South Africa

ANALYSIS

South Africa a step closer to a super Presidency after Ramaphosa’s master class in consolidating power

Illustrative image | Sources: Moeletsi Mabe / Sunday Times / Gallo Images | EPA-EFE / KIM LUDBROOK / ROGER BOSCH | Flickr | Leila Dougan

Moving the State Security Agency to the Presidency means intelligence now joins the presidentially run security architecture, alongside the structures on investment, infrastructure, project management and Operation Vulindlela, the bottleneck-breaking initiative with National Treasury.

The Cabinet shuffle of the State Security Agency (SSA) means South Africa’s constitutional democracy is almost back where it started – with a deputy minister for intelligence, as state security used to be known.

From February 1995 Joe Nhlanhla was democratic South Africa’s first deputy minister for intelligence services, located in the justice ministry.

It has taken this long since the 1994 democratic transition for new intelligence legislation and structures to be sorted out and established. Nhlanhla served as deputy for intelligence services under the then justice minister, Dullah Omar, until 1999 when intelligence was established as a full ministry in the Thabo Mbeki presidency. The minister of safety and security, as police was known then, was Sydney Mufamadi.

Now, for the first time in 22 years, intelligence is no longer a stand-alone ministry – and Ramaphosa is the first president to “assume political responsibility for the control and direction” of intelligence, as Section 209 of the Constitution allows, unless a Cabinet minister is appointed. And Mufamadi is now the presidential security adviser.

This comes in the wake of two scathing intelligence reviews, a decade apart, that identify common and unresolved problems.

The December 2018 High-Level Review Panel of the SSA highlighted not only excessive secrecy, which undermined accountability, but also “serious politicisation and factionalisation of the intelligence community over the past decade or more, based on factions in the ruling party, resulting in an almost complete disregard for the Constitution, policy, legislation and other prescripts”. A redacted version of this review report was released publicly in March 2019 – only after the Right2Know Campaign went to court.

The September 2008 Matthews inquiry report, released after a two-year, wide-ranging review of structure, oversight, ministerial responsibilities also found:

“The intelligence services would benefit from greater provision of information. Excessive secrecy gives rise to suspicion and fear and this reduces public support for the services. In a democracy, unlike a police state, the services must rely on public cooperation rather than coercion to be successful.”

Why is any of this important?

Because simply moving state security into the Presidency does not mean the issues would be resolved – they have not been resolved for more than a decade – but instead poses the risk of the Presidency directly being affected by ongoing unprofessional shenanigans, corruption and worse. The SSA currently has neither a serving full-time domestic or foreign branch head.

With the SSA moving into the Presidency, also moved is Deputy State Security Minister Zizi Kodwa, a known close associate of Ramaphosa who was called up to government from the Luthuli House president’s office. That, together with fellow known ally Mondli Gungubele as minister in the Presidency, means Ramaphosa has shored up a safety cushion.

But this move means the Presidency now straddles pretty much all aspects of government administration:

  • From intelligence to security in the form of the National Security Council, which while re-established on 27 February 2020 for the first time since the Thabo Mbeki presidency, only recently surfaced publicly as the mechanism for security ministers alongside the ministers of finance, justice, home affairs and cooperative governance and their directors-general, to coordinate and mandate “the work of the security services, law enforcement agencies and relevant organs of state to ensure national security”, according to its Government Gazette mandate;
  • On the economic front, including various committees, from climate change to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the Infrastructure and Investment Office driving the government’s R1-trillion build programme, and the Project Management Office; and
  • Governance through structures the president chairs, including the State-Owned Enterprise Council, and the Presidential Coordinating Council that brings together premiers and mayors.

A special mention must go to Operation Vulindlela, the joint initiative with the National Treasury to speed up economic transformation and regulatory reform. It’s understood to have played a key role in the upping of the licensing threshold of embedded power projects to 100MW, well above the ministerially contemplated 10MW and double what business had requested.

That’s all well and good, but the ministerial regulations that were promised within 60 days would miss that deadline, it emerged last week after the post-Cabinet briefing fumbled around verbiage that ministerial regulations were ministerial prerogatives.

Another example would be the Presidency’s Project Management Office, which has to work through ministries and departments, missing the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan target of 800,000 job opportunities by March 2021, trailing at 694,152 temporary work placements.

Both examples – others exist, like the still to be auctioned spectrum – underscore that while the Presidency may drive a big-picture policy programme with special-occasion announcements, the implementation by ministers and departments remains haphazard at best.

Crucially, what happens in the Presidency is beyond parliamentary scrutiny and accountability.

No committee on the Presidency exists, despite years of opposition calls for this. A previous attempt to have the minister in the Presidency account to the parliamentary public service and administration committee failed to get off the ground. The presidential Q&As held every three months may be somewhat uncomfortable, given opposition barbs, but the accountability bar remains very low.

Ramaphosa is unlikely to face internal criticism from the governing ANC for centralising power in the Presidency for two reasons:

One, the ANC seems comfortable with executive-minded hierarchical governance and toeing the party line – as became clear in the State Capture Commission hearings on Parliament’s constitutional duty of oversight over the executive. (Read more here, here and here.)

Two, the ANC’s December 2017 Nasrec national conference resolution puts the Presidency as the “strategic centre of governance… [which] must be the central driver of the developmental state” with the core administrative functions of “state macro-policy and planning; budget and resource allocation and prioritisation; cooperative governance; public services; and performance management”.

While Ramaphosa, since his first State of the Nation Address on 16 February 2018, talked of reconfiguring the state, that process has unfolded not so much to reduce ministries, or even ditch ministers, but with expanding the scope and role of the Presidency.

By June 2021 it emerged that alongside moving a series of functions like investment and infrastructure and Operation Vulindlela to the Presidency, also well under way was the process to make the Presidency director-general head of the whole public administration. A super DG, so to speak.

That emerged in a briefing after the 2 June Presidency Budget Vote debate, when Ramaphosa said the Presidency had been realigned to “more effectively drive the transformation of our society and economy” and “strengthened to better equip” it to direct and coordinate government programmes.

“The Constitution confers on the Presidency the responsibility of leading a capable developmental state,” Ramaphosa said then. “It is our firm conviction and intention that the Presidency must become the heartbeat of a capable and developmental state.”

Of course, the Constitution states no such thing. Neither does it impute the president with “responsibility to safeguard the security and integrity of the nation” as was claimed during Thursday’s Cabinet reshuffle statement that also announced a panel to review security lapses related to the July violence and public disorder to “strengthen our security services and to prevent a recurrence of such events”.

Section 83 of the Constitution says the president “must uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic”, and also “promote the unity of the nation and that which will advance the Republic”. Section 85 states “executive authority… is vested in the president”, and exercised with other members of Cabinet, or ministers.

But it’s understood that the Cabinet was rocked to its core by that security lapse in July. Many commentators and ANC stalwarts like Mavuso Msimang acknowledge it was at least in part instigated from within the governing ANC.

July’s so-called security lapse happened despite the rise of the securocrats to the centre of governance in the unrelenting Covid-19 lockdown – it’s Lockdown Day 502 on Tuesday – through the NatJoints, or National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure, which brings together police, soldiers and spooks in a structure that is not established in law or regulation – and that does not account publicly.

And it happened despite the National Security Council that brings together the ministers of police, defence, state security, finance, cooperative governance, home affairs, international relations and justice. The directors-general of those departments serve in the secretariat headed by the Presidency DG, which importantly also includes the military chief and the intelligence coordinator of the National Intelligence Coordinating Committee that’s established in terms of the 1994 National Strategic Intelligence Act.

The question must arise: if all these coordinating structures existed for as long as they have, why did they not work?

The answer may lie not in the positioning of the intelligence and security architecture – or that of economic recovery and reconstruction – but in the organisations and structures themselves. The 2008 Matthew commission report and the 2018 High-Level Review Panel indicate that.

If this is the case, moving state security into the Union Buildings would not resolve any of the real issues – except to further build a super Presidency. DM

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All Comments 12

  • Laagerism….. That’s all it is. The prime reason here is self preservation, nothing at all to do with what may be good for the country at all. Wanting to promote growth by putting the commies and trades unions to control it is unbelievably delusional. Repeating the same errors and expecting a different outcome is the essence of madness.

    • I think that in view of the chaotic state of the SSA during Mr Zuma’s years and continuing to date, CR made the right decision but only as a short term measure. I agree that SSA should not remain in the Presidency long term.

    • Dana I share your concern. “Crucially, what happens in the Presidency is beyond parliamentary scrutiny and accountability” so we could end up with a SuperPresident with Super Power. Scary!

  • SA appears to be well on its way to become a totalitarian state. More centralised executive power with no accountability to a public institution such as parliament constitutes a nation in chains.
    Thank heavens groupthink is not as firmly entrenched as in Zuma’s era. SA citizens can just pray that enough individual thinkers will remain to counterbalance this.
    What is truly scary is that no current political leaders are pointing out the dangers of centralised power. I always thought’1984′ was just a nightmare scenario. Not any longer.
    Tks for the article, Marianne.

  • Reminiscent of the Dutch fable of the lad who tried save Haarlem from flooding and put his finger in the holes of the leaking dike…?

  • It is all about staying in control and having the power to rule. Self preservation of cr and the anc, nothing else matters, remember. One party dictatorship is coming. Be aware and be scared.

      • Are people now shouting on this platform. It must be the virus. Get off for a while and chill or get some therapy. Generalisation clouds reality and a good point easily gets muddled. Stay on track please.

  • The latest developments do not bode well for “ democracy”. There seems to be a natural bent of the ANC towards totalitarianism- its conduct in parliament, its obvious admiration for authoritarian governments (Russia,Cuba), its “comrade” speak, the lack of interest in democratic institutions, despite alluding every minute to the constitution. We appear to be heading in a dangerous direction. In addition, so far there has been no accountability for the July “insurrection”, are the real perpetrators going to escape the law?