President Ramaphosa choked by the stranglehold of the ANC
Tension between statehood and party politics
One of the downsides of our political system is that elected politicians have a dilemma imposed on them. They have a constitutional duty to always uphold the constitution, but their careers depend on sucking up to political bosses back at party headquarters. Sometimes, the promise to always choose constitutional duty runs the risk of upsetting anti-constitutional thugs who wield political power.
Take, for example, how meek President Cyril Ramaphosa has been over the past few weeks. He has been pedestrian on the question of constitutional supremacy. He has hardly engaged the vexed and urgent question of what it is that ultimately accounts for the unrest in the country. But why is the president turning out to be so pedestrian?
There are many reasons for his under-performance but one of them can be found in the dilemma I described above.
If Ramaphosa was responding to the crisis solely as the president of South Africa, he would probably (I hope) respond differently to how he is in fact responding.
Part of his actual handling of this moment is informed by ANC factional battles, including a desire on his part to be re-elected as the president of the governing party.
Besides his own careerism, his concerns about the state of the ANC also include a fear of what would happen to the party if the likes of Ace Magashule and David Mabuza were to be in charge.
If these ANC leaders occupied the Union Buildings, our country would be even worse off than it is now. So, in a sense, Ramaphosa’s concerns about the ANC do matter, of course, for the sake of the country also.
But that, nevertheless, does expose a deep problem in the design and operation of our politics. We are (but should not be) this dependent on the internal state of the ANC. We need to be able to rely, as citizens, on a state that is technically and ethically fit for purpose beyond the internal battles of the ANC.
Obviously one can’t have a
completely apolitical bureaucracy. But we should be aiming at approximating one as such.
And so we certainly should be thinking about a repurposing our political system to diminish the influence deployment committees have on public servants and political heads of departments.
You can now see how these tensions are resulting in Ramaphosa’s pedestrian leadership. He cannot – or so he appears to think – be unambiguously assertive about constitutionalism because he has to consider the impact it might have on the battle for the soul of the ANC.
You do not get a sense that when the president speaks and acts that his deepest commitment is to his oath of presidential office. What his uncertainty, euphemisms and waffling reveal is this tension between statehood and party politics. How should he resolve it?
If I were him, I would not focus, right now, on a desire to be a two-term president. Sure, you cannot fix the structural issues of any society within a couple of years. But the problem with being consumed by re-election desire is that can stop you from governing effectively. It can stop you from being fully present in the moment. It can stop you from dealing decisively with all of the constitutional delinquents because you may need the backing of some of them at the next party elective conference.
Therein lies one of his leadership errors: he is stuck in the ANC mode of continuous internal leadership squabbles, and consequently he cannot infuse his deep knowledge of our constitutional order into his presidency. He is hamstrung by the ANC because he is a product and deployee of the ANC.
Obviously, he cannot be a lone ranger. I am not blind to the difference between a presidential system and a party-political system. But Ramaphosa should defy the design problem and take a chance on leading without fear of not being re-elected. If he did so, he just might set a trend that allegiance to the constitution is not a swearing-in gimmick.
His handling of this moment is informed by factional battles