Will the real leader stand up? Who is in charge, Mr President?
The South African ruling elite is thoroughly frightened of losing power. ‘The highest decision-making body of the party’ and ‘democratic centralism’ are among the phrases we’ve become familiar with. The authority this body exerts in terms of the ANC’s approach, its resolutions, and ultimately its decisions on which policy positions to advance as the governing party, is considerable.
It is this irrevocable commitment to party policy positions that has made the ANC look like a schizophrenic alchemist who doesn’t know how to make true his gold promise.
Policy positions blowing in the wind
Evidence of this is seen in the varied policy positions on reforms, such as those related to the economy, mining, land, and the mandate of the South African Reserve Bank (Sarb).
I will devote some time to the first three in later columns.
For now, my attention is on the uncertainty and, to an extent, the inaction that has come to characterise Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency. Unsurprisingly, claims that his power within the ANC is waning are gaining ground.
Granted, on account of the presidential power chair he occupies, Ramaphosa very much appears to be a man with power.
But is he in charge? And how has he used that power to establish his authority? Is the president the decision-maker or does he have to defer to his party’s top six officials?
Ultimately, who decides on key issues about the future of South Africa?
At the same time, I wonder if his lack of decisive leadership is an outcome of the ANC’s democratic-centralism approach that determines the party’s policy position, resolutions and decisions.
Tito Mboweni demonstrates how this cannot be the case, for while he is very much a disciplined cadre of the party, his actions as finance minister illustrate how a party position on certain subjects doesn’t automatically become a government position.
Consider that the ANC’s position on Eskom is to save the ailing company. In contrast Mboweni deems such an endeavour costly and unaffordable and sees restructuring (which may include selling) as a way out.
The current contradictory statements emerging from a different faction in the party, the tweets by some NEC (national executive committee) members on land, the economy and internal party politics, are telling.
Consider Sarb. Those in the NEC, and other members within and outside government, have divergent views about the bank’s mandate and its role. Other contradictory views are evident regarding the handling of the Eskom crisis, including the appointment of its CEO, and the ministers of public enterprise and finance.
And all of this is playing out in public.
As the economy continues what seems like an inescapable march towards extended decline and expanded unemployment, the dream of a thriving South Africa for all seems to be fading.
On being elected, the president alluded to doing things differently because it was a new dawn, declaring accountability and promising to decisively deal with corruption and poor governance in government. Besides the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, he has done nothing to address management failure at various state-owned companies.
Is this deliberate? His office grants him the power to act.
Or is he being undermined by the politics of collective decisions and democratic centralism that is embedded in his party? I think both apply.
Not only are they restrictive, but these mechanisms have enabled senior leaders in the party to undermine him.
It should be no surprise then that the NEC, and to some extent the top six officials of the ANC ,are the real decision-makers.
Alongside the opposing faction and vested-interest business leaders, are the closely-allied, neither-cold-nor-warm communist party and the waning workers’ federation – all constantly camped near the corridors of power, waiting to seize and secure power for themselves.
Their interest is as much in governing and advancing South African interests as it in financially securing their future and keeping state power circulating among themselves – because if someone else takes over, there go their fat cheques and related privileges.
It is obvious that these Machiavellian manoeuvrings are part of the problem – affecting many government policy implementations and reform programmes.
For example, within the NEC there are those who want Sarb to be nationalised, and those who don’t. Mboweni’s tweets on the matter indicate that he is against it. Of course, the party has issued statements calling him to order and to toe the line.
What is revealing about the assertion that only Ramaphosa can “make pronouncements for and behalf of” the NEC, is that in reality, that has never happened. Most of the time the NEC lekgotla resolutions are delivered by ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule, often with a tone or a message that reminds members who is in charge: the party, not the president.
Many other forces may be acting in the same direction, one of them being the president himself. How he has or has not used the executive powers bestowed on him has created an image of leader who does not know how to wield power to his advantage.
It is perhaps this perception that emboldens others to undermine him.