More than a year ago, I asked an ally of Cyril Ramaphosa how the deputy president reconciled remaining silent over the dishonourable conduct of President Jacob Zuma; and when he planned to show his hand regarding his own presidential aspirations.
Timing was everything in politics and patience was required, he replied.
He used this metaphor to describe Ramaphosa’s quest: “Cyril doesn’t need to catch the first wave that comes his way, or even the next. There will be another.”
A sizeable wave rolled in on March 31 last year after Zuma got pummelled by the Constitutional Court over his refusal to be held accountable for public money spent on non-security upgrades at his home in Nkandla.
But Ramaphosa sat waiting.
Thereafter, he watched one wave after another pass him by.
Complicit in his silence, Ramaphosa even verbally protected Zuma in Parliament.
Along with the rest of the ANC caucus, he also blocked various votes of no confidence – brought on largely as a symbolic gesture by the opposition.
This week, Ramaphosa finally showed he had a backbone.
He publicly rebuked Zuma over his “unacceptable” decision to oust Pravin Gordhan in a Cabinet reshuffle, and questioned his ready-made list presented to the ANC leadership.
He also called for citizens to get rid of “greedy, corrupt people”.
Ramaphosa’s outspokenness got the thumbs up from one of his fiercest critics, Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema.
For the first time, the deputy president had spoken sense, said Malema.
“We encourage him to grow like that. If he wants to be president of the country, he must speak out more against this kleptocracy. He has to fight,” said Malema.
But Ramaphosa’s robustness was short-lived. He retreated after seemingly getting a bollocking from Zuma.
So where does that leave the deputy president?
ANC national executive committee member Joel Netshitenzhe this week warned that an individual was “running roughshod over not just the ANC’s interests, but also society’s interests”.
Saying that the ANC risked losing the 2019 elections, Netshitenzhe suggested that the party reopen the debate on the recall of Zuma and “call for a reversal of the more outrageous of the latest Cabinet changes”.
If these efforts failed, he said, the ANC may need to consider allowing MPs to vote with their conscience in a vote of no confidence, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.
Alternative leadership is being sought in a bid to rescue the country from political and economic turmoil.
There is a groundswell of mobilisation against Zuma.
Gordhan and others are calling for action, and Deputy Public Works Minister Jeremy Cronin – in his capacity as a member of the SA Communist Party – delivered a call for Zuma’s head at a memorial service for Ahmed Kathrada on Thursday.
Conditions are right for Ramaphosa to catch the wave.
But with less than nine months to go until the elective conference, he is running out of time.
If he hesitates, he risks a spectacular wipeout.
If he holds back, he risks giving a more enthusiastic contender the opportunity to catch his wave.
* This article first appeared on Media24 platforms.