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Opposition Flounders As Cyril Ponders Next Move

Has DA leader Mmusi Maimane ever looked as weak as when he waved that “thank you” letter around in Parliament last week? The letter was dated 31 March 2014 and addressed to Bosasa’s now-deceased CEO, Gavin Watson, by former ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize, thanking him for the R3-million donation to the ANC.

If it was reality television Maimane might have requested a drum roll.

Since the CR17 campaign leaks have gripped the public imagination, we all knew where Maimane was headed with the letter waving. After all, it was Maimane who lodged the complaint with the public protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, regarding the R500,000 Bosasa donation to the CR17 campaign. Ironically, it’s the same Mkhwebane that Maimane’s party is trying to urgently remove from her position.

But while the leaks of bank statements and donors have caused a stir and been a very convenient diversionary tactic with which to taint President Cyril Ramaphosa, last week’s presidential question time also revealed something else. It revealed an opposition that seems in large measure to have lost the plot.

Maimane himself is in Parliament on the back of weakened election results, and the DA’s fierce opponent, former Cape Town mayor Patricia De Lille, is in a Cabinet position. That was all a little embarrassing.

After the May election there was much talk of replacing Maimane, but who would be a viable replacement in these fraught times? And so the DA in a sense is stuck with the insipid Maimane, whose chief goal seems to be finding malfeasance and criminality in the CR17 campaign.

So, most of his questions were geared towards embarrassing Ramaphosa about political donations to his campaign. Strange that, since Maimane himself did not reveal his sources of funding during his intra-party contest with Wilmot James. James, incidentally, did disclose his donors in 2015. But, in politics duplicity is almost guaranteed and why let that get in the way of some parliamentary theatrics?

Maimane, having started the Bosasa/political donations debate, now needs to continue his crusade in the corner into which he has painted himself. Politics is often about optics, and the optics of last week’s question time was a leader of the official opposition seeking to paint the president as deeply corrupt and compromised to the point that we should be baying for his removal.

As for the EFF and Julius Malema, well, there is no doubt that Malema and his merry band have a great deal to lose in the State Capture clean-up and so their targets of Ramaphosa, Pravin Gordhan and Edward Kieswetter at SARS are as predictable as they are disingenuous.

Ahead of presidential question time, there was much hype surrounding the president coming to Parliament for the first time since the CR17 leaks.

Ramaphosa was going to be “grilled”, the headlines screamed.

And then, as these things mostly pan out, it was all a bit of a damp squib. Question time is an important mechanism of accountability. It ought to assert legislative authority over the executive and draw out answers to questions on behalf of us all. Traditionally, however, question time has played out predictably. The ruling party usually puts “sweetheart” questions to its leader – mostly laced with a healthy dose of sycophancy.

During the Mbeki years particularly, the nature and character of Parliament changed. That’s ancient political history now, but the detritus of those years remains with us.

Maimane’s first “salvo” at Ramaphosa was to ask whether he would initiate a commission of inquiry into Bosasa. Maimane surely could not have been serious in suggesting another commission of inquiry? The Zondo Commission, which will be lengthier and more expensive than we thought, must be enough. Just last week, we heard that the pointless Seriti Commission cost us R137-million.

What appetite would corruption-weary South Africans have for another commission dealing solely with Bosasa? Very little, would be a good guess.

Malema carried on in this vein, though with less vigour than usual. What we know is that Ramaphosa committed no crime. Ramaphosa insists there was “no criminality” and so we have to take him at his word. However, it would be surprising if there were no “slippage”, as his campaign has called it. That is the nature of the beast and should be dealt with if any evidence of criminality arises.

There was and is no law preventing anyone from raising money for intra-party campaigns. This is not a battle about the principles of party funding and transparency, that much is clear. During question time, Ramaphosa was quite easily able to deflect the unstrategic questions Maimane and Malema put to him by invoking the rule of law – as he did repeatedly – and calling for a broader conversation within his party and outside of it about party funding. At that point, the sting was comprehensively removed from the tail – in Parliament at least.

All around the world, the impact of money on politics has been largely toxic. It has created environments where the wealthy are able to buy influence over policy and legislation, drowning out the voices of the poor and marginalised who do not have this access.

The new Party Funding Act needs regulations and perhaps amendments to deal with internal party campaigns. The old and tired saying, “sunlight is the best disinfectant” remains true. The more disclosure there is, the better off we will all be.

South Africans are slowly but surely seeing the disclosure of political donations as a crucial accountability issue. This is important given the hard-slog campaigns run by civil society organisations such as Idasa and, more recently, My Vote Counts.

Watching Ramaphosa, one could not help but think he is more suited to the parliamentary setting. It is one of greater formality and the forum suits his deliberative nature. It is also a rather more slowed-down process. All around him people are clamouring for him to “do something”. Parliament provides a space for him to outline plans and processes in a calm and rational manner.

We know that things are happening. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s growth strategy paper is an example. But, given the daily dose of the Zondo Commission, Magashule and the ANC’s regular antics and now the death of Gavin Watson, South Africans are becoming increasingly impatient. Admittedly, we always feel we’re on the edge of an abyss, and the financial crunch at Eskom and the added crisis of unemployment create a pressure-cooker situation.

This is entirely understandable. South Africa wants to see the corrupt pay for their crimes.

The unfortunate reality is that the turnaround will take time.

And so the opposition would do well to focus on the urgent challenges we face while at the same time leading a discussion on money, politics and transparency. This is crucial ahead of the 2021 local government elections.

The theatrics have become dull and don’t work as well with Ramaphosa as they did with Zuma. The former president was so patently corrupt, unethical and undeserving of our trust that it was an easy and almost lazy approach to bay for his blood at every parliamentary session.

Now we are in the more complex territory and the opposition fell short last week. The larger question, which we need to ponder, is the way in which this president goes about his business. Doubtless, he knows the detail of policy and is on top of the myriad plans he has outlined. Sometimes they feel like Russian babushka dolls – a plan wrapped within a strategy wrapped within a scheme.

There’s much deliberation and rumination about it all. The former US president Barack Obama was famously known as “No Drama Obama”. He was known for turning things over and thinking, some may say too much. Obama was regularly criticised for this, be it on foreign policy or domestic issues. Ramaphosa seems to have a bit of the “no drama” in him. Given the corrupt and reckless ways of his predecessor, one would think SA would be relieved. But this is a country mostly given to the capricious. Often thoughtlessness is a national trait because we need solutions quickly, whether on the economy or anything else. We are a nation that struggles with doing the hard yards.

The question that came to the fore last week actually was, “Can South Africa deal with a deliberative president at this pivotal moment in its history?” 

OPINION: Judith February