JOHANNESBURG - Since Cyril Rampahosa’s election to ANC President at the end of 2017, there has been much speculation about the amount of power he has to effect change in the ANC and through the ANC, the State. There has also been considerable expectation on him to do so, specifically to act on President Jacob Zuma and to recall him. But can he easily do this?
ANC presidents derive their power and influence from three interrelated sources. The first is the formal power and authority conveyed and concentrated in the person, which is the president, by the ANC’s Constitution.
The second is the president’s power and influence is derived from the prevalent political culture – that of respect for authority, obedience to power, acceptance of the power conferred through election at the Conference. But there is an expectation that comes with this – to be inclusive, consultative and accommodating – within a culture of democratic centralism.
The third source of power and influence is to have the backing (not always the consensus, but the broad support) of the top six leaders, have the tilt of numbers in the majority favouring you, and the broad support of the provincial leadership and lower structures.
Post-1994, ANC presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki both have a fair bit of diversity and representativity in views and a plurality of perspectives on the ANC. Not all NEC members always accorded with their thinking or were always of like mind with them. They often differed and sometimes, quite sharply. But both Mandela and Mbeki could count on the unequivocal support of the majority of the top six and the majority of members of the ANC NEC. Even when they did differ, there was genuine commitment to diversity and plurality of opinion. Differences were not always appreciated, but it was accommodated and in some cases even cherished. Some, under Mbeki, felt victimised and vilified, but none feared for their lives for expressing a difference of opinion.
When Zuma was first elected in 2007, there was a still a modicum of plurality, balance and diversity on the NEC. But as time wore on, it became increasingly of like-mind. This continued after he was elected again in Mangaung in 2012 and despite the presence of Zuma detractors on the NEC – these only became detractors in around 2015 and they found their voices rather late in the day. Until that time, the NEC of the ANC almost always backed Zuma, the ANC president.
This tripartite source of power, authority and influence might explain why ANC presidents are able to get away with things they ought not to have, for so long. Mbeki with poor grassroots connections, questionable economic and redistributionary policy, a disastrous health policy, the legendary alienation of the alliance partners and MDM structures.
With Zuma, he has been ruinous all round. Out and out corruption, poor or NO economic policy, economic contraction, alienated alliance partners, a hollowed out state on auto-pilot, increasing poverty and unemployment, a fractured and divided ANC, and a legion of unthinking and uncritical populist apologists who insult the judiciary and threaten fire and brimstone should anyone wish to act against uBaba, either in the ANC or in the State.
This might explain why Ramaphosa appears constrained and hobbled to act on any of the rehabilitative measures he promised in the ANC. It also explains why he might be unable to do anything for the economy and society in terms of reigning in the rot festering within state-owned entities and the State, stabilising the economy, and ushering in modest increases in growth and reductions in unemployment, at least in the next eight months to a year.
With clear and transparent faultlines within the ANC and the starkly different approaches to the nature and conception of government, stark differences on the nature and character of the economy and more importantly, the internal organisational crisis faced by the ANC shows that the ANC no longer has competing ideas but contradictory visions.
Ramaphosa is accused, at worst, of being a greedy capitalist and a pawn for “white monopoly capital” and an agent of foreign imperial powers. This slander extends to questioning his history and pedigree in the ANC and therefore, accusations that he would be susceptible to being manipulated by his handlers to betray the historic mission of the ANC (understood in its crudest and most recidivist form). So, the fundamentally contradictory and divergent conceptions of ideology, politics and policy that animated at the ANC at its June Policy conference, remain durably persistent.
Any efforts by Ramaphosa to establish his credibility and place his own stamp on the organisation is likely to be compromised by three factors.
First - Ramaphosa’s (& Tokyo Sexwale and Matthews Phosa all accused of plotting against Thabo Mbeki) memories of victimisation and vilification by Thabo Mbeki. Ramaphosa would be loathed to do in the ANC what was done to him by Mbeki (and Steve Tshwete), yet still, he has to be seen to be acting against those who are guilty of corrupting processes in the party and more importantly, in the state if he is not to erode his own credibility and dash the hopes of his backers.
Second, he will be constrained by the fact that he cannot rely on the unequivocal support and backing of the top six, the NEC, and lower structures of the party. Even recognising the mythical power, authority and influence ANC Presidents enjoy while in office, it will be unlikely for Ramaphosa to be able to drive through an agenda of renewal without the unequivocal and unqualified support of at least a half of the top six of the ANC leaders. As things stand, he stands alone in his quest. Mantashe may be on his side, but his new position of chairperson is not full-time. Without a supportive NEC, efforts and renewal in the ANC and stabilisation of the state and the economy will be impossible.
With all of these problems, in addition, Ramaphosa is confronted with three centers of power. While he is now ANC President, he still does not command the instruments of state power, to which as President of the Republic, Zuma remains in charge. In addition, Ramaphosa has to reign in the third locus of power situated at, of all places, the ‘Saxonwold Shebeen’. At least two of his fellow top six leaders are controlled and influenced from here. Without a massive majority on the NEC, Ramaphosa will find it hard to reign in this third, informal centre of power.
Third, the new mantra of “unity”, which Rampahosa appears to have imbibed, shows that he has had to be the one making compromises. “Unity” has patently been used as a check and a restraint on his ability to drive through his own agenda. Ramaphosa began his ANC presidential adventure with the CR 17 #Siyavuma slogan of a “new deal” and “build, renew, unite”. Understandably, as president of the whole ANC, including his detractors, he has now had to adopt the clumsy and cumbersome wording of: “Towards Unity, Renewal and Radical Socio-Economic Transformation”. In here lies the clues to the compromises he has to make.
Any action taken by Ramaphosa, either in the ANC or in the state therefore will be slow, cautious, and arduous, having to navigate the conundrum of not risking undermining “unity” and the possible fracture of the ANC, but more importantly, not alienating sections of the ANC’s and Provincial leaders whose support he will require to govern under conditions of stability in the future. Unfortunately, any expectations of swift action are likely to be dampened considering the climate of fear, suspicion and potential backstabbing he still has to navigate. Any expectations of swift and immediate action are misplaced because of the tense and difficult political environment. Advances made by Ramaphosa are likely to be incremental, especially on the economy, as he tries to consolidate influence and power in the ANC. He deserves a chance to effect change at a pace that is possible, rather than be judged on the basis on wholly unrealistic expectations unappreciative of the context within which he was elected.
Ebrahim Fakir is Director of Programs at ASRI, the auwal socio-economic research institute and is a part time lecturer at the Wits School of Governance serves on the board of directors of Afesis-Corplan. Follow him on Twitter @EbrahimFakir.