South Africa


How much true power will the future SA presidency hold?

How much true power will the future SA presidency hold?
From left: Former president Thabo Mbeki. (Photo: Daniel Acker / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | Former president Jacob Zuma. (Photo: Neville Hopwood / Getty Images) | President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

Whoever takes over from Cyril Ramaphosa will probably have even less direct political power than he appears to have. This apparent weakening of the centre demonstrates important dynamics in our politics. It also reveals that the era of an ‘all-powerful president’ in our politics may be coming to an end.

As the country continues to examine the causes and consequences of the 2021 riots in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, many are trying to gauge the real political power held by President Cyril Ramaphosa. He appears to be under pressure for all manner of reasons, not least the sheer ineptitude of his government in solving our power crisis.

It is clear that whoever takes over from Ramaphosa will probably have even less direct political power than he does currently. This apparent weakening of the centre demonstrates several important dynamics taking place in our politics. It may also reveal the era of an “all-powerful president” in our politics coming to an end.

There can be no doubting the power held by our immediate past presidents, and how they directly impacted on our lives in important ways.

It is accepted by almost everyone that the trigger for last year’s violence was the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma. If anyone else had been in his place, there would have been a much less bloody outcome.

Even before that, Zuma had demonstrated his power by simply enacting an agenda of corruption through State Capture. If there is one thread running through the revelations and findings of the Zondo Commission it is that Zuma played the central role — he allowed it and enabled it to happen. He was able to ensure that the ANC, as Zondo put it, “permitted, supported and enabled corruption”.

Throughout the Zuma era, he manifested his power in many ways, not the least of which was the number of supporters who came out for him during his campaign to be ANC leader, and the huge bump in support his party received during his time in office when KZN voters opted for the party.

Mbeki in the right gear

Before Zuma, former president Thabo Mbeki was able to do the same. Using his political power, he was able to force through the Gear budget of 1996 (what the SACP still calls the “1996 Class Project”). 

But, more than that, in the face of vociferous opposition from the civil society, Mbeki was able to enforce his bizarre views on HIV/Aids, a move that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. This was despite almost universal condemnation.

At one point in 2002, Mbeki had overseen the ANC’s national executive committee’s heckling of Nelson Mandela for his criticism of his predecessor’s stance.

And, of course, before Mbeki, Madiba himself was seen as central to everything about our future — his comments and attitudes set the tone for the “rainbow era” many presumed the country to be living through at the time.

It is important to consider how far all of this goes in our history.

Former president FW de Klerk also had important power, mainly through his control of the police and the South African Defence Force. He was able to end apartheid against considerable pushback from within his party. 

Before him, PW Botha was able to refuse calls for change and used violence, assassinations and shootings as a political tool against liberation movements.

One could go back much further to bolster the argument that up until recently, presidents (and prime ministers) had immense personal power.

False start

All of this appears to stand in strong contrast with our situation now.

Even though Ramaphosa did everything he could to concentrate as much power as possible within his presidency, the President does not appear to have the political power to fix South Africa’s energy crisis, or to create any kind of order in our society. 

He does not even have the political power to follow his own stated agenda of renewal in the party. How else does one explain the continued presence of Mosebenzi Zwane as chair of Parliament’s standing committee on transport, despite the finding that he was a “Gupta Minister”? He is just one among so many other examples; there are hundreds of them.

Anyone who takes over from Ramaphosa in the future could be even weaker.

Should the ANC drop below 50% in the 2024 elections, as appears likely, any coalition it may lead will have less power at the centre than it had in the past. And, of course, if any other group of parties tries to form a coalition in the national government, the same will apply. (The bigger the number of parties in power, the more unstable will be the power of the sitting president.)

Broadening the power spread

This is an important dynamic because it reveals several elements in our politics. The first is how a process of deep democratisation can take a long time, and can often run as a process despite the interests of those who try to stop it.

In the mid-1990s, with a new government, the person in charge of the ANC had a huge amount of power. Since then, as has been noted many times, political power in the party spread to the provinces and regions. (Why else would we spend so much time talking about the “war zone” that was the Ekurhuleni ANC conference earlier this year, or the eThekwini conference that saw Zandile Gumede being elected leader despite corruption charges against her?)

As the ANC loses political power and more parties enter our politics, this process of power-spread has continued.

There are important features that may now emerge from all of this.

It may now be that a weaker president is a more democratic scenario, in that it will be difficult for anyone in that position to do anything without broad electoral support.

This could prevent the kind of corruption that was found to occur during the Zuma era or the kind of policy tragedy committed by Mbeki that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

But it will also make decisive action harder in times we need to solve previously unheard-of problems.

This could result in the prolonging of disastrous results, as we are seeing with the electricity crisis. It is surely because of internal ANC squabbles and Ramaphosa’s political concerns about taking on Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe that we do not have more development and a well-developed power procurement from the private sector.

This may also then turn attention to where the real power of the president could lie: the legal authority that office has over important appointments.

During the Zuma era, it was obvious to all how he used this power to stack every level of government and parastatals with his own ethically challenged appointees and then to prevent the National Prosecuting Authority and SARS from doing their jobs.

Through this power, he deliberately weakened those institutions while showering spies and compliant security people with money and personal power. (Although Ramaphosa has many critics, even they would surely find it difficult to argue against his choices for the people now running the NPA, SARS and other important institutions.)

This may mean that how a president uses their power becomes more focused on their choices for these institutions.

Direct election

At the same time, some may argue that the way to ensure there is a stronger Presidency to “get things done” and solve problems is to implement the Zondo Commission finding that a president is elected directly.

Even this may not stop the longer-term trend of broadening the power spread — there are only a few people in this society who are universally popular. There are just too many different groups with different views about politics and life in general.

It may be that the net result of a directly elected president is simply a person with a low mandate (someone elected with, say, 35% of the vote) trying to manage an impossible situation with a large number of parties in Parliament, who could all gang up on them as they deem necessary.

Our politics is changing in important ways right in front of our eyes. Even the person in power at the centre could soon have very little influence over our future. We’re entering truly unknown territory. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Roy Haines says:

    Thank you Stephen for an excellent article.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    I disagree with most of what Stephen talks about here. The ANC has always been a fragmented party. What made the former presidents strong was simply due to jobs for pals and eventually collective thieving. These opportunities are becoming less, at least as far as the stealing of vast amounts of money is concerned. In addition, there is the fear of less political influence and fewer jobs for pals leading to increased infighting within the party laying bare the ever present fragmentation. Ramaphosa’s ineffectiveness is, in my opinion, not because of lack of power but rather due to lack of political will and personal courage. Lack of insight or lack of courage prevented him from realising that the ANC in its present form is not salvageable.

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