ANC presidential failures

RW Johnson says our dominant party has not produced a single decent chief executive in almost thirty years

There is no doubt that Cyril Ramaphosa has been a major disappointment as President. Prior to his election extravagant hopes were held of him. It was known that Mandela had favoured him as a possible successor and Ramaphosa’s abilities were lauded by those who credited him with responsibility for negotiating the new constitution. When he announced “a new dawn” many took him at his word and were ecstatic. His performance has, however, been so weak and indecisive that even his strongest supporters (like Peter Bruce) have abandoned him in disdain.

As the saying goes, Ramaphosa has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. It is heart-breaking, for instance, to learn that if South Africa had carried through its original plans for renewable energy, there need have been no power cuts in 2021. Why didn’t Ramaphosa put his foot down and drive that through? Why does he persevere with completely hopeless cabinet ministers like Fikile Mbalula and even with ministers who, like Lindiwe Sisulu, publicly insult him?

It is argued that the narrowness of his original victory over Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at the 2017 ANC conference made him insecure. This is not really convincing. Mrs Zuma was, after all, only a stalking horse for her former husband and he was quickly winkled out of power in early 2018. The RET faction remained strong but after that it had no real presidential contender and, as the old Tammany slogan has it, “you can’t beat someone with no one”.

It is hard not to believe that Ramaphosa’s problems are ethnic. The ANC victory was above all an Nguni triumph. The first two ANC presidents were Xhosas who ushered in a strong supportive cohort of Xhosa ministers and civil servants. Then came a Zulu president who brought in an equally strong Zulu cohort. Whatever else changed, the Ngunis were always completely in charge.

Then came Ramaphosa, a member of the small and low-status Venda group. He brought no Venda cohort with him, so he remains an isolated figure. He has had to accept the continuing reality of Nguni dominance and he is doubtless only too aware that as a Venda he ranks very low in their status hierarchy. Instead of trying to assert himself he has tried to appease everyone with his timidity. This has earned him no respect. When did deference and dithering ever earn anyone respect?

Thus far – disregarding Kgalema Motlanthe, who served as a brief stop-gap – the ANC has provided South Africa with four presidents. Mandela was almost 76 when his presidency began. He enjoyed huge moral authority and his cheerful mien and wish for reconciliation earned him enormous popularity. But he had never been so much as a town councillor, knew absolutely nothing about governance and was not interested in learning. From the first he opted for a purely symbolic role, didn’t even bother to sit all the way through cabinet meetings and left the business of governing to Thabo Mbeki and his ministers. As an executive president, Mandela simply didn’t exist.

The result was often chaotic. There was no real cabinet co-ordination and ministers did pretty much as they wished. Occasionally – as over Ken Saro-Wiwa – Mandela would assert himself but then Mbeki would quickly undo that. Mandela was so little interested in his presidential role that he was publicly reprimanded by a judge for not taking the job seriously.

Then came Mbeki, who exercised far greater control but who brought with him a series of very different problems. One was grandiosity: he was mainly interested in foreign policy and lorded it over his new creation, the AU.Having made himself spokesman for the whole of Africa he then summoned the Non-Aligned Movement and clearly hoped to become the key leader of the whole Third World.

His ambition and sense of self-importance were overwhelming. But this was all undone by his other psychological frailties. His paranoia was always pronounced and caused Clinton and Blair to decide that he was, effectively, mad. He thought nothing of setting himself up as an expert on Aids, defying the whole scientific community and then deliberately denied HIV+ sufferers access to ARVs, killing over 350,000 of them.

This caused his whole presidency to unravel and he ended it as an international leper, barred from any job in an international organisation and evicted from power by Zuma. Moreover, Mbeki had fatefully ignored Eskom’s need for new power stations and he had Africanized the civil service, discarding badly needed skills and experience. The result was to undermine both the economy and the state. South Africa has never recovered.

Next came Zuma. A friend of mine had known Zuma when he was an MEC for Tourism and Economic Development in KZN. He told me that when you entered Zuma’s office you realised he was completely lost: “He had no idea how to run an office, he didn’t know what files and filing cabinets were for and had no idea how to give instructions to a secretary. Putting a barely literate man like that into a white-collar job was really a form of cruelty.”

Zuma was, in other words, hopelessly ill-equipped as President. He had various broad-brush notions about policy but knew nothing about policy detail and was uninterested in it. What he had was a keen sense for power – especially when exercised through the security services – and an even keener nose for money though, of course, no understanding of economics at all. He was content to let the Guptas run the country because he had almost no interest in governance. None of the people who had worked hard to make him President – Blade Nzimande, Jeremy Cronin, Zwelenzima Vavi or Julius Malema – seem to have been bothered by this.

We know the result. Anyone who hands his country over to a Jacob Zuma gets what he deserves.

And then Ramaphosa who, one realises, most closely resembles his idol, Mandela. For the fact is, one realises, that the ANC has not yet provided South Africa with a single decent chief executive. Two of the four presidents to date, Mbeki and Zuma, were catastrophic. The other two, Mandela and Ramaphosa, did very little so the result was a lot of empty rhetoric – and drift.

The difference is, of course, that in 1994-99 the nation’s infrastructure was still in good shape and the ending of sanctions and boycotts boosted the economy, so nothing too bad happened. But Ramaphosa’s period of drift comes after two catastrophic presidents when a great deal needed fixing. In that context timidity and drift have been disastrous.

The ANC’s failure to come up with a single decent chief executive in almost thirty years is hardly an accident: a glance at Ramaphosa’s likely successors doesn’t suggest any improvement, after all. As one businessman put it to me, “If you look at ANC MPs there are very few that you’d want as employees”.

Part of the problem is that political parties have simply not been choosing talented people as candidates. For the first time in the DA’s history, for example, the party’s leader and chief whip both lack university degrees. This is a startling gap for the party of Suzman, De Beer, Slabbert and Leon.

But there is also a special ANC problem. National Party leaders were usually strong characters with determined policy views, for better or worse. But so far the ANC has provided us with two leaders content to drift, another who cared so little that he was willing to hand the country over to recent immigrants who were also crooks, and one who was psychologically disturbed. It’s as if the party that agitated and fought for so long to govern the country has discovered, once it took power, that it wasn’t much interested in governing after all.

R.W. Johnson

This article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.