The party or the people? - The Citizen

Towards the end of his State of the Nation Address, President Ramaphosa departed from his written text to reflect on the role he plays in the life of the country: ‘I’ve often asked myself as president why am I doing this job.’

Terence Corrigan

Towards the end of his State of the Nation Address, President Ramaphosa departed from his written text to reflect on the role he plays in the life of the country: ‘I’ve often asked myself as president why am I doing this job.’

Why is the President doing the job he is doing?

Perhaps this the wrong question, and a better would be to ask precisely which job President Ramaphosa is doing. Let us remember that he holds two presidential offices simultaneously: he is president of South Africa and president of the African National Congress.

The first is a state office accountable to numerous formal institutions and to the people of the country as a whole (albeit largely indirectly, through their parliamentary representatives). The second is a position in a political party, an organisation with its own distinct and more limited and opaque lines of accountability and incentives.

Starting in the Mbeki era, the tension between these two positions has been a recurrent theme. The issue comes down to this: should the writ of the party determine the stance of the state and the actions of the president ‘deployed’ there, or does the president by virtue of the powers of his state office have latitude for action independent of (and even superior to) that of the party. While this is perhaps most visible where separate incumbents occupy these different offices, the implications of this go far deeper.

President Ramaphosa’s accession to power was widely hailed as a turning point, a moment at which South Africa could begin to regain the promise of democracy. As a country, President Ramaphosa would lead a new era of probity, productive policy reform, purposeful governance and prosperity. He would also rekindle confidence in the party he was leading, restoring it to its position of natural leader of the country. There is some evidence that this phenomenon – ‘Ramaphoria’ – produced a modest electoral gain in 2019.

It hasn’t worked out like that. While President Ramaphosa’s tenure has been hit by external crises (most notably the Covid pandemic), his stewardship of the state has been disappointing to put it mildly. The overwhelmingly negative response to the SONA – in fact, in anticipation of the SONA – demonstrates just how unconvincing he has become. Yet he has repeatedly expressed visible concern for the trajectory of events, and paid lip service to the need for reform. At some level, he understands that things cannot continue on their current course; he knows that this spells disaster for the country and that all eyes are on him to produce a solution.

Yet on another level, acting on this has been beyond his political repertoire. An interviewer once delicately described him as a practitioner of ‘strategic patience’, a narrative that was very much in favour in the early part of his incumbency.

President Ramaphosa, so the thinking went, needed to bring disparate constituencies on board and reconstitute the various institutions that had been compromised. There may have been some truth to this, but ultimately this sort of consensus-and-cooperation scheme could not succeed, not only across society as a whole, but within the ANC as a party.

And one step that Rampahosa has declined to take is seriously to undermine the ‘unity’ of the party, even as this becomes increasingly illusory – the legal standoff between Ramaphosa and Zuma being a vivid illustration of it. Where it matters most, policy reform, he has done very little indeed.

‘I said then that the ANC is more important than even the Constitution of the country’, former President Jacob Zuma told a crowd in late 2006. This is a widespread view in the ANC, reflecting the political culture of a liberation movement. It alone has the historical mission to lead South Africa forward; to act in a way that would threaten its capacity to exercise ‘hegemony’ would be beyond the party’s political or even emotional limits.

And since the ANC has maintained its unity through a mix of dated ideology and patronage, anything that might move the country significantly towards public sector professionalism, towards a welcoming investment climate, even towards resolving the electricity crisis is guaranteed to be met by stiff resistance which the president is disinclined to face with anything other than accommodation – or a fruitless search for ‘consensus’.

Indeed, in President Ramaphosa’s performance in SONA and in pre-SONA pronouncements, one couldn’t help but recognise a sense of dissociation between himself and the administration he heads and the problems for which it is directly responsible. In a piece in News24 at the beginning of last week, he called on ‘government’ to do this and that – though, in a real sense, he is the government.

But it’s hard to think that President Ramaphosa sees this presidency as his primary responsibility. Rather, he appears unable to shift focus from the interests of his party. Unfortunately, this is making the reform that South Africa needs impossible.

Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute of Race Relations