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Let’s talk terms: Can we learn a lesson from George Washington?

Yonela Diko is currently the Spokesperson of the African National Congress (ANC) in the Western Cape. Prior to assuming his role in the ANC, he worked in various companies in the private sector. Between 2007-2009 he worked for one of the Leading Retirement Fund Companies, NBC Holdings as an Employee Benefits Consultant. After that he joined the Corporate Strategy and Industrial Development (CSID), an Economic Research Unit housed under the School of Economics at Wits University. He did his BCom degree at the University of Cape Town majoring in Economics.

Would the South African government function better if presidents were limited to one term – perhaps six years long?

The United States’s first president, George Washington, considered the greatest man ever to prowl the corridors of political power in the US, surprised many when he chose not to run for a third term despite being revered as a pioneer who laid a foundation of an experimental democracy such that had not been witnessed in human history. He thought there were enough talented people to lead the country besides himself.

His act resulted in the development of this unwritten rule in the United States that if any subsequent president wanted to run for a third term, he/she must think he/she is greater than George Washington. And no one dared. That unwritten rule would govern the United States for almost two centuries, with only Franklin D Roosevelt, outstanding by any other measure, to run and win four terms.

Eventually, the US constitution would be amended to make the two-term limit a constitutional mandate. Some went even further and said the ghost of George Washington might have put a curse on any president who sought a second term.

It may be commonensical now to limit a president’s term, but 240 years ago, in a world of popular monarchs, with the United States itself under the heavy arm of the British throne, to speak of leaders that were anything than lifetime leaders, much less to stay a limited few years in office, was tectonic. But George Washington had that kind of divine foresight. He could almost see that kings and lifetime rulers would be a thing of the past in less than a century. He began to negotiate a new nation that would lead the charge into this new world.

I sometimes think of Madiba and wonder whether he also, as a man who clearly had a touch of divine inspiration, may have seen South Africa setting a new tone for the world. When I see the problems our presidents who followed him encounter in their second terms I wonder whether it is because our collective conscience is asking these leaders, “Do you think you are greater than Nelson Mandela?” Maybe, just maybe, we were meant to be a one-term nation, after our own first and greatest president. Would the South African government function better if presidents were limited to one term, perhaps six years long? It is an issue worth debating. The historical record makes the case for change.

There is generally something to be said about the second term in almost all countries of the world. It’s called the second term curse. It is seen as the perceived tendency of the second terms of presidents to be less successful than their first terms. According to the “curse”, the second terms of presidents have been plagued by policy inertia, a major scandal, some sort of catastrophe, or other problems. Midway through their second terms, George W Bush suffered Hurricane Katrina and the Iraqi quagmire, Bill Clinton was impeached, Ronald Reagan was staggered by the Iran-Contra scandal, and Richard Nixon was run out of town.

In the US, The Economist has said that the existence of the second-term curse is supported by data. The publication cited the fact that each of the 11 second terms served from the beginning of the Theodore Roosevelt administration to the end of the George W Bush administration were less economically prosperous than their respective president’s first term.

Presidents in their second terms turn to engulf themselves with personal scandals. They tend to do things wildly out of step with the public merely because they no longer care about re-election. The other tendency is for a president’s approval ratings to decline in their second terms, perhaps because the public is increasingly fatigued by having the same person in office. First, the nation must believe that the president has retained or expanded economic, political, and/or social opportunity. Second, the president must have effectively worked well with Parliament. Third, the president must avoid a spirit of invincibility, of hubris.

Overwhelmingly, what has been the source of failure for second-term presidents has been their inability to successfully work with their own party. In South Africa, for the most part, public debate has concentrated on extending, but not eliminating, presidential term limits. Term limits provide an important check on the concentration of power; they strengthen democracy and ensure long-term stability. The longer a chief executive holds power, the more the delineation between the state and the ruling party becomes blurred.

The irony of the limit is that even the most politically successful presidents – those who achieve re-election – reach the peak of their careers and the beginning of their decline at the same moment, when they raise their hands to be sworn in at the second inauguration. More important is the fact that eliminating or unduly extending term limits engenders corruption, the main cause of public distrust in democratic institutions, and a significant obstacle to economic development in the region.

I like exceptionalism. I am always pleased when Madiba’s one term is used as the best example in any term of office conversation around the world. Most important, though, multiple terms in office result frequently in increased corruption. South Africa has never been just another nation. Through Madiba, we set standards that are hard to reach even by the best of nations. We remain the most revered nation, having charted stormy winds and come out on the other side with a country intact and a people hopeful of the future. For 23 years, millions of South Africans have been able to lead their lives and pursue their dreams in conditions of peace, personal dignity and harmony. Let us continue our journey.

Let’s look at the first and second term of the current president of our republic. 2009, the year President Zuma assumed the presidency, was the toughest year for any president to take office. The recession was at its calamitous worst; means of exchange were frozen, countries could not sell their produce, could not pay their debts and were shedding jobs at a rate not seen since 1929.

Zuma’s administration, to halt the disaster, began measures that would save our means of production and exchange. Despite these efforts, Zuma, the ANC, and all South Africans knew that no matter how many jobs they would save or create post-2009, there’d still be millions more trying to keep their heads up.

By 2012, at the time of Zuma’s re-election, the economic crisis had bottomed out and all economies of the world were on a positive trajectory. Since 2012 however, we have struggled to return to the pre-2009 growth numbers and we have no measurable successes as we had between 2009-2012. The second term has therefore been lacklustre at best, and mostly an uninspiring march forward.

President Mbeki’s second term was also plagued by policy inertia, fears of abuse of state institutions, Polokwane, and ultimately the recall. If that is not the curse then it’s difficult to define what a curse would be.

The ANC’s policy conference must do a through analysis of its presidents’ second terms in office, whether they have not delayed the country’s development by decades, if not a generation. DM


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