Cyril Ramaphosa, the miracle of the coronavirus

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the military at Doornkop military base in Soweto on March 26, 2020.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the military at Doornkop military base in Soweto on March 26, 2020. – / AFP

It could be a slap, at least a questioning, even the breach in which all the enemies of the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, could be engulfed. Tuesday, June 2, a Pretoria court partially declared “Unconstitutional” some of the containment measures developed since March by the government to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

The first target should be him, Cyril Ramaphosa. Hadn’t he, a few hours before the start of confinement, installed himself through a uniform (a little too large) in his role as commander-in-chief of the armies? These armies that he had decided to mobilize entirely in the following weeks, as if South Africa should expect to see 80,000 soldiers on its streets?

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The Pretoria court decision is based on a fundamental reflection on what is the right of individuals. It must be taken seriously. But in this context, the judgment spared the head of state as if by a miracle, to focus on the “Measures promulgated by the Minister for Cooperation and Traditional Affairs”, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, in order to declare them not only unconstitutional but also invalid.

Instead of a meltdown, luck still smiles on Cyril Ramaphosa, who sees one of his opponents in difficulty. The latter is the ex-wife of Jacob Zuma, the former president who brings together in the African National Congress (ANC, the party in power) the most determined anti-Ramaphosa. The head of state having decided to place her at the head of the National Command Council against the coronavirus, this body could have become a platform of bis power. All of this was undermined slowly.

Unemployment and recession

As of March 26, on a base south of Johannesburg, Cyril Ramaphosa donned a uniform as if to go to the front. The little staging should of course mean that a “War” was to be fought against the Covid-19 – a popular cliché. So many heads of state and government around the world were gallantly spinning the metaphor.

In South Africa, it looked more difficult: great fears were that a confinement, in a country marked by inequality and social fragility, would slip and end in unrest, hunger riots, looting of wealthy neighborhoods . The army on the streets might mean that the townships were going to ignite and that the soldiers would not be too much to try to control them. Some claimed that this was the return of a specter, that of apartheid, and that everything would end in the same way, that is to say badly.

Nothing has happened, at least so far. On the one hand, the country bowed to demands of all kinds, including contradictory ones, and faced valiantly the collapse of an economy already sick before the pandemic. The recession could be between 7 and 12% of GDP and the unemployment rate officially reaching 50%. Malnutrition has reappeared, companies are closing their doors by the thousands.

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But the epidemic has stalled. More than 35,000 positive cases, but less than 800 deaths. For a while, we breathe. It will not last. The number of deaths could reach 48,000 by November with the same number of deaths per day (500) as the United Kingdom at its own peak, according to models by experts of the scientific committee which advises the government. With a time lag on the planet, South Africa could be, after Latin America, the future ravaging field of the pandemic.

However, in the immediate term, President Ramaphosa has already won a first victory: to make South Africa admit the merits of tough measures and to embody this policy of courage. For the first time in at least 30 years, a South African president has stopped systematically using tongue in cheek, basing part of his pandemic strategy on trust. “There was no choice: we would never have had the means to force everything through. That’s why we had to play smoothly to get buy-in. “ analyzes a government source.

Charming blunders

Two years after coming to power, Cyril Ramaphosa became the full-fledged president of South Africa. He had taken the head of the ANC only one hair in December 2017, in a climate of faction struggle. Then he seemed unable to impose himself. For a long time, his decisions, his political options, were defeated or paralyzed by his enemies, gathered again around Jacob Zuma and decided to dismiss him at the first opportunity.

Without the coronavirus episode, Cyril Ramaphosa would have been, precisely in June, a president in danger. His enemies in the ANC had long been planning an assault, which was to take place at a mid-term government policy review meeting, which could result in his “recall,” forcing him to resign. Instead, he transports the country and shoots his opponents without seeming to. His clumsiness assumed with grace, the errors in the decision-making of his team, everything seems charming.

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The antagonisms, he made himself master of it thanks to a particular combination of method, daring and luck. Luckily, it was the upheaval brought on by the pandemic. The audacity, that of having, in a jiffy, put on the costume of commander-in-chief. But all this would be nothing without the method: instead of distancing your rivals, rather promoting them, granting them responsibilities … then let them fail and take lightning in their place.

Thus Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, his unhappy rival at the ANC’s elective conference in 1997, placed at the head of the National Command Council. She displayed a surly and authoritarian tone, against which Cyril Ramaphosa appeared as the benevolent uncle of the nation. On April 23, he announced the end of the ban on the sale of cigarettes. Mme Dlamini-Zuma said the opposite six days later, without clearly justifying this decision. Maybe she was right? But it appeared, in the end, to be motivated above all by devious political maneuvers.

The return of confidence

Cyril Ramaphosa succeeded in what was impossible for him three months ago: snatching the decision-making center from the ANC and installing it in the hands of the government, under his gradually strengthened authority. Detecting what is at work, the heavyweights of the anti-Ramaphosa trend are absent subscribers. Ace Magashule, secretary general of the ANC, appears to have disappeared.

Even political opposition, from the Democratic Alliance (DA) to the Fighters for Economic Freedom (EFF), of Julius Malema, is reduced to the state of ectoplasm. A well-informed government source summarizes the trend since March: “With a smile, the president burned up the oxygen of his enemies. They can no longer breathe. And then everything goes too fast. They do not have the opportunity to adapt their speech, because in reality, they do not know enough about their files. “

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Cyril Ramaphosa, relaxed and affable, seems to float at a higher altitude. If the opinion remains under the spell, it is because it reads in government policy the return of a notion that the ten years of Jacob Zuma’s reign had devalued: confidence in the good will of the leaders. A plan of 500 billion rand (26 billion euros, or about 10% of GDP) was announced by the president. Even if its implementation is most laborious, the good is done: the last evaluation to date of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (HSRC), at the end of May, noted 89% satisfaction among South Africans of all backgrounds.

But the time will come for the backlash. When the number of deaths increases. When the economic consequences reach a level opening the way to possible troubles. We will see that day if the Ramaphosa magic continues to operate and if the Commander-in-Chief’s costume was, ultimately, his size.

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