The Lame Duck President

Image credit Government of South Africa Flickr.

South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma, is a lame duck. On December 18 2017, Cyril Ramaphosa, Zuma’s deputy, was elected president of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), placing him on a trajectory toward the state presidency. Zuma, clearly unable to threaten this eventuality, has lost support, as erstwhile allies jockey for position around his successor. Seizing the initiative, Ramaphosa has instead activated political and legal processes that will remove Zuma before the end of his term in mid-2019 and purge the more visible of his illicit networks from the state. This moment prompts reflection upon the Zuma presidency, and the prospects of Ramaphosa. It should however be recognized that though much is made of differences in personal qualities between these two figures, presidencies are defined by the possibilities of the broader political regimes that constitute them. And in this respect Ramaphosa, much like Zuma before him, finds himself in the unenviable position of presiding over a regime that is in crisis and terminal decline.

Political regimes involve obdurate commitments of ideology and interest. The ANC articulates an ongoing “national democratic revolution,” which posits black South Africans as the motive forces undoing the negative legacies of white colonialism, while establishing a liberal democratic society, reconciling through restitution with the country’s white minority.

The ideology is made material through redistribution. Policies of affirmative action and black economic empowerment augment the growth of black middle and business classes. Black workers are partners in a labor relations framework that extends significant rights to organize, bargain and strike; provides unions with an important voice in the negotiation of social and employment legislation; and ensures serviceable protections for individual employees. Social welfare and basic services are progressively extended to poorer black South Africans. Many feel, with considerable justification, that movement along all these lines has been too slow. Much of that is because the economic engine chosen to drive these advances, both enabling and severely constraining their possibilities, is contemporary capitalism, the state framing its parameters largely in accordance with the dictates of neoliberalism. Notably, in this context the ANC party machine, through politicized control over the regulatory and resource allocation powers of the state, distributed as patronage, offers an important channel of upward mobility, giving opportunities to many who are otherwise destined to suffer immense material deprivation in the prevailing political economy.

Over time, all such regimes lose programmatic vigor. Their limits are steadily revealed. Their grander promises are broken. Disappointments accumulate. Adjustments to conditions generate enduring political tensions and factionalism. All regimes cycle from ebullient emergence to despirited decline.

The ANC fought its 1994 election campaign on the prospect of a broadly social-democratic and developmentalist Reconstruction and Development Plan (known everywhere by its acronym. RDP). By 1996, then deputy president Thabo Mbeki (who was effectively the prime minister to President Mandela; running the country) imposed as non-negotiable the neoclassical orthodoxy of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) program, which prioritized inflation targeting, financial and trade liberalization and fiscal austerity. Among other effects, this de-industrialized the economy and increased the official unemployment rate from 17% in 1995 to 27% in 2005. As Mbeki’s tenure proceeded, unity among the motive forces unraveled. His centralizing style excluded and alienated provincial and local patronage-brokers and powerful businesspersons. The ANC governed through a “Tripartite Alliance” with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the union federation Cosatu. Mbeki’s neoliberalism invited fractures in the Alliance. Critics of GEAR in the SACP and Cosatu were denounced and often purged as the “ultra-left”. In the last five years of Mbeki’s ANC presidency, South African police recorded an average of 9,085 crowd incidents per year, perhaps half of these were protests, making around 12 protests a day against the government. In 2002, industrial action saw a low of 615,723 workdays lost, rising consistently, year-on-year, to 9,528,945 in 2007. Mbeki’s critics presented Zuma as the antidote and at the ANC’s Polokwane Conference of that year he handily defeated Mbeki. (Zuma’s deputy president for his first term was Kgalema Motlanthe, a former trade unionist; Ramaphosa – then still “deployed” by the ANC to corporate South Africa – only served as Zuma’s deputy during the latter’s second term.)

Put another way, Jacob Zuma rode to power upon a regime in crisis. His rise was at the time heralded as a pivotal rejection of Mbeki. No ideologue, Zuma was a compromise among the discontented, able to pose as a container for their divergent aspirations. Imbued with occult powers in South African political debate, he was labelled the game-master, the supreme tactician, able in arcane, rarely observed ways to leverage his position to dictate the course of political history. This characterization lingers, but Zuma’s whole incumbency bears the motif of a weak president, who notwithstanding his personal qualities, was structurally unable to marshal the formidable powers of the state presidency into significant departure from the regime that formed and ultimately contained him. 

Regimes, even in crisis, are not easily discarded. Politicians who emerge from within them continue to display complex ties of affiliation to them. They continue to enact routines that reinforce their regime. They continue to see costs in discarding the still resilient commitments that have thus far ensured their own political prominence.

Zuma and his coalition, thus positioned, rejected Mbeki but failed to provide a comprehensive repudiation of Mbeki’s regime, nor the visionary formulation and legitimation of an alternative. Instead Zuma tried to reinvigorate the past by cultivating an aura of Mandelaism. He made a public show of reconciliation with Afrikaners and the white poor. He adopted the style of a unifier, a negotiator of compromise within his disparate coalition and beyond. Presidential patronage complemented this approach. Zuma’s administration was carved up into fiefdoms for powerful groups, periodically reshuffled in accordance with the vicissitudes of his favor, with otherwise limited direction and discipline rendering policy development and implementation uncoordinated and ineffective.

The keystone policy achievement of Zuma’s first term, the 2011 National Development Plan, is a 430-page tome that touches on every feature of the South African social landscape, projects to 2030, and is often inconsistent. Crucially, in economic policy it involved only tentative elaboration on Mbeki, reaffirming government’s commitment to such measures as financial liberalization and fiscal restraint, and reprising GEAR’s attempted reversal of labor’s post-1994 legislative gains. It remains to be systematically implemented.

Unions rejected it. Zwelinzima Vavi, then general secretary of Cosatu, noted that “This raft of policies generate déjà vu, it seems history is going to repeat itself.” Other reforms promised to unions, like an end to labor broking, were constrained by ANC-aligned business interests (one of Zuma’s own sons was identified as holding stakes in a labor broking firm). The resulting estrangement with Zuma first split the union movement. More Zuma-aligned elements in Cosatu had Vavi and its largest union, NUMSA, expelled. Zuma himself was always more tightly tethered to the business-oriented wing of his coalition. Such was the character, for instance, of his initial political base in Durban and the province of KwaZulu-Natal, where his network included people like Don Mkhwanazi, a controversial businessman and so-called godfather of black economic empowerment. As he lost the support of remaining unions, Zuma became isolated to such a base. Its leading figures, who like Zuma presently gained from and wished to expand the channels for upward mobility provided by the ANC party machine, prompted and framed Zuma’s second term radicalization, now a real attempt at departure from the post-Apartheid regime.

The major policy development of this turn was “radical economic transformation.” While always thin on details, this drew on 2012 ANC Conference Resolutions, where it emerged in awkward contradiction with the National Development Plan and was initially conceived as inclusive of the interests of the entire liberation movement. In 2014, when enshrined in government policy, Rob Davies, the left-leaning Minister of Trade and Industry, said it called for “radical transformation of production relations … characterised by more equitable benefit-sharing and by less inequality.” However, it increasingly emphasized more narrow concerns, particularly the promotion of black business. Illustratively, in state contracting, contrary to older National Treasury legal advice as to unconstitutionality, from April 2017 new legislation mandated set-asides, the reservation of tenders for black and other categories of disadvantaged business. Revealingly, this legislation included a new category, businesses “owned by black people living in rural or underdeveloped areas or townships”, providing legal basis for geographically-defined set-asides, giving some legal structure to a patronage system that has become intensely territorial at ward and broader levels.

Mostly this drive was not so structured. Zuma was permissive. Politicians and associated businesspersons were given relatively free reign outside of the disciplinary framework of legislation. This proceeded to a point that exposed severe financial and administrative limits to the expansion of the ANC party machine. For example, in a country facing the prospect of catastrophic water shortages, now most prominently in the Democratic Alliance (DA) run City of Cape Town, construction of a major dam in the Lesotho Highlands, intended to serve the country’s economic powerhouse of Gauteng, had its procurement process delayed for a year, as the responsible minister interfered in favor of a particular supplier. By early 2017, as the resulting scandal expanded, her Department of Water and Sanitation was reported to be “bankrupt”, R4.3 billion in the red, with senior state officials noting that “internal controls, project management and contract management have collapsed.” Reflective of a prevalent pattern, Zuma’s incumbency saw the amplification of critical pre-existing problems in basic education, public health, public transport, communications, land reform, and beyond into the whole fiscal situation of the state.

One Zuma acolyte, the powerful Minister of Mineral Resources, declared at a gathering of the Black Business Council that this sort of “radical economic transformation” justified and required that “We will take pain, business will take pain, and our people will take pain.” For now, there remains enough of a stake in the existing post-Apartheid regime for such a vision to be widely rejected. Over Zuma’s last years, a range of groups that rarely agree – established, traditionally-white business, a multi-racial cross-section of the middle class, nearly all the unions, the news media, opposition parties, many in the ANC – joined the chorus for his removal. By late 2017 this momentum was expressed in polls that suggested that Ramaphosa was massively favored over Zuma’s preferred successor, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Thirty-two percent of black voters suggested that a Dlamini-Zuma presidency would leave them less likely to vote for the ANC, leading ANC pollsters to note that this was a “repellent factor” unique in the history of the party, which had taken just 56% of the vote in the municipal elections of 2016, in the process losing control over the running of three large city councils, including Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Since his election as ANC President, Ramaphosa is said to have ridden, most evocatively, a “Rainbow Revolution,” inaugurating a society where “good governance, economic growth and anti-corruption may no longer be a pipe dream.” On these terms Ramaphosa has elicited a groundswell of goodwill from corporates and the middle class, even those historically outside the ANC. Tony Leon, former leader of the official opposition in Parliament, the DA, has acknowledged risks to other parties, stating that “Ramaphosa’s election has been a game changer,” then doubling down to the effect that “he should be supported 1000% when he’s right.” Certainly, constitutionalism has been strengthened, important standards as to presidential integrity have been set, and critical parts of the state may now be insulated. Ramaphosa has repudiated Zuma’s most ominous project, a multi-trillion rand nuclear construction plan, and gestured toward prosecution of Zuma himself. But this is not a revolution so much as a reassertion.

Ramaphosa has also recommitted to the National Development Plan, which he played a prominent role in drafting, and to South Africa’s 22-year-old “stable and predictable macro-economic framework.” Yet it is precisely within this framework that South Africa’s patronage politics gains a widely appreciated function. Ramaphosa’s faction in the ANC has itself always included powerful patronage-brokers and connected businesspersons. He seeks “unity” with Zuma’s erstwhile allies, no doubt cognizant of the fact that newly competitive elections leave him poorly positioned to cut the many patron-client threads that hold the ANC organization together, that fuel its electoral machine. Competitive elections also leave him with little space to alienate any other component of his coalition or the broader black majority. Fiscal and administrative crises constrain quick movement in any popular direction. And in 2012, Ramaphosa was implicated in the massacre that killed 34 mine workers at Marikana. In 2013/14 police recorded 13,575 crowd-related incidents. In 2015, students at the prestigious University of Cape Town led a wider youthful rejection of Mandelaism. The post-Apartheid regime is coming undone, but Ramaphosa seems more dependent upon it than ever.

Ryan Brunette

Ryan Brunette is a researcher, working on issues of governance and public administration, at the Public Affairs Research Institute in the University of the Witwatersrand. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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