Ramaphosa already had the power but failed to seize his best chance for real reform - Sunday Times

28 April 2019 - Here is what magical thinking under acute duress looks like in numbers: 55% of intended ANC voters think the country's going in the wrong direction. Only 36% think it is going right. And 9% don't know. That is according to a February poll by the Centre for Risk Analysis, in association with the IRR. The fact that so many feel nailed to the ANC's cross is excruciating the entire republic.

Gabriel Crouse

Last Sunday, Peter Bruce worried about an alleged attempt by the Institute of Race Relations IRR to silence him, "Politics the SA way: caricature an 'enemy' and attack it" .

Focusing on a recent speech by IRR CEO Frans Cronje, Bruce asked: "Isn't it interesting how Cronje , who first stood up to defend freedom of speech and to celebrate the battle of ideas, would end up dismissing me as mad? To get to mad you first distort my argument, declare it 'mad' and it can then be kept quiet."

Curiously, the speech did not mention Bruce by name. Cronje did mention an argument going around "that in order to prevent policy assaults you must support those leading the assaults because only if those now driving the assaults become even more powerful will they stop doing that which they are already so far advanced in doing".

And, yes, Cronje called this mad. If the shoe fits, one might as well put it on one's head and call it a crown, as Bruce volunteered. And if madness is a charm of the human condition, it is to be kept as far from politics as possible not by silencing bad arguments, but by exposing them.

Bruce's allegation that Cronje was trying to shut down free speech cannot be serious. One way I know this is that the argument to give Ramaphosa a big mandate is practically everywhere and one would have to be certifiable to think it can be muzzled this late from a podium in Stellenbosch.

Another way I know Bruce is not serious is that just a few weeks ago he called me "deranged" and "insane" in response to my own December 2018 article "Like every other `Cyrilist’ Peter Bruce is in denial" . The major thing he denied was Ramaphosa's power over the ANC during the election build up in lieu both of popularity and wealth super advantages.

That Ramaphosa has had the proverbial gun to the party's head until now, rather than the other way round as Bruce insisted has become "accepted wisdom", according to a recent Rebecca Davis piece in the Daily Maverick.

Does this make me feel smug? No. For free speech has been stifled in this country, including speech to the effect that Ramaphosa has had, and has now totally missed, his best opportunity to push genuine reform hard. Another allegation I made against Bruce is that he confused himself and his own problems with the president's.

His Easter effort did this again. Last week, reports came out that an election debate on the SABC between the president and other candidates was cancelled, stifling free speech at the highest level. However, the sad foreclosure of SA's fourth no debate campaign Mandela debated De Klerk did not get a mention.

The most damaging suppression of opinion is even more widely spread. The majority of ANC voters and the majority of South Africans overall have been effectively gagged and pinned down in the past two years. At the end of 2017, the internal ANC election took place at Nasrec and you will not find a respected pundit who, in the build up, predicted an outcome much different from "neck and neck".

And yet a poll by eNCA showed that CR17 would have beaten NDZ by 4:1 if ordinary ANC voters had had their voices heard. CR17's advantage was even higher among the poorest and unemployed. And why? Corruption. Also, the same polling showed that the overwhelming majority of South Africans and ANC voters were opposed to "radical economic transformation" and a plurality supported "more business friendly" policies.

A grassroots democratic process would have put stupefying power in Ramaphosa's hands, power that would come from the people, and a genuine big mandate for reform. Instead we got a steak knife dragged across the Bill of Rights, a recession, a reform walk to talk ratio that reminds one of PW Botha, champers with Zuma, and an ANC party list going forward that surely tickles ex-president Gedleyihlekisa.

If you think Ramaphosa is a long game "genius" (Bruce's word), then step one for RamaReformation after Nasrec would have been a hilltop call to rewrite the ANC primary election system, followed by anthems sung widely from the calabash to the cusp of Nkandla about empowering people with a direct primary vote.

This done, Ramaphosa could have made nationally popular moves against narrow vested interests, like firing a third of Eskom and half the cabinet. His realpolitik power would be his base rather than a party half of whose incumbents would have to fire themselves if they actually meant what they said.

Having at least begun to establish a genuinely empowered base we all could have watched as unreformed populists in the ANC wriggled and squirmed and withered before the light. Instead, by its unquestioned, corrupt primary system and the national party system, the ANC's base has been skewered.

We childhood lovers of the ANC are nailed like a million worms to a party plank that is at once reformist and recidivist, realistic and revanchist, promising and nihilism incarnate. It is maddening.

Here is what magical thinking under acute duress looks like in numbers: 55% of intended ANC voters think the country's going in the wrong direction. Only 36% think it is going right. And 9% don't know. That is according to a February poll by the Centre for Risk Analysis, in association with the IRR. The fact that so many feel nailed to the ANC's cross is excruciating the entire republic.

Cry, or jest cynically like Bruce but notice that the biggest chunk of South Africans won't even vote and most of those who will are gritting their teeth. If you really care about SA, I suggest you be serious and think about it for just a minute rather than sprucing your ego while puffing the status quo. 

Crouse is the George FD Palmer Financial Journalist Trust Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations, a liberal think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. 

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