Practical Reason blog

This blog contains some of my opinion pieces and short essays about politics. I will also place topical personal and political writing here.

Some of my books and edited collections are listed in the sidebar to the right. I have tried to indicate their intended audiences.

The home page shows deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and NUM general secretary Frans Baleni at a NUM meeting in Boksburg in 2015.

In the 2014 photo above, taken at the Presidential Guesthouse, President Zuma had just returned from Moscow, amidst rumours of illness or even poisoning. He seemed fragile and vulnerable. This did not last.

Anthony Butler

Entrenched interests at Eskom

Members of the economic advisory council. Front row (L-R): Khensani Kubayi, Wandile Sihlobo, Renosi Mokate, David Mabuza, Cyril Ramaphosa, Trudy Makhaya and Alan Hirsch. 2nd Row (L-R) Mampho Modise, Busani Ngcaweni, Imraan Valodia, Tania Ajam, Mamello Matikinca-Ngwenya, Fiona Tregenna, Ayabonga Cawe. 3rd Row (L-R) Mzukisi Qobo, Liberty Mncube, Kenneth Creamer, Gwede Mantashe, Thabi Leoka, Haroon Bhorat, Grové Steyn. Back Row (L-R): Pravin Gordhan, Ebrahim Patel, David Masondo, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams and Tito Mboweni. Picture: GCIS/ELMOND JIYANE

Members of the economic advisory council. Front row (L-R): Khensani Kubayi, Wandile Sihlobo, Renosi Mokate, David Mabuza, Cyril Ramaphosa, Trudy Makhaya and Alan Hirsch. 2nd Row (L-R) Mampho Modise, Busani Ngcaweni, Imraan Valodia, Tania Ajam, Mamello Matikinca-Ngwenya, Fiona Tregenna, Ayabonga Cawe. 3rd Row (L-R) Mzukisi Qobo, Liberty Mncube, Kenneth Creamer, Gwede Mantashe, Thabi Leoka, Haroon Bhorat, Grové Steyn. Back Row (L-R): Pravin Gordhan, Ebrahim Patel, David Masondo, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams and Tito Mboweni. Picture: GCIS/ELMOND JIYANE

A little over a decade ago, shortly after SAA had received a R1.6bn cash injection, then Treasury director-general Lesetja Kganyago told a media briefing that dealing with SAA was like negotiating with a drunk. The guy was always claiming to be in a state of rehabilitation, but the following day you met him in the pub.

It is less easy to laugh about the latest bailouts for Eskom. Given the scale of these commitments it is little wonder that the ideas in finance minister Tito Mboweni’s economic growth strategy document have fallen on enthusiastic ears.

Some observers have suggested Mboweni’s proposals — selling off coal-fired power stations and rapidly expanding private power generation using renewables — should be scrutinised by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s new “economics brains trust”.

This new 18-member presidential economic advisory council assembled this week for the first time. In his launch address, Ramaphosa reminded listeners that he will shortly launch an investment advisory council and a state-owned enterprise council.

Ramaphosa may soon need an advisory council on advisory councils to help him steer a course between their conflicting diagnoses, but there is a good deal of merit to the president’s approach. Properly constituted deliberative bodies can rule out the worst ideas and narrow down a menu of technically feasible possibilities.

Moreover, the economic advisory panel is not constituted by top-flight economists who are interested in resolving problems in economic theory. While most members have some economic background, many are veterans of government policy battles from inside the machine.

This is sensible. After all, the value of social scientific ideas does not turn on how interesting they may be to scholars. Most luminous ideas that explain anomalies in the theoretical literature are entirely inapplicable in practice.

What the government can do depends in crucial ways on the character of the state and its parastatals: the experiences and perceptions of officials, and their administrative and technical capabilities. Ramaphosa has chosen experienced policy specialists who understand the challenges confronting the state as it actually exists, including its officials’ conflicting and entrenched intellectual assumptions.

But all this will only take Ramaphosa a short distance. The material interests of powerful actors in society will have far more bearing on his prospects of success than the coherence or persuasiveness of his ideas.

Trade unions such as the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Union of Metalworkers of SA will find it almost impossible to reconstitute themselves in a fast-changing energy sector, so they will block change.

Meanwhile, Eskom’s “elite” managerial tier accounts for the lion’s share of the increased remuneration bill. Employee numbers have increased from 33,000 a decade ago to about 47,000 today. The political costs of cutting this elite welfare system will be steep.

More important still is the coal supply chain, which accounts for about a third of Eskom’s overall costs. Though overall coal usage has remained about the same, costs have risen from about R10bn a year to about R60bn. Courtesy of ANC meddling in board and managerial appointments, the coal supply chain is a veritable roll-call of politically connected rentiers.

The largest obstacle to a comprehensive restructuring of Eskom remains the ANC itself. The parastatal’s problems did not start with state capture under Jacob Zuma, but can be traced to Chancellor House’s involvement in the investment programmes at Medupi and Kusile.

This all began as a party funding wheeze, but it gave a green light to other politically connected businesses to commence their own parastatal plundering. Of course, easy profits are quickly followed by generous donations to party coffers. It will take more than ideas to persuade the ANC to let this system go.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Beware Boris

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street on September 26, 2019 in London, England. The Prime Minster faced MPs in the Commons and said the Supreme Court was wrong to block his suspension of parliament. Picture: CHRIS J RATCLIFFE / GETTY IMAGES

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street on September 26, 2019 in London, England. The Prime Minster faced MPs in the Commons and said the Supreme Court was wrong to block his suspension of parliament. Picture: CHRIS J RATCLIFFE / GETTY IMAGES

A polite hush fell among the assembled diplomats at the UN on Tuesday night as British prime minister Boris Johnson walked to the podium to deliver his inaugural address to the General Assembly.

It is difficult to convey the audacity of the speech that followed. Johnson ranged widely, reflecting on the transformative power of “great scientific revolutions of the past”: print, the steam engine, aviation, and atomic energy.

Such technological revolutions, Johnson argued, saw the creation of powerful new instruments, but ones over which human beings ultimately had control. The digital age, however, is different.

Johnson breathlessly issued a series of warnings: “Your front door will sweep wide the moment you approach, like some silent butler … Your mattress will monitor your nightmares; your fridge will beep for more cheese …”.

“Smart cities,” he blusterated, “will pullulate with sensors, all joined together by the internet of things. Bollards communing invisibly with lamp posts … so there is always a parking space for your electric car”. But technology, he warned, could also be used “to place citizens (under) relentless state surveillance”.

Will artificial intelligence take the form of robots washing and caring for an ageing population? Or do we instead face “pink-eyed terminators sent back from the future to cull the human race”? Will synthetic biology “restore our livers and our eyes with miracle regeneration of the tissues”? Or will it “bring terrifying limbless chickens to our tables?”

Habitually poker-faced diplomats struggled to suppress their laughter. Even the UK delegation chuckled quietly behind their hands. Foreign and commonwealth office mandarins did not write Johnson’s speech. Such master rhetoricians can glide smoothly over the institutionalised hypocrisies of Britain’s “democracy promoting” foreign policy. After all, the world’s second largest arms trader does 80% of its business with authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

This speech was instead penned by Johnson’s coterie of abrasive Downing Street advisers, who are preoccupied with a quite different and more immediate matter: an impending general election. We cannot take seriously Johnson’s claim to be befuddled about the rise of mass surveillance technologies. As recently as 2016, the UK parliament passed an Investigatory Powers Act that in effect legalised the illegal mass surveillance conducted by the British state over the previous two decades. It also enabled its expansion, essentially unchecked, into the future.

The prime minister’s superficially infantile, but carefully scripted, ramblings about the potential abuses of social media in democratic politics must also be understood in the context of the coming election. It was not by chance that Johnson observed: “You may keep secrets from your friends, from your parents, your children, your doctor — even your personal trainer — but it takes real effort to conceal your thoughts from Google.”

Johnson’s Downing Street advisers include acknowledged pioneers of the new dark arts of campaigning. This February, the House of Commons’ digital, culture, media and sport select committee produced an insightful report on “Disinformation and Fake News” that detailed the vulnerabilities of the UK’s electoral system to new campaign techniques.

Johnson’s senior-most political advisor is a guru of “microtargeting”. By mining “big data” sets assembled from our routine social media activities, it is now possible to build individual personality profiles together with groups of “hot button” issues for each voter. Campaigners can now target customized messages, through direct mailing and social media marketing, crafted around our individual preoccupations and prejudices.

The select committee noted that the UK’s electoral law is outdated, leaving the country vulnerable to the abuse of such techniques in campaigns. Moreover, the regulation of social media companies is woefully inadequate given their new capabilities.

The issue of how a campaign can legitimately be conducted is certain to become a campaign issue in itself. Johnson, true to type, will bluster, blather and lie. He will remind British citizens that he has been trying to figure out the convoluted significance of new technologies and of the digital age, but it’s all been far too complicated for him to understand.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

CR’s support in government

We are not short of explanations for the seeming drift of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration. The legacies of Jacob Zuma’s decade of destruction are more damaging than we could have imagined. Regional barons who campaigned on Ramaphosa’s coattails are insisting on business as usual. The alliance partners Ramaphosa relied on to become president, the SA Communist Party and Cosatu, now circumscribe his policy options. Business is unwilling to invest because policy reform and clean government have not yet been entrenched.

More curiously, Ramaphosa’s leadership is constantly portrayed as under threat from a Zuma-aligned “fightback” crew. Yet the alleged rebels invariably turn out to be insubstantial has-beens, already exposed crooks or political weaklings destined for prison or the backbenches of parliament. How do we explain this apparent paradox?

One possibility is that it is not the fightback crew but rather Ramaphosa’s supposed political backers — and a wider pro-Ramaphosa citizenry — who are unable fully to commit to his success. Prominent figures in the party have plainly not rallied behind their new leader in times of difficulty. Cabinet ministers the president has only recently appointed have refused to stick their necks out, even when their own portfolios have been involved. Senior officials in mission-critical posts at the top of the state have been hedging their bets.

In the face of surely fanciful rumours about a “recall” conspiracy linked to the ANC’s toothless national general council next year, Ramaphosa has insisted he is going nowhere. This should be unnecessary: the ANC is incapable of holding a leadership election between conferences, and there is no consensus for deputy ANC president David Mabuza, treasurer-general Paul Mashatile or health minister Zweli Mkhize.

There are ways in which Ramaphosa could establish a sense of inevitability about his own continued leadership. The possibility that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma might step in for an ousted Ramaphosa needs to be decisively ruled out: too many hangers-on of Mkhize, Mashatile and Mabuza see this as their last hope of a run at the ANC presidency in 2022.

Meanwhile, no president can stand up in front of a troubled country and take the flak alone. Ramaphosa can bring his ministers and officials to heel only if it is clear what the government stands for. It is a career skill of politicians to take credit for good times and hide when things are bad. This is why the government needs to have a collective “line” on every key issue and controversy. Endless negotiations with Luthuli House to find a compromise cannot work.

Ministers should repeat the government line loudly and clearly, and not duck and dive while emitting evasive tweets.

If ministers are unable or unwilling to defend the government’s positions, Ramaphosa should remove them and replace them with younger ministers who want his project to succeed.

SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande has been virtually alone in coming out in support of Ramaphosa. Even this has been a minimal effort, however, given the undeserved array of cabinet positions granted to the party that formerly monopolised the colour red.

Much the same is true of Cosatu. Ramaphosa delivered the minimum wage, while Cosatu has delivered little but intransigence, threats of violence and economic disruption. Fixing Eskom and reforming the basic education system are surely non-negotiable, and the government must be the driving force behind change.

There is a wider ambivalence among opinion formers in the media and ordinary people in the society at large about Ramaphosa’s project. This extends to many who deep down have really wanted him to succeed. The tension that built up among pro-Ramaphosa citizens in the run-up to the 2017 Nasrec conference of the ANC was followed by a powerful sense of relief — and hope — after the “Thuma Mina” state of the nation address.

It was perhaps inevitable that a sense of disappointment would follow given the reality that the country’s fundamental problems have not changed. As every football fan knows, it’s the hope that kills you.


• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

The EFF’s growth trap


Political leaders cannot take the expansion — or even the survival — of their parties for granted. It is little wonder members of the EFF are reflecting on the “growth trap” in which their party seems to be caught.

The initial takeaway from the provincial and national elections in May was that the EFF is still a growing party. Nationally, it secured a little over 10% of the vote, up from 8% in 2016 and 6% in 2014.

It scaled some new heights: 13.5% in traditional stronghold Gauteng, 17% in the North West and 13% in Limpopo. It also achieved nationwide appeal for the first time, with major inroads in KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape. In the former, an EFF vote of 1.9% in 2014 was converted into a remarkable 10% in 2019.

This achievement rested in part on investments in party branch and regional infrastructure in hitherto underperforming provinces, which in turn reflected a determination to escape the regional and ethnic confines of its early supporter profile.

Set against these gains, however, the elections also revealed significant limitations. Moving from 8% to 10% is significantly less impressive than rising from 6% to 8%.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the EFF benefited from disaffection among Jacob Zuma’s devotees and made headway in the urban south. It also benefited from anti-Indian and anti-white racism, which ultimately repels as well as attracts voters.

Communications commissar Mbuyiseni Ndlozi was indispensable to the KwaZulu-Natal campaign. Most regrettably, there is only one Dr Ndlozi, and his popularity so threatens the senior most leadership that the “ice boy” has been obliged to adopt a deferential demeanour whenever party royalty are present.

Nationally, the EFF should have harvested a far greater catch of first- and second-time voters. As Collette Schulz-Herzenberg observes in a recently published volume Election 2019, there are now almost 12-million potential voters between 19 and 29 years of age, compared with just 6-million in their 30s and the same number in their 40s.

Just under half of the “voting age population” as a whole — those entitled to register and vote — actually cast a ballot in 2019, down from 86% in 1999. But only a third of those aged between 20 and 29 did so. This contrasts with 77%-78% participation of citizens in their 50s and 60s, who continue to vote strongly for the ANC and DA.

This poses a dilemma for the EFF. Its leader’s populist diatribes — decrying established institutions and rubbishing conventional parliamentary politics — keep its existing base mobilised but discourage the registration and turnout the party needs to grow.

While the EFF has set the political agenda in fields such as youth unemployment and land reform, its uncosted manifesto pledges remain largely symbolic. The rather sweet invocation of Thomas Sankara and Frantz Fanon in party documents reveals the middle-class intellectual cocoon in which the leadership’s ideas were incubated.

The party’s support base is disproportionately male, which is an ongoing handicap when it comes to longer-term electoral success. As Benjamin Roberts notes in Election 2019, despite formal “gender parity” in party structures, only two members of the central command are women. The EFF continues to be plagued by sexual harassment allegations and by the patriarchal and militaristic culture personified by some of its senior leaders.

The EFF has few jobs or contracts to dispense and its programme does not appeal to “established business”. Resultant money shortages have encouraged dalliances with alleged cigarette smugglers and bank looters, political liabilities worsened by the conspicuous consumption of the less intellectually gifted members of the central command team.

The result of all this is a growth trap. The EFF’s current mobilisation strategy depends on the person of Julius Malema, appeals to the youth, bookish policy utopianism, self-indulgent masculinity, and a devil-may-care attitude to funders.

To secure enough votes to govern cities or provinces, the party needs disruptive and discomfiting internal change: consistent support for constitutional norms and political institutions, more transparent funding, less unrealistic policy proposals, and a retreat from militarism and patriarchy.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town. ‘Election 2019’ is edited by Collette Schulz-Herzenberg and Roger Southall and published by Jacana Media.

NHI blues

Reforming public health systems is hard. Perhaps it is little wonder that government’s National Health Insurance (NHI) proposals have generated so much confusion and alarm.

By playing with people’s emotions, however, the big political parties are sabotaging much-needed public deliberation about the future of health care.

The DA sounds very much like a party funded by the private health-care industry. Its reflex has been to “protect” the 15% with private care against the 85% without — and then to wonder why it commands the support of so few potential voters.

Meanwhile, health costs for its base are rising rapidly, alongside shrinking benefits. The DA seems to have forgotten that information asymmetries in the health sector result in waste, spiralling health-care costs and higher premiums.

If debate is to be productive we can all learn from a new international consensus about health care. As the pro-market Economist magazine famously observed in April 2018: “Universal health care, worldwide, is within reach: the case for it is a powerful one — including in poor countries.”

We have always known that poor health care undermines education. Now economists have confirmed that improved health encourages entrepreneurship, higher worker productivity and faster economic growth.

There are plenty of real and contemporary reform cases to tap for lessons. According to The Economist, Thailand’s universal programme, spending $220 per person per year, produces health outcomes on a par with those of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) zone. Chile and Costa Rica enjoy life expectancy of about the same as the US on an eighth of the expenditure.

However, it is necessary to concede openly that there will be losers and to affirm that this is not a matter for glee. Public health insurance requires cross-subsidies, and healthy, richer and younger people must be forced to pay through general taxation or mandatory insurance. Rich urban health professionals will have to work more productively for less.

This will not result in any fantasy world of equality of treatment — and not just because politicians and senior public servants will continue to enjoy access to medical schemes that provide the best possible treatment at public expense.

Any revised health-care system, whether supposedly “universal” or not, will continue to favour the middle classes and urban citizens. The key will be to provide an ever-wider range of services to the population as a whole in a relentless and cost-effective programme of change.

Then president Jacob Zuma sensibly pledged in 2009 that NHI would be introduced in “a phased and incremental manner”. NHI, of course, cannot be purely incremental — it requires major structural change. But its initial thrust should be to ensure universal coverage for a relatively narrow range of benefits.

Basic problems of mismanagement and corruption, moreover, will not dissipate as a result of NHI. As many observers have noted, the current proposals are likely to invite more of both.

The government cannot afford to allow the current combination of public confusion and fear to persist, problems made worse by secretive policymaking and the ANC’s ludicrous moral self-righteousness about this issue.

The DA has drawn its own ill-advised battle lines, and the heavy artillery of the insurance and health provider sectors will protect its flanks.

Under a hard-headed and astute health minister, the public deserves both reason and humility from the government. After all, the ANC is the party that brought us a great emotion-fuelled HIV/Aids debacle. Instead, the ANC has doubled down on its approach that NHI is a moral crusade. Since the government has set up an NHI “war room”, it is safe to assume that it thinks it is engaged in a war — and perhaps not just against capitalist health providers.

Since the rise of the EFF, the ANC has started to treat squealing and panic among middle-class whites as an accomplishment in itself, rather than as an unfortunate side-effect of necessary policy change. On such a battlefield, costly and counterproductive outcomes for both sides are likely to be the result.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Presidential appointments

Cyril Ramaphosa speaks after taking the oath of office at his inauguration as South African president at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, South Africa May 25, 2019. Picture: REUTERS / SIPHIWE SIBEKO

Cyril Ramaphosa speaks after taking the oath of office at his inauguration as South African president at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, South Africa May 25, 2019. Picture: REUTERS / SIPHIWE SIBEKO

In the national and provincial elections in early 2019, many ANC voters believed they were delivering a “mandate” to President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The ANC had little option but to place corruption at the centre of its campaign. Continuing the narrative that helped Ramaphosa to secure the ANC presidency in December 2017, he was portrayed as the leader of the “Good ANC”. This grouping, whose boundaries and membership remained uncertain, was ostensibly determined to end the rot left by the “Bad ANC” of the Jacob Zuma years.

The presence of so many members of the Bad ANC on party candidate lists was audaciously incorporated into the ANC’s campaign narrative. Finding itself in the electoral last-chance saloon, the ANC proved that a party really can campaign against itself and win. It is unsurprising, therefore, that public attention has been focused on Ramaphosa’s promised clean-up. At the centre of his difficulties has been his use of presidential powers of appointment.

In 2018, before he had secured his ostensible mandate, he moved very slowly to appoint new heads of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the police and intelligence institutions. Ramaphosa was careful to justify his decisions using commissions of inquiry (SA Revenue Service), high-level panels (intelligence) and ad hoc appointment structures (NPA).

In cabinet, despite widespread predictions that he would be obliged to find room for the likes of Nomvula Mokonyane, Supra Mahumapelo and Mosebenzi Zwane, Ramaphosa banished such figures to the outermost margins of political power: the parliamentary committee system. Why then does Ramaphosa so often seem to be in office, but not really in power?

One problem is that the Good ANC versus Bad ANC narrative has outlived its campaign origins. The deeply enfeebled remnants of the Zuma clique are scarcely engaged in a fightback, but they are waging a war of attrition to make the costs of their prosecution on charges of corruption politically prohibitive. Some Zuma factionalists enjoy the shelter of entrenched offices that are rightly designed to protect their incumbents against easy eviction, notably the secretary generalship of the ANC and the office of the public protector.

There is a deeper concern that Ramaphosa is a reforming president without a central reforming team. Who are the key figures who can elaborate Ramaphosa’s reform strategy in the presidency itself, given apparent weaknesses at the centre? Equally importantly, where are the enforcers who can instil fear of consequences in those who obstruct or even ridicule him? Ramaphosa’s deliberative approach to appointments is a complement to his natural caution. In the absence of loyalty in today’s ANC, he will need also to harness fear.

On occasion, it seems Ramaphosa is not making speedy and appropriate appointments because he is not really clear what he is trying to accomplish. The botched and belated announcements about Eskom’s chief restructuing officer and interim CEO this week have been a case in point. It remains unclear what the incumbents’ roles will be, how long they will be in place, who they will report to and — most importantly — what end-point Ramaphosa has in mind when it comes to the Eskom restructuring as a whole.

The appointment situation is entirely recoverable. Presidential power in SA’s parliamentary system tends to be cumulative rather than being built upon an electoral mandate. As Ramaphosa’s appointments spread gradually across the system of government, his authority will grow. There may be a positive lesson in Ramaphosa’s re-appointment of Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago to a second five-year term, announced in July. The presidency simultaneously announced the names of two fresh deputy governors, who started work on Thursday.

These appointments were all made easier by Ramaphosa’s earlier decision to retain Tito Mboweni as his finance minister. Before Ramaphosa made his announcement, meanwhile, social media was full of chatter about monetary policy hawks, quantitative easing and Reserve Bank mandates. Once the state president imposed his authority and made his decision about Kganyago clear, the cacophony quickly fell silent.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Zuma’s poisoned liver

Former president Jacob Zuma’s appearances at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture have left many observers bemused.

Citizens who want to understand where Zuma was heading with his rambling testimony should consult a book by the former gangster turned “entrepreneur”, Gayton McKenzie, entitled Kill Zuma By Any Means Necessary.

This fascinating work was launched about a week before the Nasrec conference of the ANC in December 2017. It was obviously intended to derail Cyril Ramaphosa’s campaign for the presidency.

The lurid title, McKenzie claimed, was drawn from a file he says was first opened by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the late 1980s. It transpires that the CIA does not after all use euphemisms like “terminate with extreme prejudice” to refer to extrajudicial killings.

McKenzie’s Kill Zuma is scarcely the first use of fabricated sources to protect Zuma. It is, however, striking in its breathtaking scope.

The “author” claimed in a television interview with the ANN7 network that the documents on which his book were based were passed to him by a foreign source. He did not specify if the source was an international intelligence operative, a travelling SA politician or an international reputation management organisation such as Bell Pottinger.

McKenzie’s narrative parallels much of Zuma’s storyline on Monday. In one chapter, entitled “Operation Scrum”, he rehashes the tale of Zuma and Thabo Mbeki’s meeting with National Intelligence Service (NIS) agents Mike Louw and Maritz Spaarwater in Lucerne in September 1989.

The upshot of that meeting, according to McKenzie, was a decision by then president FW de Klerk that Mbeki and Zuma were dangerously radical! “A comprehensive and top-secret operation was to be launched to ensure that both men would not emerge as players during the negotiation process.” Operation Scrum was born.

McKenzie notes that “the rich Afrikaners in the room, especially the Rupert family, were particularly worried about their wine farms, which occupy some of the most scenic and productive land in the world”. Military Intelligence “remained the lead” in this grape-protection operation but they sought support “from America’s CIA, Britain’s MI6 and Israel’s Mossad in a plan that ultimately spanned three continents”.

Zuma found out about all this when he returned to SA from exile and was passed the file entitled “Kill Zuma By Any Means Necessary”, which fortunately had a CIA logo on it. This “prepared him to take extra precautions, which is probably among the reasons he is still alive today”.

Protecting vineyards and removing Zuma were not the only alleged objectives of Operation Scrum. It was also tasked with rigging Codesa, dismantling SA’s nuclear weapons stockpile, shredding incriminating documents and deploying “infiltrators” to positions of authority.

McKenzie claims that “Chris Hani had a similar file” to Zuma’s, and he was soon dispatched by violence. “As for Jacob Zuma,” McKenzie notes, moving to his central theme, “he would not need to be shot to be removed from the picture. In his case, all that was required was a man named Cyril Ramaphosa.”

In an interweaving of fact and fiction that would have made Bell Pottinger proud, Ramaphosa is presented as merely “an apparent champion of the working class”. “In Ramaphosa”, McKenzie claims, “white capital had their perfect weapon.”

McKenzie is a comic genius, albeit unintentionally so. In one hilarious scene, an unidentified member of the ANC’s top six (guess who!) tries to persuade Zuma to eat a dish of poisoned liver. Zuma is saved by Jesse Duarte, who rushes to the Luthuli House kitchens and discovers that the chef had not cooked liver that day.

Zuma’s Zondo commission “revelations” about MK veteran Gen Siphiwe Nyanda and former mineral resources minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi were evidently a desperate man’s attempt to threaten others.

The frankly ludicrous claims about Nyanda are prefigured in McKenzie’s book. Perhaps Zuma has been reading the volume to assist him with his ailing memory. If so, his remarks at the commission were intended as a warning signal to Ramaphosa: be careful or you will be next.


• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

Avoid presidential elections

The contest for the leadership of the UK’s Conservative Party has proved controversial — and not just because of the alarming cast of characters involved. A relatively small number of activists from just one political party will shortly decide who will become the next prime minister of their country. The skewed nature of the internal party electorate — relatively elderly, anti-European, and penetrated by hard right elements — is dragging political argument dramatically to the right and increasing the prospects of a disorderly Brexit.

In SA, many citizens also believe the people as a whole should take part in the election of their country’s leader. In their view, citizens could grant President Cyril Ramaphosa the mandate and authority the ANC supposedly denies him. The reality, however, is almost certainly otherwise. A cursory survey of the world’s current national leaders reveals a frightening array of populists with “personal mandates”. In the world’s richest country, a dangerous buffoon is on course for a second four-year term.

It is true that Indians have just returned a Hindu nationalist party with a strongman leader — and theirs is a parliamentary system. But SA has avoided the worst excesses of contemporary global politics in large measure as a result of its avoidance of direct presidential elections.

A presidential system — one in which the people directly elect the president — superficially promises accountability and “strong government”. In a properly functioning presidential system, however, there is a fierce separation of powers, with a separately elected legislature that shares power. This can result in gridlock between branches, or in a desperate party fragmentation, which forces a president to buy his way to legislative compliance.

Worse still, many presidents use their personal mandates to override checks and balances, often stoking their support with racial, ethnic, or nationalist appeals to “the people”. Where parliamentary systems in postcolonial Africa have adopted direct presidential elections, for example in Zambia and Kenya, hard authoritarian presidencies have invariably followed.

The organic link between parliament and the executive is the governing party — here the ANC — and this certainly brings some problems with it. MPs suffer tight party discipline and parliamentary oversight committees are mostly neutered. The party leader, who automatically becomes president, is rarely obstructed — or really even interrogated — by parliament. Moreover, because SA’s head of government is also head of state, he can draw on a well of national symbolism and authority.

The problem with Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma was not that they lacked a personal mandate to lead, and so lacked power. Indeed, they accumulated power at an alarming rate, and both were reticent to relinquish it when their terms drew to a close.

Yet Mbeki and Zuma were both dispatched by their own party, with the implicit threat of a motion of no confidence sufficient to bring about their resignations. This is the beauty, not the curse, of a parliamentary system.

The media refrain about Ramaphosa’s weakness is overdone. First, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was certain to defeat his challenge at Nasrec. Then Zuma was sure to serve out his full term as state president. As the national and provincial elections drew near, Ramaphosa was reportedly vulnerable to a postelection recall.

The new president, we were told, could never appoint his own cabinet: the ANC would force him to retain Zuma-era relics, such as Malusi Gigaba, Nomvula Mokonyane and Bathabile Dlamini. And the midterm national general council would anyway see to his ousting.

This week we have even been enjoined to fear the elevation of Supra Mahumapelo to the lofty position of chair of parliament’s portfolio committee on tourism. All this amid a media rumpus about the hitherto completely ignored position of “chair of chairs”. Whoever knew that the incumbent, Cedric Frolick, was such a towering force in the land?

The resignations of so many of the Zuma undead from parliament reflects the truth that in a parliamentary system the National Assembly is not really a site of power and opportunity. Mahumapelo’s new appointment is a personal humiliation rather than a threat.


• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Cabinet is likely to veer left

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s cabinet reshuffle has been widely greeted as “balanced”. The relatively sanguine assessment from analysts, however, may underestimate the possibility of a leftward shift in policy over the medium term.

Several factors have distorted analysts’ perceptions. Disproportionate attention has been focused on the fate of a small number of Zuma-era malfeasants. Many observers believed Ramaphosa would be forced to reappoint ministers such as Malusi Gigaba, Bathabile Dlamini and Nomvula Mokonyane to the cabinet because they featured high on ANC candidate lists. The fact that Ramaphosa swept them aside was a step forward, but only starting from a position of low expectations.

The “good ANC” versus “bad ANC” narrative that was central to the movement’s election campaign continues to shape analysts’ expectations. Theuns Eloff, chair of the FW de Klerk Foundation’s board of advisers, calculated in this spirit that only five out of 28 cabinet ministers “are known Zuma supporters … this implies that Ramaphosa has more than 80% of his cabinet not in opposition to him or his plans”. This rather depends on what his plans may be.

The rumpus over Pravin Gordhan’s reappointment to cabinet was overdone. His retention scarcely demonstrated the “firm hand” some observers discerned. Ramaphosa’s reappointment of the market-friendly Tito Mboweni as finance minister at the same time gave cabinet a misleading appearance of ideological balance.

In reality there is a growing concentration of leftist actors in economic cluster portfolios. Trade union and SACP-sponsored leaders now head three consolidated super-ministries that oversee more than one large department.

Ebrahim Patel is minister of a beefed-up department of trade & industry; Gwede Mantashe, former SACP chair, now rules the domains of energy & mineral resources; and Thulas Nxesi, creator of the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) and a SACP central committee member, is minister of the conjoined departments of employment & labour. An SACP intellectual, David Masondo, has been appointed deputy minister of finance, and he could well be destined for the top job.

The furore this week over ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule’s announcement of ostensible changes to the mandate and activities of the SA Reserve Bank was instructive about the fragile balance in Ramaphosa’s cabinet.

On the national executive committee there remains potential for alliances of convenience between the left and the significant enrichment contingent returned at Nasrec. This alliance has previously brought initiatives such as a parastatal-driven developmental state. Both groups have been unified in their castigation of the “neoliberal” Treasury.

Now the shared preoccupations of this unholy alliance seem to be the defanging of the central bank and the reintroduction of prescribed assets. The response to Magashule’s rambling announcement on Tuesday was rapid. Enoch Godongwana, chair of the ANC’s economic transformation committee, reassured nervous investors that no change was anticipated. Finance minister Tito Mboweni weighed in that the government alone sets the mandate for the Reserve Bank and “there is no quantitative easing thing here”. The following day, Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago added that quantitative easing was not an appropriate response to current economic conditions in SA.

What links these three bastions of common sense with the redoubtable Gordhan at public enterprises? They may all be on their way out. Godongwana has long signalled his intention to step down. Rumours that he might play a major role in Ramaphosa’s presidency have so far come to nothing. Kganyago is reaching the end of his term, and it is unclear if he will be reappointed. Mboweni may not serve in office for more than a year or 18 months, and Gordhan has likewise indicated a reticence to remain in office for long.

Ramaphosa doubtless intends to make major changes to the society of which he is now president. However, in a political universe from which Mboweni, Kganyago and Godongwana have departed — and perhaps with finance minister Masondo at the helm — the prospects of major state-centred policy experiments are likely to increase.


• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Ramaphosa’s precommitment strategy

Conventional wisdom suggests that a sensible politician will not tie his own hands. How often have we watched a political leader twisting and turning to avoid making a commitment to which he can later be held? If politics is the art of the possible, why shrink the boundaries of possibility in advance?

In the recent past, however, President Cyril Ramaphosa has deliberately circumscribed his own future freedom of choice. This apparently curious strategy has now begun to pay political dividends.

First, in the campaign for the ANC presidency, Ramaphosa ran a respectful race against his adversary, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. He refused to campaign on the basis of her weaknesses, or the problematic relationship she was widely assumed to have retained with then state president Jacob Zuma. In retrospect, we can see how easily bridges might have been burned if Ramaphosa had exploited the obvious weaknesses in Dlamini-Zuma’s record.

Ramaphosa’s past restraint has enabled him to enjoy a positive relationship with Dlamini-Zuma today. This has undercut claims that the ANC would inevitably split over the December Nasrec outcome. Ramaphosa also enjoys a high degree of flexibility when it comes to the appointment of a deputy state president in the absence of the expected nominee, David Mabuza.

In a second precommitment, Ramaphosa embraced the controversial ANC resolution at Nasrec in support of expropriation without compensation. There were plenty of good reasons to drag his heels or to equivocate, among them proliferating land invasions and nervous international investors.

By unfailingly supporting an explicit right on the part of the state to effect expropriation of land without compensation, Ramaphosa went into national elections undercutting the EFF’s more radical plans to nationalise all SA land. Now the president can manage changes to government policy in a less politically charged environment.

Third, Ramaphosa committed himself last February to reduce the size of the cabinet and undertake a streamlining of the machinery of government. At the time this appeared to be an eccentric decision. After all, as Jacob Zuma demonstrated so amply, adding additional cabinet members and deputy ministers provides a convenient way of dispensing patronage to potential adversaries and buying off discontent.

Now that the election is won, however, Ramaphosa’s precommitment has suddenly become a powerful weapon to wield against his adversaries. Rather than being faced with a tortuous set of negotiations about who is to sit on which chairs around a very large cabinet table, Ramaphosa has the perfect pretext to remove politically inconvenient comrades altogether. Given the strength of his promise to downsize, indeed, he is more or less obliged to undertake a drastic cull.

The binding character of this obligation has now encouraged a number of problematic senior comrades – Malusi Gigaba, Nomvula Mokonyane and Baleka Mbete among them – to jump ship in advance of what had become their almost inevitable exclusion.

Finally, Ramaphosa placed corruption in his own party at the centre of the election campaign. Talking tough about the issue, Ramaphosa repeatedly pledged that action would be taken, and that misdemeanours would not be swept under the carpet.

Continuing a narrative that helped him narrowly secure the ANC presidency in December 2017, Ramaphosa presented himself as the leader of the “good ANC”, intent on uprooting the “bad ANC” that had taken charge in the Zuma years.

Given the absence of any early progress in corruption investigations, and the presence in government of many of those implicated, Ramaphosa was asking voters to take a big gamble on him – and on the ANC. It is in the nature of his precommitment to reform that he simply cannot shift towards politically expedient cabinet appointments over the course of this weekend.

The strategy of binding oneself in the future is counterintuitive for most politicians, and they have often viewed Ramaphosa’s precommitments as strategic blunders. However, as every good constitutional negotiator knows, appropriate precommitments can sometimes be the very essence of political power.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.