South Africa

POLITICS OP-ED

Previous experience required — every South African president and deputy president should also be a Cabinet minister

President Cyril Ramaphosa and deputy president David Mabuza during the ANCs 110th anniversary celebrations at the Old Peter Mokaba Stadium on January 8, 2022 in Limpopo, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images/Philip Maeta)

South African presidents and deputy presidents in the democratic era have risen to their posts through party ranks, and not through Cabinet ranks. As a result, they lack hands-on ministerial experience, and it shows.

In recent years as South Africa’s crises deepened, its successive presidents have responded with grander and all-encompassing promises, often with less than realistic timeframes. This is to be expected; politicians are prone to exaggerate.

There is another face to this, which has been raised by the likes of Deputy President David Mabuza, as well as the EFF. The latter did so most dramatically in the 2020 State of the Nation Address (Sona) in relation to Pravin Gordhan when they took him to task for his reported promise to President Cyril Ramaphosa in late 2019 that load shedding would not take place in early 2020. This did not garner as much reflection as it ought to have. “Good message, bad messengers” maybe?

Whether true or untrue, however, the claim that a minister could have misinformed a president over the extent of a crisis at the country’s sole power utility, which in turn led to the latter promising the country that chronic power outages would no longer take place, raises serious questions. I present at least two.

How much does the president rely on the promises made to him by his ministers? And ultimately, how (and how accurately) can he hold them accountable when he does not personally know from first-hand experience what they do on a day-to-day basis?

This is perhaps the crux of the South African problem: our presidents, since 1994, have had no ministerial experience, having mainly come up instead through the customarily dual party-government position of deputy president. This is contrary to their Union of SA-era and apartheid-era predecessors who were often ministers before taking up the premiership and state presidency respectively. Prime Minister Jan Smuts had been all-at-once minister of interior, of mines, and of defence. FW de Klerk had been a minister in some six portfolios before becoming state president. His predecessors PW Botha and BJ Vorster had each held two.

Democratic-era South African presidents have had to possess at least two qualities when coming into office: an uncanny policy intuition and the ability to learn and adapt very quickly, essentially taking a crash course on how to run a country while running a country. This may explain why every passing Sona has felt like a wish list; it is essentially delivered by a Minister of Everything who has never directly overseen a single ministry.

The position of deputy president, essentially a president-in-waiting in three of the last four administrations, offers very little opportunity for policy involvement, with the exception of Thabo Mbeki who did play a larger role as the avuncular Nelson Mandela was happy to delegate to him, while he attended to projecting the new republic’s global image.

Once in power, however, Mbeki had two successive deputy presidents whose future presidential prospects were not clear and who themselves played no role in the running of ministerial portfolios.

Future president Jacob Zuma had played a role in provincial government, as Member of the Executive Committee (MEC) for Economic Affairs and Tourism for the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government from 1994 to 1999. But this was followed by a near-decade of being out of policy implementation. Furthermore, his time as the deputy presidency highlights the tendency to relegate the officeholder to special representative on foreign affairs issues. For example, during his tenure as deputy president, he worked for a time in Uganda as facilitator of the Burundi peace process.

Similarly, then Deputy President Ramaphosa would spend considerable time focused on bringing stability to Lesotho, while his hand on domestic policy was thin, save for his chairing of the National Development Commission (more of a think tank than an arm of state power) which brought us the National Development Plan. While it perhaps helps ensure South Africa’s relevance in peace-making efforts and other continental issues as well as in aiding them to project their image for when they assume presidential positions, it is also to be admitted that foreign policy credentials are no substitute for domestic policy experience, whose daily bread is management and direct oversight.

This may explain why, by his own admission, the incumbent has been consistently “shocked” by revelations of the full manifestation of the problems faced by the country in every nook and cranny, chief among these being the state of the parastatals.

That someone so near to the presidency and a presumed future president for the better part of five years can make such claims should be a matter of concern. It demonstrates the degree to which the position’s powers and responsibilities are determined by his president at his prerogative; a diluted role is to be expected when these happen to be individuals in opposed factions, which has been the case on numerous occasions over the past three decades.

This requires us to rethink what a deputy president’s role(s) involve(s). Presently, the Constitution states that “when the President is absent from the Republic or otherwise unable to fulfil the duties of President, or during a vacancy in the office of President… the Deputy President must assist the President in the execution of the functions of government.” The form this assistance takes has been differently interpreted by each successive president and has often been done through the prism of ANC factional politics.

Failing the promulgation of a (politically unthinkable) statute that would grant the deputy presidency more explicit powers, what is to be done?

If experience is the sole measure, then in an ideal South Africa, the technocratic directors-general would be the natural successive ministers, who would, in turn, become presidents. But it is understood that ministers are political appointees (as are some DGs), and this route would close off the sometimes-necessary emergence of a political outsider who brings a fresh approach (not to mention it would be a constraint on a number of constitutionally enshrined rights).

One potential immediate solution is for a sitting president to be able to identify a priority area in the country and take up such a ministerial portfolio directly, instead of building a parallel Cabinet in the presidency as has been observed by some analysts.

There are multiple examples of presidents and their deputies holding additional ministerial portfolios across the globe. For example, in Nigeria, the president has simultaneously held the position of minister of petroleum resources along with the presidency since 2015, while various British prime ministers have simultaneously been chancellors of the exchequer (essentially ministers of finance) or minister of defence during times of war (e.g. Winston Churchill during World War 2).

On the other hand, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame served as vice president and minister of defence from 1994 to 2000, whereupon he became president. In our context, the president and deputy president (both as a member of the executive and prospective president in his/her own right as appears to be the convention) could play direct additional roles as ministers of portfolios with urgent tasks, including economic development, finance, land reform or public enterprises.

No doubt for some this will sound alarm bells, especially around corruption and concentration of power, not to mention wasteful expenditure.

I argue that this arrangement would not be any more dangerous than is currently the case: the presidency is already the most powerful office in the land, with many levers already there such that a corrupt individual would already have these powers at their disposal. As such, there is very little preventing a corrupt president from being corrupt by proxy and appointing ministers to commit said maladministration vicariously to his or her ultimate benefit.

The fiscal argument would also be without basis: a salary is already designated for a ministerial portfolio in any instance and, in fact, there is greater prospect of lessened expenditure if the same roles are occupied by the same individual instead of two.

These proposed “double roles” would guarantee executive attention to the burning issue of economic development and poor administration of SOEs while also helping the president and prospective presidents gain an understanding of what the public policy life cycle in his or her country entails, as opposed to relying on what his or her ministers (not to mention even less policy-involved advisors) claim. Given the calamities facing the country, bold leadership is needed and a bolder step beyond the endless but impractical calls for “better coordination” is needed too. DM

Dr Bhaso Ndzendze is head of the University of Johannesburg’s Department of Politics and International Relations. His latest book is The Political Economy of Sino-South African Trade and Regional Competition (Palgrave). He writes in his personal capacity.

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