The President might have bet his farm, but the whole country is at stake

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By Howard Feldman, Head of Marketing & People at Synthesis

I imagine it all happening in a basement at Luthuli House. It is smoke filled, dark, and atmospheric. As our eyes sweep the room, we notice a smattering of half-smoked cigars, a few empty bottles of single malt whiskey and melted ice: all remnants of an evening once enjoyed.

In the center of the room, around a green felt-covered table, sit a few tired old men. Like the evening, they are past their prime and should long have been home and in bed where it is safe and warm. But they are survivors and now they are the last remaining players of a game of poker that has yet to declare itself a winner.  The stakes are high, the men are no longer friends, and so they battle, hand by excruciating hand, to the death.

Outside Luthuli House the country watches not always understanding the nuances as the hands are dealt and the ante is raised.

It is Fraser’s turn. Although at the table for the long haul, he has remained fairly quiet until recently choosing to play a passive and defensive game. But that has changed. Now, he looks Ramaphosa in the eye and with a flourish, goes in with a farm robbery story.

It’s a brave move coming from someone who declared an earlier hand when he released former president Jacob Zuma from prison on “medical grounds”. It was a dangerous move when he did so, but successful nonetheless. And given that he managed to get away with it and that the former President seems none the unhealthier for it, has left him flush with confidence and emboldened.

The farm bet is risky. That is clear. There is an audible gasp from those watching. They confer and wonder and debate. Opposition parties waste little time in getting involved and scramble to see how to use this to their advantage.  But no sooner have they done so and the President responds. “I will see your farm robbery,” he says quietly. “I will deal with what comes.” And in doing so, without drama, he goes all in.

“But I raise you the Guptas!” The Guptas, arrested in Dubai where for some years they have taken refuge. Whereabouts well known, it is only now that they have been arrested based on an Interpol warrant.

Ramaphosa, it would seemed, played the powerful hand in response to the allegations against him.

And it is genius.

This is a game of unprecedented stakes. And anyone who doesn’t see it for what it is, is missing the essence of it all. The ANC is at war with itself. Loyalties have been declared and we have entered the final round of a very dangerous evening. It is happening in the dark, with smoke obscuring the view. It is now evident that there will be losers.

The arrest of the Guptas will infuriate them and will place immense pressure on everyone in their ecosystem. As they consider their next hand, the former President and the RTA will be scrambling for their own survival as well as for revenge.

President Ramaphosa might not be a man quick to act, but to underestimate him on that basis, is to make a fatal error. No matter what comes next, there is little doubt that he has his bet ready to play.

Opposition parties would be well advised to stay out of the room. They should resist being used by the opposing ANC factions,and should rather remain focused on the safety and on the future of their own constituents. Little good will come from them cheering on the sidelines when the job of stepping in and assisting the country is so much more important.

The lights might be flickering at Luthuli House. The basement might be poorly ventilated and the air opaque. But outside of the ANC headquarters it is clear that this is a fight to the last hand. The President might have bet the farm, but it is the whole country that is the stake.