“When will President Zuma go?” and “Why is Cyril Ramaphosa so quiet?”

These are two questions that I have consistently been asked at every business or political meeting I have attended over the last 12 months.

The first one I never found difficult to answer. I have maintained for the past two years that Zuma will only step down or be removed as ANC President at the ANC electoral conference and that the outcome of the elections at the conference will determine whether or not he stays on as president of the country until 2019.

The more difficult question is the second one. Until recently the ANC practice not to start campaigning before official nominations are open in September seemed a plausible explanation for Ramaphosa’s relatively low profile.

But with less than four months left before the ANC’s electoral conference (assuming it takes place in December) and with candidates like Dlamini-Zuma and Lindiwe Sisulu openly campaigning, many Ramaphosa supporters in and outside the ANC are getting increasingly concerned.

They wonder why Ramaphosa rarely speaks out directly about the problems affecting the ANC and doesn’t protect those who are doing so. Whilst individual ANC members, alliance partners, opposition parties, civil society organisations and churches are all continuously criticising the excesses of the Zuma faction in the ANC, many are asking with increasing urgency: “Where is Ramaphosa?”

Of course he has spoken out on many occasions, but mostly with extreme caution and as many journalist put it “in code”.

His most outspoken speech was at the SACP conference where he referred to the #Guptaleaks and state capture directly and said: “We cannot keep quiet. We cannot under the weight of ever more disclosures become numb to what is happening in this country”.

But that was back in July and thereafter he didn’t seem to have retained much momentum around these issues. So much so that some people are starting to wonder if he really wants the presidency or, more worryingly, whether he had done the sums, discovered that he couldn’t win and therefore had given up.

I have no doubt that Ramaphosa wants to become president and that he will be a good one. I also do not believe that he or his team have given up. But how does one then explain his relatively low profile and unwillingness to put his cards on the table about so many crucial issues?

It is of course important to remember that for the next four months he must focus on  mobilising support within the ANC branches in order for him to be elected ANC president.

It is often argued that Ramaphosa’s link to the Marikana massacre and/or his Venda – as opposed to Zulu or Xhosa roots are major stumbling blocks for him in the ANC.

I believe that these are issues largely pushed by opposition parties and people outside the ANC and will not play a big role inside the organisation. Of course, his detractors have tried to blow life into old rumours around his personal life and will almost certainly continue to do so, but as we saw last week, he would most probably be able to deal with these accusations effectively.

More problematic for Ramaphosa is that he is increasingly portrayed by the Zuma faction as part of “white monopoly capital”. Last week, for example, Sihle Zikalala attacked Ramaphosa for “deserting” the ANC and going into private business after Mbeki was elected president.

Of course, it fits neatly into the Bell Pottinger-designed ANC spin and is much more difficult for Ramaphosa to counter. Yet, he will have to address this issue head-on at some stage.

Perhaps reminding comrades that he wouldn’t be vulnerable to bribes from rich families since he has enough of his own money might be the way to go.

However, Ramaphosa’s biggest problem is the fact that he can’t afford to totally alienate the premier league provinces or the pro-Zuma supporters in KZN – not if he wants to win. The numbers just don’t add up.

For him to stand any chance of victory he has to get at least 25-30% from North West, Free State and Mpumalanga as well as KZN (especially if the growth in membership in KZN is confirmed after the internal audit). In order to secure this support he has to be extraordinary cautious not to say or do anything that would antagonise those from these pro-Zuma provinces.

He also knows that this same support will be crucial if he does succeed in his bid for the ANC presidency in order to keep the ANC intact. A serious breakaway by the Zuma faction would mean a weakened ANC that could, even with Ramaphosa as president, fail to get above 50% in 2019. Clearly Ramaphosa did not sign up to be the leader of the opposition.

These challenges explain to some extend why he is being so cautious in his utterances.

It remains a challenge for Ramaphosa to drum up enough support at branch level throughout the country. Unlike Dlamini-Zuma he does not have the president to lobby for him at every possible opportunity. He has to have a more sophisticated network of organisers to mobilise branch delegates across the provinces to vote for him. This is not the type of work that creates media interest and so it is not something that is easy to monitor.

It is also highly likely that Ramaphosa (in true Codesa style) will make some strategic deals with other candidates from both sides closer to the conference. Bringing Baleka Mbete, Zweli Mkhize and Lindiwe Sisulu onto his ticket would be strategically wise.

But the big question will be what he will do with some of the premier league kingpins such as Mpumalanga premier David ‘Didi’ Mabuza. It might provide Ramaphosa with some desperately needed votes, but could compromise his intention of new, cleaner government. Whatever the case might be, in order not to lose any strategic advantage, he will have to keep his plan quiet until closer to the time.

Those who are close to Ramaphosa argue that he is playing a quiet and carefully designed tactical game as opposed to just dodging difficult issues. Let’s hope so. Because in this very noisy year of political theatre it seems like a high risk game.

– Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

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