Cyril Ramaphosa may soon have to face a Thatcherite moment of truth.
This is not to suggest that South Africa’s reform-minded president is the ideological stepchild or mimic of Margaret Thatcher or even politically comparable to the former prime minister who stamped her authority and neoliberal value system on to Britain from 1979 to 1991.
Ramaphosa is a very different political leader — a social democrat with deep trade union roots.
But he may not be able to avoid the same question that Thatcher chose to tackle in her own belligerent way in the mid-1980s: Who runs the country?
She took on a strong trade union movement that had caused huge harm to the Labour government that occupied 10 Downing Street before the Iron Lady’s victory in 1979.
A painful “winter of discontent” had disrupted public services, bringing the country and the administration to its knees.
Thatcher’s view was that the union movement had too much power and was ungovernable, and she was determined to clip its wings.
Unlike Thatcher, Ramaphosa will not use state power — the police and intelligence services — to beat the unions. He will seek to persuade and cajole. Applying his political craft and use of process, he will seek to find consensus to enable him to evade a potentially distracting and destabilising stand-off.
But unlike for Thatcher, who was essentially confronting one power bloc, for Ramaphosa the issue is more complex. A very different set of political forces are ranged up against him and his reform and rebuilding programme, some of whom are finding common cause, or at least an alignment of interests, in contesting decisions such as the pivotal unbundling of Eskom.
First, there are the unions. Their vehement response to Ramphosa’s State of the Nation address surprised many, with the strong language claiming it was a return to the “1996 class project” and neoliberalism.
Coming from the metalworkers union Numsa, which broke away from union federation Cosatu several years ago, and which is competing for attention and members, this was no surprise. But it was matched by Cosatu and the National Union of Mineworkers, partly, no doubt, because the NUM is now locked in a mutually damaging stalemate with Numsa and the other most muscular breakaway union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, in the battle for power and influence.
Indeed, the simple but profound point is that, but for the shenanigans of the Zupta era, which inevitably and understandably dominated the news, the even bigger and more fundamental political change of the past decade has been the break-up and weakening of Cosatu and the concomitant effect on the ANC-led tripartite alliance and its ability to absorb socioeconomic shocks and political pressures.
This complicates any negotiation with the unions. It makes Ramaphosa’s process-orientated approach to problem-solving far more challenging; and it increases the risks that it will fail and that the unions, in competing against each other, will raise the stakes until breaking point, leading to violence and socioeconomic instability that will go beyond industrial relations.
Nonetheless, Ramaphosa’s task is simple but exacting — to persuade the unions that job cuts are not only unavoidable but essential for the long-term benefits that will accrue from seriously reforming the state-owned sector to restore investor confidence and boost economic growth.
In Cosatu, there are individual leaders with whom Ramaphosa believes he can deal. Thus, he may end up having to isolate other unions that will not play ball. Either way, he will have to expound the “just transition” that he spoke of in his address. He will have to work hard to get the social stakeholders to agree on what a different Eskom will look like and how a wholehearted commitment to a green economy and renewable energy can be good for job creation and better working conditions and pay in the longer term.
Yet there are other interest-holders and political opponents who lack the unions’ legitimate concerns but who are no less tricky.
The last of the Zupta state-capture brigade remain unvanquished, fighting tooth and nail to protect their rent-seeking interests. They got their teeth fully into the state-owned sector. It was manna from heaven for them; enabled by a corrupt president and a weak and easily manipulated Cabinet, Eskom and other state-owned entities such as SAA were ravaged.
Behind these interests lie other, more shadowy players and forces, some of them foreign. Check the Twitter feed of any debate about Eskom reform and you will find a well-orchestrated campaign of disinformation that seeks to drive a spike into the Ramaphosa presidency.
Bell Pottinger may have gone but it has been replaced by other manipulators of social media — the front on which many big political battles are now won and lost, both here and around the world.
One hopes that the intelligence services are up to the task of finding out who lies behind and funds these nefarious campaigns but one fears that they are not. Ramaphosa is relying on Sydney Mufamadi’s task team to come up with an effective and speedy way to rebuild the intelligence services — another arm of democratic state capacity that was disabled during the past dark decade.
And this is not to mention the populist, nationalist political forces both within the ANC and without, mainly in the form of the Economic Freedom Fighters, which would dearly love to derail his reform agenda.
Although it is possible to exaggerate the importance of the size of the ANC majority in the May elections to keep Ramaphosa on track and able to move even more decisively ahead, it would also be a huge mistake to underestimate its significance. For the ANC, every percentage point below 60% weakens Ramaphosa and renders him more vulnerable to attack from within his own party. Equally, every percent above 60 will strengthen his hand and increase his ability to take unpopular positions.
Bear in mind the political reality that, although the fiscus needs to reduce the size of the public sector wage bill, the overlap between public servants and those who are most active in the ANC and turn up as voting delegates at its conferences is high (about 70%).
In the middle of next year, Ramaphosa will also have to navigate the ANC’s national general council, where his authority may well be challenged.
South Africa and its president could face their own winter of discontent in 2020, or even this year. But this may even be a necessary part of the process of grasping various structural and policy nettles.
Hence the question: Who runs South Africa? Is it the democratically elected government and its president, or not? It is the same question Thatcher posed. It is as relevant here as it was to her then.
Ramaphosa needs not only to address it but also to provide an unequivocal answer.
He will want and need to engage other legitimate stakeholders and, as ever, he will. But, ultimately, when tough decisions have to be taken to turn the state around and to defeat vested antitransformation interests and create job-creating growth, decisive leadership will be essential.
Ramaphosa is not Thatcher incarnate. Nor will he attempt to bring her back to life. The last thing this country needs is the divisive, confrontational and uncompromising ideological dogma of a quasi-Thatcherism. But it does need strong leadership. The coming months will prove to be the sternest test yet of the president’s credentials and abilities.
In the past year, he has laid down an extraordinary platform to turn South Africa around. With a fair electoral tailwind, he can press home his advantage and execute the plans that need to be delivered. But there are some battles that can be neither shirked nor lost.
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a partner in the political risk consultancy, The Paternoster Group