From the early days of his life as a trade union, civic and political leader, President Cyril Ramaphosa often drew from his veritable armoury of human traits that seem to enable him to glide past difficult moments.
Indeed, watching his testimony as president of the ANC before the Zondo Commission into state capture this week, one could have forgotten that, in Ramaphosa’s own words, in the minds of the general public of South Africa the organisation he leads is “accused number one” in the multi-billion-rand corruption frenzy being investigated.
His long-awaited appearance was expected to shed light on what he himself knew and did to counter the blatant theft of the public purse as deputy and president of the country and the ruling party.
After all, was he not also being accused of purging his detractors within the ANC on the basis that they were corrupt when he himself had through his white monopoly capital friends “bought” the votes to become president? Why was he so desperate that the identities of his extremely wealthy benefactors should remain unknown, and were they now being awarded tenders under his government?
How could he now be part of the brigade that laments about “nine wasted years” under the leadership of his predecessor, president Jacob Zuma, when he was aware that long before the Gupta brothers became the poster boys of malfeasance in South Africa, there had been Gavin Watson and the millions he gave so generously to the ANC and its leaders through his company, Bosasa, that scored handsomely from government work?
How has monies flowed through the ANC’s own investment company, Chancellor House over the years?
Why had the ANC turned a blind eye or actively encouraged that parliamentary processes be perverted in order to elevate the organisation’s own interests above the MPs’ oath of office?
As head of the ANC’s deployment committee, why had Ramaphosa allowed the employment of patently unsuitable people in critical posts in the civil service?
There were many more critical questions that the leader of the ANC had to answer.
Having famously charmed the National Party into negotiating itself out of power to usher in South Africa’s multi-party democracy, Ramaphosa was in his element during the two days in what was supposed to be the proverbial hot seat.
Presiding deputy judge president Raymond Zondo comes across as a genuinely amiable grandfatherly figure who rarely gets irritated with anybody.
Characteristically, President Ramaphosa wears a smile and addresses the judge with typical deference.
From his opening statement, it was clear that President Ramaphosa had prepared thoroughly for his testimony.
He was bold and upfront: “I appear before the Commission not to make excuses or to defend the indefensible.”
However, there was important context: “Corruption is not a new phenomenon in South Africa. The apartheid system was morally and systemically corrupt. Not only did its legal provisions appropriate to a small minority the assets and resources that rightfully belonged to all South Africa’s people, but there was also a prevailing culture of corruption within the apartheid state, state-owned enterprises, private business establishment and Bantustan administrations.”
While “the advent of democracy in South Africa was an opportunity to make a decisive break with that past”, an “important aspect of the ANC’s approach to corruption over the years is a recognition of the extent to which some ANC leaders and members were advertently and inadvertently complicit in corrupt actions.”
It is at this point that the spirits of those who had been expecting fireworks from President Ramaphosa’s testimony were deflated. A pattern of taking collective responsibility was emerging, acknowledging “with hindsight” that mistakes had been made and pledging to make that clean break with those tendencies.
Once that foundation had been laid, all President Ramaphosa had to do was to provide context and an explanation of how ANC processes work.
He had received “about R300-million or so, and not a billion” for his campaign for the last ANC elective conference, but the other contestants for the ANC presidency had also not accounted for their funding.
The ANC had not been disclosing who was bankrolling it, but similarly all other parties in Parliament also refused to divulge because donors did not want to be identified.
Opposition parties had wanted ANC MPs to support their motion of no confidence in President Zuma, yet they themselves did not allow their own members to vote as they pleased.
And so it went on.
In his measured tones, President Ramaphosa was in a charitable mood. Accolades flowed for journalists and whistle-blowers who were doing their patriotic duty to expose state capture.
It seemed President Ramaphosa was not just being old Cyril Ramaphosa when he assured the nation that this time around the ANC was making that decisive break with unsavoury practices such as corruption, careerism, membership rigging and nepotism. That is, until evidence leader Advocate Paul Pretorius pointed out that the ANC seemed routinely to draw such lines in the sand after national conferences and ahead of the following round of elections.
Maybe Cyril Ramaphosa the President of the Republic will have a different story to tell when he appears before the Commission next month.
* Cyril Madlala is the former editor of Independent on Saturday and a political commentator.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.