South Africa


Is Abraham Lincoln’s Team of Rivals a model for South Africa?

Is Abraham Lincoln’s Team of Rivals a model for South Africa?
African National Congress (ANC) Secretary General Ace Magashule during a media briefing about his meeting with former president Jacob Zuma on September 11, 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Responding to allegations that he met Zuma to discuss a plot to oust President Cyril Ramaphosa, Magashule said he met the former president over organisational issues. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Alon Skuy) Then-Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa during a pre-World Economic Forum (WEF) breakfast briefing on January 18, 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Ramaphosa, who will be accompanied by Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba at the WEF in Davos, said Team SA is hoping to woo investors with the message that South Africa is serious about rooting out corruption, and that renewal is taking place in the country. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Moeletsi Mabe)

Now that South Africa’s election has happened, and once the new Parliament is sworn in, the next big task, after Cyril Ramaphosa is formally confirmed as president for the next half decade, is the selection and announcement of his new Cabinet. This first step offers the president a chance to make concrete his repeated promises that a new day has – finally – arrived. But will party politics as usual be enough, or is it time to reach for a government of national unity, drawing on the wider talent pool and concentrating energies on the country’s economic and political challenges?

More than a decade ago, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin shot to celebrity status with her book, Team of Rivals. She had previously written a thorough biography of President Lyndon Johnson, literally moving to his Texas ranch to craft the work with him. This followed his virtually forced exile from Washington, after a lifetime as one of the country’s senatorial and presidential power wielders – before the Vietnam War proved his undoing.

But Team of Rivals was a rather different kind of history. Instead of a deep study of the entire life of an important figure in history, Team of Rivals focused tightly on the style of governance practised by Abraham Lincoln. Most especially, she looked into how he had shaped a coalition of quarrelling rivals into a group of men who could become an effective, well-functioning cabinet. This was despite the fact that each of his choices almost certainly thought they should have been elected president instead of that rough, inexperienced man from the West, who had come to Washington with his jokes and interminable tall stories.

Lincoln had come into his presidential office in 1861, just as 11 of the country’s states across the South – from Texas to Virginia – had just declared themselves to be an independent nation. This had been, of course, with the goal of protecting their “peculiar institution” of slavery from being extinguished, and their way of life from being overwhelmed by the rapidly growing North.

Here was a true existential moment for the US. It was – or, at least, could have become – a disaster in which the nation itself was dissolving into two warring halves, and in which Lincoln’s new Republican Party was suddenly in charge of the government, following its first presidential victory.

The party had only recently been cobbled together out of disparate elements. There were the radical Free Soilers eager to end slavery for good; there were disillusioned Democrats breaking free from a party that was forever temporising in the face of Southern resoluteness in preserving slavery; and there were even the remnants of the old Whig Party, the one that had been Lincoln’s original political home.

The Whigs – or what was left of them – had espoused kicking the can of slavery’s future circumstances way, way down the road and off into the future. Instead, the government should be rigid on building national unity via infrastructure improvements: building roads, canals, telegraph and rail networks, and carving new states out of the western territories won from Mexico, or from those in the Pacific Northwest, following an American agreement with Britain. Taken together, these efforts were meant to be the sinews to construct a new kind of continental nation, instead of the squabble over slavery dividing it.

But now, Lincoln was in the hot seat to build a government out of all these disparate political pieces (as well as from some of the still-existing fragments of Democrats in the North), even as he had restored the union once the rebellion could be ended. At first, for Lincoln, the struggle was simply one of preserving/restoring the union; but it eventually morphed into a struggle to preserve the country’s soul through the ending of slavery. Here Lincoln showed a key element of his leadership skills, a willingness to embrace a major shift of policy to succeed with the more fundamental strategic goal of preserving the nation.

He brought together into his cabinet – a policy-making body with more hands-on, collaborative decision-making power then, than now, when the president’s office consisted of a handful of clerks and aides, instead of the extensive bureaucracy of its own that it is now – the leaders of all the Republican factions and clans, and even Democrats. In effect, without calling it that, it became an American-style government of national unity (GNU) in the face of an impending calamity.

Yes, powerful Republican mandarins like William Seward, Salmon P Chase, and Edward Bates joined the administration as Lincoln’s secretaries of state, treasury, and attorney general. But despite their experience and power, there was only one man at the centre of it all. Illustrative was the story of a cabinet vote that had been unanimous against a measure, save for one vote, the president’s. Lincoln then announced the ayes had won, 1 to 7.

Simultaneously, Lincoln realised that to achieve his larger goal, sometimes even some of those powerful men must be sacrificed. He quickly replaced the administratively ineffectual but politically potent Republican, Simon Cameron, as secretary of war with Edwin Stanton. The new man was a Democrat and organisational genius who had even served in Lincoln’s predecessor’s (a Democrat) cabinet, but Stanton was able to manage the immense bureaucratic and logistic enterprise the war had quickly become.

As an aside, when Democratic President John Kennedy came into office in 1961, to reassure the country’s financial and business establishment, he appointed a thoroughly establishment Republican banker, C Douglas Dillon, as his secretary of the treasury, even as he sought to push for Keynesian economic policies and broader trade agreement and tariff cutting authority.

This excursion into history points to the fact that in extreme times, as with Lincoln in the American Civil War, or Winston Churchill in Britain during World War II, sometimes narrow partisanship must be set aside to give a chance for success in the struggle for national survival. This idea, a government of national unity, is a different animal than the more usual concept of a coalition government.

While the latter has worked effectively in some cases, as with successive German governments over the years where coalitions were either centre-right or centre-left, with the occasional example of the grand coalition between the Social and Christian Democrats, there was usually a broad core of agreement on most ideas about governmental policies.

But coalitions can be tricky too. Witness the current British Conservative Party being yoked to the whims of a minor Northern Irish party, or the way successive Israeli Likud governments must seek a parliamentary majority by conceding on a whole range of policies (and giving key cabinet seats) to religious zealots from tiny, right-wing minority parties in order to achieve a parliamentary majority.

By contrast, a genuine GNU is something that largely transcends partisan party politics. It is where a majority offers participation in a new government to other parties, despite formally holding a majority of legislative seats, in the interest of broader national needs. Say, wait a minute. Isn’t that something South Africa made use of in a particularly perilous national journey in the years between 1994-96? That this GNU eventually broke up is less important than at a crucial moment, virtually all parties were prepared to look beyond immediate party interests and to be willing to argue their case in the cabinet, but to live with the final decision without too much grumbling.

Now, who, at this point, given the country’s circumstances, is prepared to argue against the need for a new kind of GNU – and an effort to forge a national consensus on the direness of circumstances? Practically everyone from The Economist to the far left has called Cyril Ramaphosa’s victory – what with a diminished national majority and a brush with electoral death in Gauteng amid the country’s pervasive economic catastrophe and the corruption, cronyism and rot – a moment of choice for the nation and government between a chance for national recovery and a near certainty of systemic disaster. Now if these circumstances don’t qualify for going for a GNU, what would?

Given the constitutional requirements that only two Cabinet ministers can come from the national talent pool beyond parliament, the logical choice is to use those two spots to maximum advantage. Why not, therefore, combine the various economic departments – save for treasury, perhaps – and appoint an experienced, well-regarded business professional like Reuel Khoza or Bonang Mohale to lead this crucial department? Then put a highly regarded, outside education professional to run a combined basic and higher education post as well.

Then, offer some of the remaining posts, especially those dealing with the critical service provision – water, social development, human settlements – to leading political leaders from the various non-majority parties. The watchword for all must be public attestations that it will be the national welfare, not party or sectarian interests, that must be foremost. Finally, let Ramaphosa pick a deputy president who can and will ride herd – hard – on everyone to make sure there are no maverick ministers running far from the presidential policy herd.

Sadly, intra-party conflicts and factional interests will probably prove to be much more important to a president who believes he must consolidate his hold on his fractious, fissiparous party – in order to keep from becoming a victim himself of those struggles. Too bad. DM


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