You are currently viewing our desktop site, do you want to download our app instead?
Moneyweb Android App Moneyweb iOS App Moneyweb Mobile Web App

NEW SENS search and JSE share prices

More about the app

South Africa since 1994: a mixed bag of presidents and patchy institution-building

Covid-19 has placed leadership across the world under the most unforgiving spotlight.
South African president Cyril Ramaphosa delivers a speech next to a statue of the late former president Nelson Mandela in Cape Town in 2020. EPA-EFE/Ruvan Boshoff

The coronavirus pandemic has placed the leadership of presidents and prime ministers across the world under the most unforgiving spotlight. It has exposed underlying weaknesses and revealed hidden strengths.

An extreme crisis like this provides the most searching examination of a political leader – a very acute form of accountability. Such a crisis can make or break a leader.

South Africa is a country that faces a crisis of leadership. Against a backdrop of a former president being jailed for contempt of court for failing to appear before a commission of inquiry probing state capture and corruption, public trust has unsurprisingly declined. This has come through in research, including studies by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC).

This implies that there is a need for a form of leadership that responds to ethical crises. In South Africa and around the world, there is a severe challenge to the “normative core” – the underlying values and ethical principles that hold a society together – as the recent devastating unrest has underlined.

This is the starting point of our chapter, Presidential Leadership and Accountability from Mandela to Ramaphosa, in a new State of the Nation publication from the HSRC.

Our conceptual approach to comparing the presidents of South Africa’s democratic era was guided by the notion of “ethical presidential leadership”. We posed questions such as: what were the principal characteristics of three of the presidents who preceded Ramaphosa (Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma)? And what are the appropriate and useful inferences for his term as head of government?

We developed a framework for assessing presidential leadership based on five criteria: constitutional fidelity, institution building, socio-economic transformation, decision-making and political judgment, and strategic vision and statecraft.

Our chapter applies the first two – constitutional fidelity and institution-building.

We found that, in the 25 years since South Africa became a democracy, there has been both impressive constitutional fidelity and egregious constitutional infidelity. There has been impressive institution-building and destabilising institutional destruction.

Thus, South Africa’s experience of presidential leadership and accountability since 1994 is a confusing and often contradictory mixture of strength and weakness, success and failure, resilience and vulnerability.

Constitutionalism and governance

South Africa is a constitutional democracy. Fundamental to its transition away from the arbitrary, authoritarian and discriminatory rule of the apartheid era was the establishment of a rules-based society. In this, executive power would have to be exercised against the stern test of what the South African activist, academic and jurist Etienne Mureinik called a “culture of justification”. Every exercise of public power would be publicly explained in an open and transparent way.

Moreover, the founding document of South Africa’s new democracy was conceived as more than simply a map of the fresh distribution of power and authority. It was also seen as a constitution with “transformative” purpose. In other words to change the “country’s political and social institutions and power relationships in a democratic, participatory and egalitarian direction.”

South Africa’s constitution does this. It lays out the primary code for democratic governance as well as social change – even though we recognise that this is a contested paradigm.

A man wearing spectacles, a suit and tei listens attentively to another.
Former presidents Jacob Zuma, left, and Thabo Mbeki, chat after the former’s state of the nation address in Parliament, in June 2009.

Hence, the extent to which presidents adhere to the constitutional written code will have profound implications in relation to their use of executive power and their leadership.

Mandela, with his unequivocal support for the principle of constitutionalism and the supremacy of the rule of law, set a high bar.

For his part Mbeki did his utmost to strengthen the capacity and coherence of democratic governance, most notably with reforms to the Presidency itself. It’s nevertheless hard to avoid the conclusion that his approach to statecraft, and to the political management of his own complicated and often fractious party, led him to have undermined the constitution and the rule of law. This might have been done unwittingly, but nonetheless unerringly.

We conclude that he will therefore not be remembered as a great constitutionalist or ethical leader, even though in comparison with his successor, Zuma, history is proving to be kinder to him.

In the case of Zuma, the highest court in the land declared that he had transgressed the constitution. In addition, a large volume of evidence has been adduced before the Zondo Commission of Inquiry that suggests that Zuma abused the power entrusted in him as president. And that he enabled the systemic form of corruption that is now commonly referred to as “state capture”.

Institution building

Institution building is a close relative of constitutional fidelity. This is because South Africa’s constitution is notable for the extensive constellation of “institutional infrastructure” that it establishes. It is the other side of the same coin. Institution building ensures that the vehicles for transformation have the necessary organisational drivers, fit for purpose in every sense.

As the Ghanaian lawyer and educationalist H. Kwasi Prempeh argues, there is a need to shift focus from

strong leadership to building credible and effective institutions at the national and local levels.

We agree institution building is critical. But institutions without conscious, visionary and accountable leaders are vulnerable to abuse of power and loss of integrity.

In other words, ethical leadership requires strong, capable institutions. As Ramaphosa discovered last week, leaders will be rendered vulnerable by weak institutions. There was a massive failure of both crime intelligence and policing, as the president was compelled to publicly accept.

What’s next?

The mixed outcomes of the last 25 years have numerous implications for Ramaphosa and future leaders.

Individual ethical standards of the highest order are essential. But these must be buttressed by strong, capable public institutions. Mbeki recognised this and set about building them. Zuma hollowed them out and rendered them vulnerable to “capture”. Ramaphosa is now in a process of rebuilding, but faces a perfect storm of interlocking social, fiscal, economic and health crises.

The influence of strong ethical leadership by heads of state is critical. But a culture of “ethics of care” must be translated at every level of governance.

Facing a severe, protracted and multifaceted crisis, the presidential leadership stakes could not be higher – for the authority of the Presidency and democratic state, the integrity of the constitution, and the socio-economic stability and advancement of South Africa.The Conversation

Richard Calland, Associate Professor in Public Law, University of Cape Town and Mabel Dzinouya Sithole, Programme Officer – Building Bridges, University of Cape Town

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Sort by:
  • Oldest first
  • Newest first
  • Top voted

You must be signed in to comment.


South Africa – Failed State with a corrupt and useless government and a huge, unproductive section of the population that has criminal tendencies. How much nation building can happen considering these realities ?

We must surely lead the world statistics when it comes to weak, inept leadership. I have even less confidence in whom that will follow those of the last 20 years.

I see you & raise you Afghanistan. Iraq. Syria. Belarussia.

Yes… all countries to be envious of role models for us to emulate

Since 94, it has benn a constant decline due to ANC policy corruption and mismanagement. SA has gone from bad to worse and to junk investment status.

Time for the ANC to depart.

Been a decline since 1961. Hence the whole reason why the ANC still and why they are in charge now. Incompetence is born in Africa.

Sadly the ANC is not going anywhere, for the simple reason that there is no-one to replace them politically… And socially – at the moment South Africa is fighting itself. There is a fermenting squabble between South African race groups at the moment. While I think the catastrophic failures by the ANC Government have become clearly obvious to most (highlighted by the recent Zuma riots), it is not something black South African Society is willing to acknowledge out loud or to itself at this point in time.

For me it is VERY difficult to comprehend why all of them makes this so hard on themselves. The government and presidency is not that hard of a job. They get money for free from tax payers, and all that they have to do is concentrate on the following regarding spending of that money and the DIRECT result of that will be MORE tax payers (they should LEAVE politics on the backburner and only concentrate on these as the result will also be more votes for them):

1. Good Educational System
2. Good Health System
3. Make sure the citizens feel safe – Good Police Force
4. Good Road, Sea, Air and Rail infrastructure
5. Focus on policies that makes business easier
6. Let the private sector grow the economy
7. Good Service Delivery
8. Make sure we have enough and reliable energy resources
9. Make sure our Water infrastructure is intact and ever expanding to stay with a growing economy and population
10. Protect our borders – no more illegal immigrants
11. PLEASE GET GOOD TRADE AGREEMENTS in place with other countries, we can’t compete because you can’t get this right!!!
12. Get competent people in local governments – municipalities should be like the municipalities in the Garden Route as a minimum standard!

Lastly, if they want to give grants, give it to entrepreneurs who cant get funding from institutions and grow the economy and create jobs.

This is not so difficult people! This is an easy business to manage and they are failing abysmally!

ps. Don’t judge me – this is my best English

the anc inherited it in that state, but messed it up in every sector and department right into the ground – till today education / health is not a top priority for the anc

Moneyweb, twice now I have simply made the comment that I predict that in 100 years SA will be a failed state and twice this comment was blocked. What’s it with you people? There is nothing racist about that and it doesn’t incite violence. What happened to freedom of speech???

The amount of “institution-building” pales into insignificance when compared to the destruction of institutions. Additionally many of the ‘built’ institutions are hardly very effective given their track record on significant matters. Just about every scorecard written about clearly supports that view, surely?

One cursory glance at the average parliamentarian is enough to realize that collectivist societies always select the worst scum amongst them to represent them. It takes a special kind of person to rise through the ranks of a socialist organization. Such a person must be willing to make false promises to desperate people, protect corrupt party members, support destructive economic policies, defend parasitic behavior patterns, motivate dependence, and enable the slave mentality among supporters. The ethical individual who wants to do the right thing, who wants to do the best for his fellow man, who speaks out against plunder, who wants to build the economy and create jobs, who wants to prevent famine and disease, will be pushed aside and forgotten by his party.

What kind of personality type rises to the top in socialist organizations then? Either those who are intellectually handicapped and ignorant and truly believe that their actions are morally justifiable, or the most unscrupulous and criminally minded individuals who understand their actions, and grab the opportunity to plunder. Everyone in Luthuli House fits into these categories to various degrees.

The socialist structure is rigged for plunder and corruption. Corruption is inherent to the system. The right to plunder is the glue that holds the party together. What is the purpose of a socialist organization when there is no property left to plunder in the name of the people? That is the stage when the people lose their rights, and when socialism turns into fascism and oppression. Zimbabwe has reached this stage.

“Socialistic economic planning, regulation, and intervention pave the way to totalitarianism by building a power structure that will inevitably be seized by the most power-hungry and unscrupulous.” – Friedrich August von Hayek

Must agree entirely and propose that the system is the enabler of the rise and entrenchment of parliamentary control by organised corruption. It is self-evident that the proportional representation system disables the democratic representation principle whereby the people can vote for their parliamentary representative. There should be no need for further explanation. Then there is the other constitutional kneecapping of democracy that preserves and enhances tribalism.

We are prisoners of the victim mentality as was articulated by Mbula on hard talk the other day….you can’t erase 300 years of colonialism is 27 years.

Presumably you need another 300 years to do this, so RSA can look forward to some good news in about 2300. Till then…eish.

Truth is, you can do a massive amount in 27 years. The economy will double every 14 years at 5% growth, so it could now be 4 times bigger than it was in 1994.

But we got Jacob Zuma instead, Cyril who’s stopped some rot, given us crippling lockdowns and done nothing to grow the economy, and after Cyril…Mabusa?

Heaven help us

It will be interesting to have a completely objective comparison between the 2 governments’ first 20 years of government. Simply from an infrastructure growth, employment and living standards perspective. 1961 to 1981 vs 1994 to 2014.

one leader left prison to become President.

another got that order wrong

some old leaders escaped prison completely

I will never forgot the speech Mandela made as president where he stated that the Nationalist Government did not use the state resources effectively and that the ANC would do a much better job.

At the time this seemed like a reasonable statement. I look back in horror at what actually happened. Future generations will find it extremely difficult to climb out of this hole created by the do gooder intentions. They were so arrogant in thinking that they would solve the problems with more and more state intervention including BEE that put self enrichment above job creating enterprises.

and now the state resources were plundered and looted by the exact same organization who had the idea that the government had an inexhaustible fund of income in the form of direct and indirect taxes without realizing that if the economy is going down, so will the tax generated come down.

This article is pure drivel. A mixed bag indeed. A mixed bag of failures, corruption, ineptitude, tribalism and racial hatred.

One of the greatest tragedies is the demise of free discussion. ANY criticism of Government by any person of paler complexion results in the AUTOMATIC claim of “white privilege”.

Destroyed by criminals.thats it.end of story.

The premise of the article is initially interesting, but was destroyed by poor execution by lost-in-the-woods academic windbags!

Any dissection of the quality of the “New Regime” HAS to be compared against the same rules applied to the “Old Regime”.

As also, the quality (or not!) of the “Opposition Leadership”, needs similar rigorous dissection.

Neither of this was done. At all.

One of the main reasons we have such poor national leadership is DIRECTLY due to the ABYSMAL QUALITY of the political opposition. This over DECADES of idle self-indulgence!

There is a HUGE difference between an opposition that is genuinely DETERMINED to wrest power from the current government, and a bunch of naive snowflakes and cynical imposters pretending that “noisy posturing” can substitute for REAL activism.

End of comments.





Follow us:

Search Articles:
Click a Company: