“The Vice Presidency isn’t worth a bucket of warm piss.” A legendary quip attributed to an American politician called John Nance Garner, known in his day as “Cactus Jack”, in reference to his prickly tongue. Garner apparently made the remark when Franklin D. Roosevelt offered him the Vice Presidency in 1932. Roosevelt is said to have “guffawed” when he heard it. Garner accepted, but later described the job, somewhat more politely, as “almost wholly unimportant”.
Garner was right, but don’t lose sight of the word “almost” in that last phrase. Who ever remembers the Vice President of anywhere – or Deputy President, in South Africa’s case?
Usually, it’s only when the President is fatally stricken that the Deputy steps into the limelight. The injury can be physical, as in the killing of John F. Kennedy, which thrust another Texan Vice President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, into the White House. Or it can be political, as in the assassination of Thabo Mbeki, which paved the way for his Deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, to enter Tuynhuys.
It’s also to do with the nature of the job. It has no real power, no cabinet authority, and consists chiefly of being sent to sort out problems in obscure parts of the world and cut ribbons at unimportant ceremonials.
Sometimes, however, a nation finds itself in the position of having a Deputy President who would be a much better alternative to the incumbent. And sometimes that Deputy finds himself with the right set of circumstances to capitalise on the opportunity.
Cyril Ramaphosa is such a man and the constellations are beginning to align in such a way as to give him the critical opportunity.
I was reminded of Ramaphosa’s abilities a week or two back, when I shared a stage with veteran political commentator, Max du Preez. The panel was discussing Ramaphosa’s prospects, and du Preez reminded us that “at CODESA, Cyril ran rings round FW de Klerk and Roelf Meyer.” Max is right – I interviewed Ramaphosa on many occasions during the turbulent late 80s and early 90s and he is clever, subtle and hugely effective. His organising of the National Union of Mineworkers, the backbone of the equally effective UDF, laid the foundation for South Africa’s transition to democracy and the ANC’s later election victory.
With hindsight, I think it fair to say that Mandela’s decision to give the Deputy Presidency to Thabo Mbeki instead of Ramaphosa was an incalculable strategic mistake.
So Ramaphosa went off into the political wilderness, during which time he amassed a fortune. (That’s important – if he wanted an Nkandla, he could just buy one.)
Now he’s back. When he was recalled by President Zuma, I wondered at first if this wasn’t a masterstroke by a very canny politician? Give Ramaphosa the Deputy’s job, and leave him there to stew; we all know it’s a job where nothing much happens. “Zuma neutralises Ramaphosa,” was my thought.
That may well have been the case, but if so, the circumstances have since changed dramatically. What’s different is, in a word, Eskom.
Since last year’s election, the Eskom crisis has escalated to the point where it threatens the national economy, and that, in turn, threatens the ANC’s chances at next year’s local government elections. At first, Zuma did nothing – as is his wont. But surrounded by a litter of incompetent ministers apparently intent of making the crisis worse, he was forced into action. He created a “War Room” and handed responsibility for Eskom to his Deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa.
That’s a bit like passing the football by mistake to Lionel Messi. As Messrs de Klerk and Meyer would attest, Ramaphosa is deeply competent, although the men who really had to deal with Ramaphosa at his peak in opposition and could comment best – P.W. Botha and his Police Minister, Louis le Grange – are no longer with us.
Ramaphosa also has an intimate understanding of South Africa’s economy, not only from his time as a leading trade unionist, nor solely from his wealth-creating ability, but most importantly from having chaired and led the National Planning Commission. In other words, Ramaphosa led the team which wrote the National Development Plan, and he knows exactly where the pieces need to fit in our complex economic jigsaw.
Already, evidence of his handiwork is appearing: he’s flatly contradicted reports that Eskom is going to lay off skilled white workers, saying the utility needs as many skills as it can get, and of whatever skin colour. He’s pulled ex-AngloGold Ashanti chief Bobby Godsell off the bench and into the “War Room” and we’re also seeing contracts being signed for the supply of natural gas to one of Eskom’s current diesel plants. Speaking in Parliament this week, Ramaphosa went further: the door is open to the private sector to provide a coal-fired power station to supply electricity.
The Deputy President is clearly already hard at work in the “War Room” and making things happen. From this, a clear scenario emerges: Ramaphosa turns Eskom around and restores our generating capacity in time for the 2019 election. Were that to have happened, we would also have seen the economy stabilise, our sovereign debt ratings would have improved, foreign direct investment would have increased and the rand would have picked up dramatically.
Under those circumstances, Ramaphosa would be a racing certainty for the Presidency, and the ANC would romp to another convincing win.
It would also be a rare example of the Deputy’s job being worth more than “a bucket of warm….” Well, you know the line!