The election circus
The election circus has come and gone with the advertising posters on light posts all that remains. There were lots of harlequins, clowns and jesters whose antics were neither funny nor entertaining. This may explain the disturbing 7.4% decline in voter turnout. Citizens were simply not amused. About 9 million eligible voters did not even bother to register and more than a quarter who did, stayed away. This is a clear indication that the political system is losing credibility and legitimacy as the sole mechanism for deliberating on South Africa’s numerous challenges and finding solutions to them. Will a ringmaster emerge out of this uncertainty and despondency and facilitate and drive a programme that satisfies a complex and discerning audience?
The ANC has ignored its own Integrity Commission
The ANC’s majority in Parliament has been trimmed from 249 to 230, a loss of 19 seats. However, here is the issue reflecting the emergence of a ringmaster: the ANC has ignored its own Integrity Commission and brought to the Sixth Parliament a number of tarnished and questionable persons who, for the next five years, will be referred to as ‘Honourable’ Members. The reason is that they have not been found guilty of any offence by a court of law. Putting aside the issues of reputational damage, as per the decline in participation noted above, the inclusion of such unsavoury people into the ANC Parliamentary Caucus is a strong indicator that the clean-up faction is unwilling to fight, vulnerable and therefore cautious, or even worse – putting party unity above national interest. This does not bode well for Cyril Ramaphosa, the ringmaster, to be in a position to optimally drive the reform needed to resuscitate South Africa.
It is possible that the anti-reformers will still hold sway
The victory of the Zuma old-guard in securing the parliamentary list intact is also a sign that the reformers in the ANC’s NEC are still insufficiently dominant to drive policy and decision-making in this, the most important organ of the ANC. The pro and anti-reform factions were previously at best evenly matched. The recent NEC meeting that held the line on the original list suggests that the anti-reformers still hold sway. This could well dampen the hope that in the post-election period, Ramaphosa will hold an electoral mandate to robustly reform the ANC and the Government.
It is true that some NEC members will feel which way the wind is blowing and align themselves with power. However, in this context it is impossible to know whether the re-alignment of individuals is sincere or strategic, avoiding a showdown until the right moment. The National General Council (NGC) in 2021 may well be the long game being played by the anti-reform faction in preparing the ground for a full-frontal attack at the 2022 National Elective Conference (NECon) of the ANC, where new leadership is elected for the next five years. In this long game, anti-reform scenario, the issue of the local branches of the ANC is key: does the Ramaphosa camp have sufficient support within the branches across the country? His victory in 2017 was marginal. While he and his team are in Government, who will have the time and resources to work the branches in the build-up to the NGC and later the NECon? The anti-reform faction may well be plotting a Ramaphosa one-term ANC and National Presidency. The long-game works both ways, contrary to recent articles by certain political journalists.
The dynamics of a new, downsized Cabinet
There are other indicators of the power balance between the reformers and recalcitrants within the ANC. The down-sizing and composition of Ramaphosa’s Cabinet will reveal a bit about these power dynamics. But the deal may well be “our people” in Parliament in return for “your people” in Cabinet. Both sides may feel that the Caucus and Portfolio Committees will be a sufficient check and balance on each faction’s power. It is unlikely that the seriously tainted members of the previous Cabinet will return. If they do, it will be a sign of their dominance within the labyrinthine, surreptitious and devious power matrix that is the contemporary ANC.
Furthermore, previous and tainted Cabinet Ministers may choose to resign from Parliament in order to hold their benefits which are superior to those of an ordinary back-bencher MP. This natural attrition would allow for the cleansing of the ANC Caucus. According to lists circulating through social media, the Cabinet will be reduced from 34 to 25 with a decrease in Deputy Ministers from 34 to 19. These are positive measures and will contribute to cutting Government spending. However, the other side of this efficiency is the reduction of patronage opportunities that will intensify factional competition for Cabinet appointments. It is unlikely that Ramaphosa will be able to exercise his Constitutional power to appoint a Cabinet unencumbered by ANC politics. The compromises made and the person’s given portfolios will expose some of the ANC’s internal politics. The best-case scenario here is that the reformers consolidate control over the economic Ministries, Treasury and a reconfigured DTI, EDD, Small Business, Agriculture, Land and Rural Development, as well as the Security Ministries, especially Intelligence and Police. The recalcitrants might get some of the less important Ministries like Arts, Culture and Sport. Such an outcome would reflect the power balances deep within the ANC.
The issue of the Deputy Presidency?
Related to Cabinet composition is the position of Deputy President. Traditionally, the Deputy President of the ANC has assumed the position of South African Deputy President. Can the reformers afford to have David Mabuza as Deputy President? The position comes with significant executive power and authority despite the passivity of the former incumbent, Ramaphosa. Mabuza is shrouded by controversy and scandal from his tenure as MEC and then Premier in Mpumalanga. The reformers owe Mabuza big time. If he did not swing Mpumalanga ANC branches at the 2017 NECon, Ramaphosa would not be where he is now. One scenario doing the rounds is that Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma takes the position of national Deputy President while Mabuza holds the ANC Deputy President position. This compromise would be very positive: it rids the ANC reformers of a difficult problem; it brings a woman into the highest echelon of Government; and it appeases the recalcitrant faction. Dr Dlamini-Zuma is also a competent and diligent public servant and will do the role proud. This scenario, with a reformer President and recalcitrant-approved Deputy, may well be a sign of the compromises forthcoming throughout Ramaphosa’s administration. Most importantly, it may mark a positive deviation from policy where an ANC position determines a position in Government.
Will Ramaphosa use his executive powers to drive reform, irrespective of political consequences within the ANC?
A final post-election scenario is that Ramaphosa, realising that he is hamstrung by the recalcitrants within the ANC and that he may well be a one-term President, uses his public office to drive reform irrespective of political repercussions within the ANC. This seems unlikely at the moment. Also, the emphasis on ANC unity is a constraint on this possibility. However, with time, the protracted and intensifying warfare within the ANC may obstruct reform and the growth of the economy and employment, in addition to the provision of cost-effective services and infrastructure. A go-for-broke may well be the only option for the reformers to unblock the decision, policy and execution pipelines. They may choose to use their time in public office to do the hard and difficult things necessary to modernise South Africa at the expense of the ANC that will surely not survive thereafter. Can Ramaphosa do a De Gaulle and take control of the state in order to clean up the rot and drive reform? His track record so far suggests not, and nor would it be unequivocally good for public governance as it would result in the strengthening of the Executive at the expense of Parliament.
Ramaphosa has emerged from this election as South African State President, but what kind of ringmaster will he be? With a year in office as State President, don’t bet on Ramaphosa being radically different post-election. The conflict avoidance through commissions and strangling enemies with love will continue. In this regard, despite a leaner public service infrastructure, expect more of the same. The election result has not changed anything deep within the ANC.
The following research has been exclusively compiled for Dynasty clients. The views expressed in the article are not necessarily those held by Dynasty itself.