Cyril Ramaphosa’s leaked emails: echoes of apartheid-era dirty tricks

South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. GCIS

A routine smear. This is the view of the overwhelming majority of commentators and analysts about last weekend’s “revelations” in the Sunday Independent that Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was a serial womaniser.

The commentariat can expect more such smears. They will come against more than one candidate running for the presidency of the governing ANC - and subsequently of the country. It’s not hard to predict that this slapstick routine will continue all the way to voting at the ANC’s national conference in December.

This was at least the second anti-Ramaphosa smear, following an earlier damp squib that alleged that he abused his ex-wife, a claim she firmly refuted.

Ramaphosa has alleged that rogue elements in the country’s intelligence services hacked into his private emails and doctored them before handing them to the newspaper to smear him. This, he said, was intended to scupper his campaign to become president of the governing ANC and the country. He predicted that it would get worse ahead of the governing party’s elective conference.

Ramaphosa is in a virtual two-horse race with former head of the African Union, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, for the presidency of the ANC. Her former husband President Jacob Zuma has endorsed her as his preferred successor.

ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe has since urged factions within the governing party to desist from using state resources to discredit those competing for the presidency.

Then and now

Several dimensions of this are worth unpacking.

Police states, unlike democracies, by definition abuse their secret services to spy on peaceful, lawful opponents. But to find a case where the secret services are also abused to spy on factions and rivals within the governing party, one has to go back all the way to the 1960s.

General Hendrik van den Bergh, who set up the Bureau for State Security (BOSS), to spy on the apartheid regime’s leftist and liberal opponents, also founded the Republikeinse Intelligensie Diens to spy on the then governing National Party’s right-wing faction. These verkramptes (conservatives) broke away in 1969 to form the Herstigte Nasionale Party.

It’s painful to make comparisons between the apartheid police state and post-apartheid South Africa’s Westminster-style democracy. But secret service abuse of phone tapping and letter opening leaves analysts no choice.

While it’s now over a decade since a horrified former Intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils discovered that some of his subordinates and phone tappers in the National Intelligence Service (NIS) strayed beyond their brief. They took opposite sides in the acrimonious split between President Thabo Mbeki and his fired deputy Jacob Zuma.

What we now seem to have again are rival cliques within the State Security Agency. Each clique sucks up to a rival politician. One clique made available a selection of Ramaphosa’s emails for others to doctor and leak to the Sunday Independent. Another, different clique, was presumably involved in the earlier Gupta email cache. The “#Guptaleaks” exposed the extent of the alleged corrupt relationship between the powerful Gupta family and state officials, parastatals, as well as its influence on Zuma’s government.

A second dimension of the latest smear against Ramaphosa is equally fascinating. The smear organisers, no doubt after some debate between themselves, made the deliberate choice that their smear should be leaked to the Sunday Independent – instead of to The New Age and ANN7. The later was established by Zuma’s friends, the Guptas. With their television station, The New Age are at the heart of state capture allegations and rabidly pro-Zuma and his faction.

This must reflect the spooks’ considered judgement that The New Age and ANN7 are so completely tainted as Gupta business outlets as to be discredited. So, their smear’s only chances of credibility lay with placing their bait in some alternative media go-between. It does help that Steven Motale, the editor of the Sunday Independent, who wrote the story on the leaked emails, is also perceived to be in the pro-Zuma camp, having written an impassioned open letter in 2015 expressing his regret that he was part of a “sinister” campaign against the president.

Motale also praised ordinary members of the ANC members who “consistently supported Zuma despite the sustained barrage of propaganda against him”. He followed it with another this year in which he condemns former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan as being an impediment to Zuma’s idea of radical economic transformation.

Presumably this leaking and smearing will continue. There will always be one media outlet desperate enough for an exclusive scoop from the secret services. That, also, has not changed since the apartheid decades. Remember The Star newspaper alleging that thorn in the apartheid government’s side, Joe Slovo, who was general secretary of the South African Communist Party during the liberation struggle, killed his activist wife Ruth First? That was of course a total fabrication by the apartheid regime’s agents.

Here in 2017 though, democracy relies on a politically savvy public of informed voters who will respond to smears not with credulity, but amusement, cartoons, and sarcasm.

Campaigns, slates and splits

The remaining months of the formal ANC election campaign between now and the party’s national elective conference in December recall to mind Helen Zille’s comment when she suddenly sprung her surprise resignation as national leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA). She commented that any internal DA campaigning longer than a few brief weeks would harm her party.

By contrast, ANC internal campaigning resembles primary years in the United States, stretching over pretty much at least 12 months. The ANC needs to develop mechanisms to manage this without splits - such as those that led to the formation of the United Democratic Movement, the Congress of the People, and Economic Freedom Fighters - in its past.

“Slates” have plagued ANC politics during its 2007 and 2012 conferences. With the slate system, delegates to the national conferences are lobbied to vote for a prescribed list (or slate) of candidates linked to a specific presidential candidate. Such a list then automatically becomes the party’s highest decision making body, its national executive committee.

One solution is for the ANC to change its voting procedures for its national and provincial executive committees. This will ensure that the maximum number of candidates any delegate may vote for should be significantly less than the number of seats contested. This would ensure that while the winning slate still wins, the losing slate gets some representation. So it is neither purged nor splits off to form yet another breakaway party.