STUART THEOBALD: Phala Phala has made it clear Ramaphosa is vulnerable, but there is no alternative

Is it possible to write about anything other than the Phala Phala scandal? Particularly on pages that are meant to make sense of financial markets? I have tried, dear reader, but failed. The fact is that the past few days have been the most meaningful for SA markets in years.

Thursday was a bruising day for those invested in SA debt or equities. As rumours began circulating that the president was about to resign, there was panic. Investors came to a stark view: in the absence of Cyril Ramaphosa the steps SA has taken to repair its institutions and improve its finances suddenly become very shaky. His immediate successor would be David Mabuza, who constitutionally must step into the presidency and about whom all that is known is that he spends a lot of time in Russia (at least once courtesy of the Gupta jet) and has umpteen dark clouds hanging over him from his long spell as premier of Mpumalanga.

(Ironically, Mabuza also found himself caught up in a farmhouse burglary of cash back in 2009. The Mail and Guardian quoted sources at the time that only R4m was reported to police as having been stolen, rather than the R14m real amount “because it would have raised eyebrows that the premier kept such a large amount of money at a residential property”. Clearly, farmhouses and cash go with the territory.)

Given Mabuza’s position is the result of awkward trade-offs at the 2017 Nasrec elective conference, the national executive committee would then “recall” Mabuza and appoint a new president and deputy president, at least on an interim basis. But who? Apparently calls were made to Kgalema Motlanthe, who so ably filled the role in the Mbeki to Zuma interregnum. But he said “no”, quite apart from the practical challenge that he is not even an MP.

Other names floated included Thandi Modise (who has her own farm-related embarrassments involving starving animals) or those who have received some branch support going into the ANC’s elective conference, particularly Zweli Mkhize (who has many skeletons, most recently over procurement corruption during Covid-19) or Paul Mashatile (relatively scandal-free).

All these options are unnerving for the markets. SA has been repriced by global investors thanks to improvements in fiscal management, the taming of the debt spiral we were in at the end of the Zuma years, and material advances in structural reforms such as allowing the private sector to generate electricity at scale. Just one recent indicator came from ratings agency S&P Global, which affirmed SA’s debt ratings and has SA on a positive outlook.

Confidence has also been recovering in the criminal justice system, which now seems capable of pursuing state capture miscreants, even though various police services are still a long way from fully functional. Markets were banking on this trajectory continuing, delivering further structural reforms to unlock the potential of the economy and improvements in the rule of law.

All that progress was perceived to be at risk. The biggest losers on the equity markets were the banks, with share prices punished 5%-10% on Thursday. Banks had been performing well thanks to higher interest rates which have improved margins, but they are heavily exposed to disruptions in the bond markets and the value of government debt, so the spectre of a reversal of the trend in government finances is negative. Plus, they ultimately depend on wider economic growth to drive their revenue. Equities were helped by mining and other rand hedge stocks that rallied thanks to the 4% plummet in the rand, but that rand fall came with the whooshing sound of capital leaving SA bond markets, which fell about 5%.

There was some recovery on Friday, though not fully. Markets must now try find a new level for SA assets. As it stands, the concern will be that the president is weakened, more vulnerable to attack by unsavoury political opponents. That means the reform agenda is less reliable. But all crises have elements of reflexivity, like how an immune system becomes stronger after an illness. This crisis has made it clear that Ramaphosa is vulnerable, but also that there is no alternative. But it has become clear that the reform effort cannot be invested in just one man.

It really does matter who else is available for leadership and whether institutions can be trusted to deliver reform, rather than personalities. There has also been some weakness exposed in Ramaphosa’s opponents. They had the opportunity to strike, but they hesitated, glimpsing that at best they would get a get-out-of-jail-free card but with only chaos to live in.

SA has lost some of its investor attractiveness. But there is a path open to provide more robust assurance that SA is ultimately protected by its institutions rather than the personalities in charge. We now must make that true.

• Theobald is chair of research-led consulting house Intellidex. This article first appeared in Business Day.