Opinion

ANALYSIS: What will happen if Cyril Ramaphosa, like Boris Johnson, is felled by Covid-19?

Deputy President David Mabuza will become acting president if President Cyril Ramaphosa takes ill, if he contracts the coronavirus like British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has done. His ascension to the top job could change the country’s whole political dynamic, writes Pieter du Toit.

Britons were on Monday night confronted with the cold reality of the spread of the Covid-19 disease when Boris Johnson, the country’s prime minister, was admitted to an intensive care unit in London after he started struggling to breathe.

It’s shaken the United Kingdom, which in recent weeks has been trying to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, that their head of government has also fallen prey to a virus which has infected people from all walks of life and from across the globe.

Analysts and commentators in Britain have said that the country’s “system of government” will continue unaffected and that Johnson’s stand-in, the foreign secretary Dominic Raab, will lead the Cabinet in Johnson’s absence.

In an editorial on Tuesday, The Times however expressed some concern about how the British government would function with Raab at the helm.

“The responsibility that now falls upon Mr Raab in the coming days is immense, made heavier by the lack of clarity under Britain’s informal constitutional arrangements about his role. In the US, the constitution sets out a clear order of succession if the president becomes incapacitated.

“Mr Raab is first secretary of state and Mr Johnson’s ‘designated successor’. But this position has no official status. Besides, Mr Raab is a divisive figure regarded by many of his colleagues as an ideologue with limited experience at the highest levels of government. His challenge will be to exert his authority over the cabinet and demonstrate the necessary leadership to retain public confidence in the government’s handling of the crisis.”

South Africa’s Constitution, in contrast, is very clear about the line of succession should the president become unable to execute his duties. Under Section 90, the deputy president is the automatic acting president, followed by a minister appointed by the president, a minister designated by Cabinet and then the Speaker of the National Assembly.

IMF loan

Ramaphosa, who is 67 years old and has tested negative for the coronavirus, seems to be in robust health. He has decisively taken charge of the the government’s reaction to the spread of the virus and has been active, visible and vocal over the last four weeks. He has addressed the nation on three occasions, declaring a state of disaster, announcing a national lockdown and giving an update on unfolding events, drawing plaudits from critics about tone and temperament.

Before the virus hit these shores, Ramaphosa was achieving some measure of success in securing his presidency and leadership, despite the range of debilitating crises in government and party he is simultaneously dealing with. He was gearing up for a protracted political reorganisation in the wake of the Feburary budget, with the biggest battle – beyond the Eskom restructure – the public sector wage bill. He had calculated the political and economic risk associated with his plans, and the math showed the time to move has arrived.

Then the virus hit and every single issue that occupied the public square – Eskom, wages, state capture prosecutions, repairing the economy – was washed away by the coronavirus tidal wave.

There’s no doubt that, while Ramaphosa is marshalling the state’s meagre resources depleted by years of looting and mismanagement to try and avert a health disaster, his opponents have been biding their time. Monday’s rejection of Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s statement that he will consider going to the International Monetary Fund for support by the ANC, Cosatu and the SACP is evidence of that.

In a statement, signed by, among others, Ace Magashule, the three organisations say the country’s sovereignty must be protected at all costs and that an approach to the IMF is not an option. The subtext: an IMF loan will amount to selling out. And Ramaphosa and Mboweni will be held accountable.

How then would the political dynamic change if Ramaphosa, like Johnson, is taken ill, or heaven forbid, dies because of this virus?

Game changer

David Mabuza, who has presided over Mpumalanga, one the most corrupted and financially distressed provinces in the country, and with no discernible ideology or political philosophy, will immediately become president.

But he remains a highly problematic infidvidual, who only rose to the deputy presidency on the back of a series of questionable political deals and gerrymandering before and during the ANC’s elective conference in 2017. And unanswered questions remain about millions of rands stolen from his house, his alleged involvement in political assassinations and tenders that flowed to individuals linked to him while premier in Bombela.

He has also in recent times seemingly reached out to the EFF, often being seen at events joking and laughing with its leader, Julius Malema, which suggests more than a professional relationship. And he’s openly challenged Ramaphosa’s closest capture cleaner, Pravin Gordhan. His allegiances are difficult to gauge.

Mabuza’s ascension to the top job will no doubt stall nascent economic reforms, and will put Luthuli House and the rest of the recalcitrant alliance members back in charge.

It will see rapprochement to Malema and the EFF, and we can expect institutions of state, like the NPA and SARS, only now showing slight signs of recovery after the Zuma years, again coming under pressure. And ratings agencies and international markets will be spooked.

President David Dabede Mabuza will be a game changer.

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