Opinion

Are the flames that devoured SA being fanned in Ramaphosa's cabinet?

Are the flames that devoured SA being fanned in Ramaphosa's cabinet?

Does President Cyril Ramaphosa have a fifth columnist problem in his government?

Does he have, at the heart of his administration, people who by day pretend to stand with him and by night make common cause with his enemies?

The response of his government to this week's unprecedented orgy of violent looting will have left many mulling the question.

As the economy of KwaZulu-Natal was razed to the ground and the fire quickly spread to Gauteng, citizens were justified in expecting a swift and decisive intervention by the relevant ministers and their departments.

In the event, no such luck.

What South Africans witnessed instead was a breathtakingly glacial response, totally disproportionate to a rapidly unfolding national threat.

It would have been understandable if the outbreak of violence in the two provinces was a sudden, unexpected event in an otherwise serene political atmosphere. But it was nothing of the sort.

For months and weeks, supporters of former president Jacob Zuma had issued barely disguised threats against his possible imprisonment for defying a Constitutional Court order.

Zuma himself, when addressing followers who gathered at his Nkandla home, protested his innocence, warning  there would be trouble if he were imprisoned. He cautioned the authorities not to “provoke the people”.

To all intents and purposes, therefore, the plan to try to burn the country down in defence of Zuma was an open secret.

The question, then, is why were the police and the army unable to prevent the mayhem when it was eventually unleashed?

Was it because of rank incompetence or people sleeping at the proverbial wheel? Not so, if state security minister Ayanda Dlodlo is to be believed.

According to Dlodlo, her department did its job of gathering the intelligence, then gave “the product” to the relevant “client”, law enforcement, to action.

On Dlodlo’s version, backed up by police minister Bheki Cele, the security forces averted a much bigger calamity than befell us over the last week, thanks to the intelligence they had gathered. Something we should presumably be grateful for.

The ministers listed examples of places which were saved from attack, including a hospital, the ANC’s KwaZulu-Natal headquarters and Sandton in Gauteng.

In the midst of all this, what are we to make of statements of Ramaphosa’s government colleagues, who expressed views more in sync with Zuma supporters than with their boss?

That is cold comfort to business owners who watched their property being destroyed not in a matter of hours but over days of unrestrained looting and arson. Or to the many who have lost their jobs and means of income as a consequence.

What they saw as outsiders was a security establishment that appeared to have been taken by surprise. At many of the incidents, police were outnumbered by looters who laid businesses, big and small, to waste.

On the other hand, the deployment of the army, when it did come, seemed to happen with great reluctance, with a paltry 2,500 soldiers sent onto the turbulent streets in the two provinces.

The number was increased to 25,000 only after more businesses had been put to the torch and questions had been asked about the deployment strength.

And contrary to Dlodlo’s insistence that her department had done its job, defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula later told parliament her department knew nothing about the saboteurs’ plans to attack shopping malls, a primary target of the looters.

We may never know the full truth of what transpired in the inner sanctum of government to allow such devastation to happen.

In the midst of all this, what are we to make of statements of Ramaphosa’s government colleagues, who expressed views more in sync with Zuma supporters than with their boss?

One is Sihle Zikalala, the premier of KwaZulu-Natal, who called on Ramaphosa to consider a pardon for Zuma even before the former president's legal processes are concluded.

Another is communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, who, at the height of the mayhem, felt compelled to inform Soweto residents that Zuma, the man who was happy to stoke the fires of resistance and now sat in a prison cell, would call out the violence and promote calm — if only he had the means.

One cannot but get the feeling that something is off in Ramaphosa’s cabinet. In his Friday night speech to the nation, he admitted the government had been “poorly prepared” for the violence. The state “did not have the capabilities and plans in place to respond swiftly and decisively”, he said. Which, of course, raises questions about the performance of the responsible cabinet ministers, who report to him.

The president pledged that, once this crisis has passed, there would be a “thorough and critical review of our preparedness and our response”. As there, indeed, should be.

When that time comes, he must look not only at the competence of his ministers, but also at their loyalty to his cause.

Essentially, the planners and instigators of the violence have given the nation a stark and dangerous choice: Deliver Zuma to us or we will burn your country to ashes.

If we accede and free Zuma against the sentence of the highest court, we might as well throw the constitution into the raging fires, make Zuma king and let him and his cohorts do their damnedest.

Sunday Times Daily