANC sought to build influence and leadership of society through flexibility and compromise. The ANC was always cautious never to appear dominated by one ideological group or another. Yet, at the same time, "ideological debates" were furious and intense and — within broad limits — encouraged. Intellectual prowess was for many the path through which they rose to the top of the organisation, with military success and charismatic leadership trailing behind.
But today’s ANC has become a chaotic contest in which blocs, formed around individuals, compete for power. With the exception of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which participates in the ANC on the sidelines and has genuine ideological differences with the ANC mainstream, there is no ideological diversity. Even the South African Communist Party, whose leadership is now largely subsumed into government, hardly differs in practical policy, despite its claim to be a revolutionary vanguard.
The corruption of the membership system to build blocs that support individuals, the buying of votes and the competition for provincial and regional structures in order to get access to government patronage are what define the ANC’s political culture now. It is a political culture based not on ideas but on numbers and noise, where the one with the most members and who shouts loudest wins. These, incidentally, were described by both President Jacob Zuma and ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe as "alien tendencies that have crept in" and had to be eradicated.
But the ANC has complained for the past 12 years about "alien tendencies" and practices that are "foreign" to it. Those tendencies have now become endemic and entrenched with the repeated failure of successive leaderships to take meaningful steps to enforce ethical behaviour and restore integrity. The "ideology" of divisions is simply about winning; it is about the pursuit of power for the material benefits of wielding it.
With a dominant political culture that is based on blocs linked to provinces, which are in turn linked to patronage networks, an individual will find it hard to swim against the current and, especially, to make it to the number one position.
Ramaphosa, who exudes openness and worldliness and a familiarity with broader ideas that few of his co-leaders on the national executive share, will also have to contend with the closed political anti-intellectualism that has become dominant in the ANC. The prevailing attitude was aptly expressed by Zuma in his off-the-cuff remarks to business leaders at a gala dinner on the eve of the conference: "The ANC knows things that other people don’t."
Already, there are some mutterings among the enraptured masses that elected him: a capitalist like him cannot be trusted, they say, which is likely to be the weapon they will wield to later defeat him. Other ambitious "cadres" are also waiting in the wings: Ramaphosa might be at the head of the queue right now to become the next president, but he is far from being the only one in it.