The key question as we await the policy blueprint President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government will use is whether his party’s national executive committee (NEC) will rally behind or against him.
From that vote for Britain’s exit from the European Union in June 2016, Brexit has given us numerous lessons, key among them the difference between an electorate that wants to exit and a parliament that wants to remain. Three years later the political crisis that unfolded remains Britain’s biggest problem.
Is South Africa soon to be saddled with the same problem? Imagine for a moment that Ramaphosa does not command majority support in his top decision-making structure.
This past weekend, the ANC held its first NEC meeting since the national elections amid whispers that internal fights have intensified. Rumours can be discounted, but what of actions? In announcing his cabinet, did Ramaphosa reveal himself to be a president unable to take advantage of his executive powers? How else can he explain keeping some of the individuals as ministers?
This prompts one to wonder if he has power within his own party and its NEC, specifically the top six. Or whether he presides over an NEC in which his side cannot assert domination.
The latter is possible, especially when considering how some of his biggest critics have been NEC members such as Tony Yengeni and Ekurhuleni mayor Mzwandile Masina. Will the party take action against these members? If it doesn’t, what message will this send? And if it does, how will this affect the different factions? There were mutterings even before the recent meeting that Ramaphosa does not have majority support in the NEC. The grouping of three differing factions can be seen even the top six.
The tainted-individuals test
One of the first tests will be what the NEC decides when it comes to the ANC integrity commission’s recommendations on tainted individuals. If accepted and adopted, Ramaphosa’s power within the NEC will be established. If not, it means his faction was outvoted. And that would not bode well for the country.
If there is truth behind the rumours of a three-way NEC and a three-way top six, politically this would render Ramaphosa the weakest ANC president to date, and one who will struggle to command his party.
Incomparable as they were, his predecessors Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma presided over NECs that started off united and later clashed. Even at the height of discontent around Zuma, his side could still outvote and contain the disgruntled faction. Somehow the Ramaphosa faction has to win power in the NEC and avoid the possibility of being outvoted on key state-related policy decisions. He needs to be freer in his presidency and able to exercise his prerogative executive powers without the shadow of the top five looming over each decision.
The ‘lit fuse’
Some observers of politics have persuasively argued that Brexit bared Britain’s crisis to be political rather than constitutional. The latter is a non-issue for South Africa, but the former is or will soon be a lit fuse for the country, specifically in terms of the internal party politics of the ANC.
Yes, South Africa’s biggest crisis isn’t economic or social. It’s political.
A state president who does not command power within his NEC and is part of a divided top six leaders augurs badly for the country’s progress. Key government policy positions that are put forth will have to contend with differing views – not because they are bad or ideologically opposed, but because of internal factions and the distribution of power.
Confronting the top five or other factions within the NEC could serve to unite them … against the president. This could lead to far more serious consequences. We know the ANC is not shy to recall a president.
The current cabinet
This prompts me to ask: does Ramaphosa have enough support within his party’s NEC to lead a government without constraints and restart the economy? On that last point, if success is based on the cabinet team he has surrounded himself with, then no. Within the current administration are individuals who should not be heading a government department let alone leading anyone. However, politics has ensured that these individuals, despite their many failings, are in government.
At the moment this team’s individual performances give no sign of leaders who can fix social problems or deliver basic services that stop societal decline and regression. With 80% of grade 4 leaners unable to read, unemployment at 27.6 % and the potential of the youth unrealised, it is apparent that whatever efforts they may have made thus far have not succeeded.
I would like to believe that Ramaphosa is aware that if the country is to survive this economic period, government must have leaders who recognise the need to put state success in front of any individual’s political position, access to power and resources. We know politicians are selfish. They are rarely driven by altruism or the desire to improve people’s lives.
For some, Ramaphosa may have the makings of man who can bootstrap South Africa and lift the country off the ground towards greater things. But the reality is quite the opposite. Depending on his party’s NEC, he may hobble in his attempt.
Only time and the balance of power games within the ANC will tell. Gloomily, South Africans and the economy can’t afford a political crisis that drags on or becomes a stalemate.