Opinionista Susan Booysen 18 July 2018

A gallery of flawed South African presidents?

South Africa is still searching for its ultimate upright, capable and democratically strong president.

Each one of the four Cyril Ramaphosa democracy-era predecessors had moments of glory and uncompromised power, but each also carried weights that prevented a rise to unadulterated greatness. This was true even for Nelson Mandela, and the experience of the succession of presidents bears lessons for Ramaphosa.

At this moment in South African politics – as Ramaphosa encounters denunciations of weakness, amid uncertain mobilisation to thwart his rise, and Nelson Mandela reaches another zenith of post-presidential glory – it is instructive to take stock of how transient the moments of South African presidential glory have been.

The analysis considers South Africa’s post-1994 presidential experiences through the lens of unity and radical transformation.

Mandela’s passage into power was “eased” by the health setbacks and passing in April 1993 of Oliver Tambo. In the process the African National Congress was spared the potential divisiveness of intra-ANC contestation for the top position. As Tambo handed over the ANC presidency to Nelson Mandela in Durban, July 1991, he reflected on the ANC’s trajectory and noted that “we succeeded to foster and defend the unity of the ANC and the unity of our people in general”.

The ailing Tambo was credited for having been a major architect of the ANC’s transition strategy to transcend changing global conditions, build on the failing power of the National Party regime, and negotiate with the minority regime. The ANC approach to the negotiations was challenged, but much consensus came to prevail in light of threatened civil war and the need to find a political settlement at least. ANC organisational problems and factional fighting (often induced by the old order security operations) were rife.

Mandela’s extended incarceration and image associated with iconic reconciliation and forgiveness helped elevate him into becoming a major face of the ANC, both at the Kempton Park negotiations and in the 1994 election campaign. The ANC leadership core only accepted gradually that Mandela, rather than the ANC as a collective, would best assure electoral fortunes in 1994. Extensive ANC opinion polling confirmed that it was Mandela’s face that would unite the bulk of voters behind the ANC.

The saint of reconciliation and cohesion, however, was less than a perfect national president. The ANC, as Ben Turok remarked last week, could and should have done more to transform the country in those early and subsequent days of democracy. While working his popular magic, Mandela was content to leave the bulk of government and policy work in the hands of his de facto prime minister, Thabo Mbeki.

Mbeki’s presidency had been expected to ring in the era of more radical economic transformation; it was accepted widely that the Mandela honeymoon period of inter-racial niceties and tolerance of old property relations was to come to an end. Except, in came the “1996 class project”, more neoliberalism and new managerialism. Mbeki ticked the statistical boxes of better delivery and incremental economic transformation. He counted the drops while floods were required. But South Africa remained a nation of hope and optimism – and Mbeki brought the ANC to its electoral peak of 70% in 2004. His hourglass, however, had turned.

Jacob Zuma was rising through the ANC ranks. He and his hungry-for-the-trough followers used the mantra of radical transformation and better popular connectivity to bolster his ascendance. He would return the ANC to a position of being close to the people, they argued.

Kgalema Motlanthe was the brief caretaker president. His presidency was the embodiment of weakness: his core task was to keep the ANC and government boat steady for Zuma to take the helm a few months on. Zuma’s first few months in power brought a brief period of hopefulness for a rekindled spirit of 1994. His rise also brought escalated community protest. It contrasted with Zuma’s growing bastion mentality of extending and protecting the personal gains of incumbency.

Zuma and his associates became synonymous with relentless streams of allegations of corruption, capture and court avoidance actions. Policy for further-reaching, radical change virtually halted. The wheels of state kept turning, approximately, while unemployment, poverty and inequality reached new highs. Motlanthe staged an unconvincing challenge against Zuma as the ANC celebrated its centenary, followed by its 53rd elective conference that confirmed Zuma in power and condemned the country to a five-year hiatus.

In an (opportunistic) “unity drive” Zumaists were prepared, it was said, to let Motlanthe take over government reigns in 2014 – should he contest as Zuma’s slate’s deputy president – and let Zuma remain ANC president. Strategist Ramaphosa slipped in instead – seeing the light of longer-term succession. Ramaphosa would pay the price, however, of being seen as complicit and silent, for far too long.

Zuma was the weakest ANC president of them all. He was instrumental in splitting the ANC twice: his corruption profile leveraged the exit of the Congress of the People and his intolerance of internal challenge and radicalism forged the split of the Economic Freedom Fighters. The best Zuma could do, as his term was running out, was to bequeath a radical agenda, such as on land and access to education, to Ramaphosa – this time intended as an attempted curse to try to sink his successor. Zuma’s jinx extended into handing over state structures that were marked by their loss of capacity, resources and stature.

Enter Ramaphosa, February 2018, on the basis of his slender Nasrec majority, and his task is to keep the ANC united, besides bringing in at least elements of the radical agenda that his four predecessors had deferred, avoided, simply not mastered, or exploited. Even more, he has to do much of his work using often poorly functioning state institutions.

Ramaphosa no longer has the benefit of the ample electoral margins that his predecessors had, besides him suffering from an ambiguous Nasrec majority. Should the ANC split, again, chances are that the ANC would go below the outright electoral majority level. Should the ANC suffer the threatened KwaZulu-Natal split (debatable, but nevertheless) it may be precariously close to that fate. Chances are that if the KZN bluff is called the province will remain exactly where it is – under the leadership of a president that is probably keeping the ANC from electoral defeat.

In some respects the ANC under Ramaphosa is back to the Mandela era – Mandela had to help consolidate the ANC’s 1994 electoral victory; it could still be the electoral endorsement of Ramaphosa that helps elevate the ANC into a 2019 victory.

Cometh the hour, cometh the president, so they say… Can Ramaphosa step up to fill the space? DM

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