SONA 2020

A presidency of talk shops — does the jaw-jaw work? 

By Ferial Haffajee 12 February 2020
Caption
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

Cyril Ramaphosa is practised in the art of consensus building and social compacting across communities. So it was natural that this would become a fundamental characteristic of his presidency.

President Cyril Ramaphosa comes from a long tradition of talking across tables of difference. As the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), he crafted his skill as a negotiator, persuading what were then conservative mining bosses to improve the conditions and wages of mineworkers. 

He kept a stick in his bag (the ability to grind the economy to a halt through a miners’ strike) but Ramaphosa learnt and then perfected the art of negotiation at the World Trade Centre multi-party negotiations in the early Nineties. Later, he worked with Pravin Gordhan on the Constitutional Assembly and then he was deputy chair of the National Planning Commission which drew up the National Development Plan. 

In each of those formative roles, he practised the art of consensus building and social compacting across communities of what felt like intractable differences that stretched from race to class to gender and ideological orientation.

So, it was natural that this would become a fundamental characteristic of Ramaphosa’s presidency. And it has.

The Presidency’s head of the policy co-ordinating unit, Busani Ngcaweni, says the social compacting operates in concentric circles. There are summits on big issues where compacts are needed, then there are advisory panels, councils and working groups.

The summits have included sectoral meetings on health, gender-based violence, jobs, investment and land. There are working groups, advisory panels or councils on BEE, land, energy, the fourth industrial revolution and the economic advisory council.

In March 2020 there will be an infrastructure summit, and the development of a system of industry master plans to stimulate growth by dealing with hurdles in the way of sectoral growth is another example of a new form of compacting, he says. 

Does it work? Ngcaweni says the ecosystem builds trust, while Presidency spokesperson Khusela Diko says, “South Africa’s challenges won’t be fixed by government alone.” She says the compacting style has ensured the highest levels of support for the Presidency from the private sector, young people and faith-based communities in the longest time. 

This is borne out by the latest Ipsos research which has found that Ramaphosa enjoys very high approval rankings even while people fret about unemployment, crime and corruption.

“It brings buy-in and ascertains pain points,” says Diko, who adds that the president’s monthly Monday presidential working committee meeting with business, on jobs has put the flesh on the bone of a likely plan to deal with Eskom’s crippling debt. 

The idea of using R250-billion of PIC assets to settle a portion of Eskom’s debt by creating a special purpose vehicle (with co-funding from other development finance institutions) is being negotiated by some of the country’s finest minds across government, labour and business, says Diko, in a prime example of social compacting. 

“The fact of disagreement is not a bad thing,” she adds, explaining that the style of government has made it easier for skilled people to offer their services – living examples of Thuma Mina, the title of a Hugh Masekela song adopted by Ramaphosa as a call to volunteerism.

But as the graphic shows, progress out of the ecosystem of summits, panels and working groups is mixed. The gender-based violence summit is chalking up good progress and, just last week, the sexual offences courts system was restarted.

Thuthuzela victim-care centres are back in operation. There is a consciousness about gender-based violence that has been missing for over a decade as South Africa experiences its own #metoo moment. But in other areas, the compacts have not delivered consensus or progress on intractable problems.

While the president has instituted both a summit and an advisory group on land, it remains confused. A farmer and vintner who spoke to Daily Maverick said Ramaphosa blew hot and cold on land: sometimes he called the 1913 Natives Land Act the “original sin” for which the only recompense was expropriation without compensation, yet in meetings with farmers he soothed that community by saying it would never happen. 

In the health sector, the National Health Initiative is being messaged less as a concept for social justice to be co-determined than as a plan that will be rammed through no matter what anybody says.

To understand Ramaphosa’s commitment to compacting is to understand his Presidency. But the jury is out on whether the consensus-seeking is being achieved in the areas where it could truly make a difference to the country. DM

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