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Talking hope, collaboration and ‘right policies’, Ramaphosa punts bright future with his Presidency at centre

Talking hope, collaboration and ‘right policies’, Ramaphosa punts bright future with his Presidency at centre
President Cyril Ramaphosa during the Budget Vote debate in Parliament, Cape Town on 31 May 2023. (Photo: Twitter / @CyrilRamaphosa)

A day after a bruising Budget Vote debate in which his governance track record was sharply questioned, President Cyril Ramaphosa in his reply chose to highlight the centrality of his Presidency in government – and how its ‘innovative’ interventions were delivering.

In a seemingly lacklustre reply lasting 45 minutes or so, President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday managed a couple of giggles and a pun about Wednesday’s ‘“electrifying” debate.

IFP president emeritus Mangosuthu Buthelezi got a thanks, largely in return for thanking the Presidency. DA leader John Steenhuisen, who had called Ramaphosa a “confidence trickster” over the dissipated New Dawn, got a brickbat for lacking perspective and having forgotten the impact of Covid on South African lives and livelihoods, the July 2021 public violence, and more.

Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Groenewald got both – an acknowledgement for proposing water issues should be treated like the electricity crisis and a klap for describing the old Republic Day as one of liberation for the Afrikaners from the Brits when it was “a day of humiliation for black people in this country”.

That’s about as good as it got. Only one of the four Presidency ministers who spoke in the debate got a presidential mention – that was Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, who had presented lists of targets for megawatts to be put on the grid over 90 days and by the end of December 2023.

“… (I)f one considers the work that is being done and the progress that is being made – as outlined yesterday by Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa – it is clear that we have solid ground for hope.

“While we have been honest and forthright about the difficult months ahead, we are confident that the measures now in place, including the massive new investment in electricity generation capacity, will enable us to end load shedding and achieve energy security.” 

What Ramaphosa did pick up on were debating statements from his ministers, deputy ministers and various other ANC speakers about how the Presidency was the “centre” or the “heartbeat” of government. The President, again, confirmed this on Thursday.

“The Presidency is the centre of government. The executive authority of the Republic is vested in the President. This means that the Presidency needs to be structured, resourced and capacitated to exercise both its constitutional responsibilities and the electoral mandate for which it is responsible.”

Strictly speaking, it’s a bit disingenuous to state it quite so as the Constitution in Section 85 also states, “The President exercises the executive authority together with the other members of the Cabinet…” by implementing legislation, developing and implementing policy, and “coordinating the functions” of departments and administrations.

The devil is in the detail of that “exercising authority together” bit. Retired Constitutional Court deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke has previously cautioned about an “imperial presidency”, as have others.

The project to increasingly centralise powers in the Presidency coincides with Ramaphosa’s stint in office that started with a commitment to restructure government.

That 2018 pledge remains a work in progress – now driven by the National Treasury and the Presidency for the next three years, the President confirmed in his February State of the Nation Address.

While the super-Presidency is evolving, the restructuring of government isn’t.

(Note: Daily Maverick previously wrote that it could be possible with as few as nine ministers and a troop of directors-general.) 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Restructuring the government — a president, nine ministers and a band of DGs are all that’s needed

On 16 February 2018, Ramaphosa pledged the reconfiguring of government so “the structure and size of the state are optimally suited to meet the needs of the people and ensure the most efficient allocation of public resources”.

Thursday’s take was similar.

“In considering the size of the Presidency, as with government more broadly, we need to ask how best should government be organised to meet the country’s needs. It is not about counting heads, but about attracting the necessary capacity, requisite skills and technical expertise to fulfil our crucial mandate,” said Ramaphosa.

To underscore his Presidency at work, he listed, alongside intelligence, a series of presidential commissions, working groups, task teams and the joint initiative with National Treasury – Operation Vulindlela.

Also named were the President’s Coordinating Council, Presidential Economic Advisory Council, Presidential State-Owned Enterprises Council, Presidential Climate Commission, National Anti-Corruption Advisory Council, and the Presidential BBBEE (Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment) Advisory Council.

In some ways, this harks back to former president Thabo Mbeki’s presidency, which included a plethora of working groups to advise on anything from the economy to international relations. But supersized.

“As the Presidency, it is our responsibility to drive progress on strategic priorities from the centre of government. This is why the Presidency is coordinating important initiatives on economic reform, employment creation, poverty alleviation and gender-based violence.”

Despite challenges like rolling blackouts, it was no time for pessimism, according to Ramaphosa: “We will never give up. We will never give in,” he said. DM


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