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

What kind of ANC collective leadership does Ramaphosa want?

ANTHONY BUTLER: Expressions of support for Cyril Ramaphosa may or may not herald a second term

First published in BusinessLive

22 SEPTEMBER 2022

The run-up to the ANC elective conference in December isn’t following familiar plotlines. In the Thabo Mbeki period, we had endless scheming and backroom deals. In 2007, Jacob Zuma brought zero-sum slate politics to the ANC, his faction sweeping aside the entire Mbeki top six at Polokwane.

In 2012, Kgalema Motlanthe’s phantom pregnancy delivered Cyril Ramaphosa as a surprise baby deputy president. The 2017, Nasrec “billionrand election” elevated Ramaphosa to the presidency, but surrounded him with dubious characters such as secretary-general Ace Magashule and deputy president David Mabuza.

What can we expect this time? A once dominant KwaZulu-Natal will still have nearly 900 delegates, but Eastern Cape will have almost 700 and Limpopo more than 600. Premature ejaculations of support for Ramaphosa, from Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, Gauteng, Limpopo and Mpumalanga, promise a second term. Paul Mashatile’s campaign for deputy president has also overstimulated many provincial executive members.

However, the overall pattern of results is tantalisingly difficult to predict. KwaZulu-Natal remains a province apart. Ramaphosa’s surprisingly strong 2017 support in the province has evaporated, but Zweli Mkhize and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma have little hope of national success.

The ANC deputy presidency has received a flood of declarations from inappropriate suitors. Oscar Mabuyane, Lindiwe Sisulu and Ronald Lamola would be sent packing by any responsible parent. Treasurer-general Paul Mashatile is the frontrunner at this stage. However, unlike Mabuza in 2017, he does not control delegates Ramaphosa has not already banked.

Meanwhile, the president has been big on gender talk, but short on action. There are well-qualified female candidates for office: Thoko Didiza for deputy president; Gwen Ramokgopa for secretary-general; and Febe Potgieter-Gqubule or Zingiswa Losi for deputy secretary-general.

Finally, there is the problem of the EFF. This external faction of the ANC was always coming back to its beloved mother body. If the ANC falls below 50% in the 2024 national and provincial elections the EFF’s moment of maximum leverage will have arrived: jobs, blue light convoys, contracts and pseudo-socialism can all be realised together — if only the ANC will play ball.

EFF leader Julius Malema has already expressed a preference for Mashatile as ANC leader for just this reason. The two might as well stand up together in front of a large crowd, hold hands, and declare that if the ANC falls below 50% in 2024 they will remove Ramaphosa, form a coalition government and institute an epoch of justice and harmony for all.

Ramaphosa needs to have a reasonably coherent team behind him in Luthuli House, and this means making clear what exactly he wants, and why. Is Mabuyane really going to ally with Zweli Mkhize if he does not enjoy Ramaphosa’s support for the position of secretary-general? Can Mashatile actually form a common front with Mkhize if his immediate ambitions are thwarted? Obviously not. Does Gwede Mantashe really need to occupy the office of ANC chair, a senior position that could be promised to powerful ANC regional or provincial leaders who add something to Ramaphosa’s slate?

Meanwhile, Mashatile should be forced to clarify his position on future alliances with opposition parties, and be asked to take on a serious government role before running for the highest office in the land. Ramaphosa also needs to be clear if he really values gender balance in the leadership and to set out the role he sees for KwaZulu-Natal in the future of the ANC.

Does he believe the role of deputy president — one Mashatile has appropriated for himself — should instead go to a strong candidate from KwaZulu-Natal such as Thoko Didiza — who brings generational change and executive competence — or Dlamini-Zuma, who has unparallelled experience and has been a model of servant leadership after her 2017 defeat?

What remains absent at this stage is Ramaphosa’s voice, and any public expression of his own conception of what a coherent ANC top leadership might look like in his second term.

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

Thabo Mbeki’s mixed legacy

ANTHONY BUTLER: Mbeki belongs in a council of elders, but after reflecting on his presidency

First published in BusinessLive

08 SEPTEMBER 2022

Former ANC and state president Thabo Mbeki turned 80 in 2022. His public engagements in recent months have generated nostalgia and controversy.

This sprightly elder statesman of liberation movement politics has continued to be a prominent figure even in his twilight years. Surely a national council of the elders could be created to draw on the experience of such widely respected veterans?

President Cyril Ramaphosa, Mbeki’s rival in the bitter battle to succeed Nelson Mandela more than 25 years ago, offered a seemingly generous tribute on Mbeki’s birthday in June. Mischievously likening Mbeki to an oak tree — “strong, enduring and wise” — Ramaphosa described it as a “personal comfort … to know we continue to rely on your honesty when we are not living up to the expectations of our people”.

Mbeki demonstrated just such frankness the same month at the memorial service for ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte, lambasting Ramaphosa for tardy and ineffective leadership. “There is no national plan to address these challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality … Comrade Cyril Ramaphosa when he delivered his state of the nation address in February … said in 100 days there must be an agreed social compact to address these matters. Nothing has happened. Nothing.”

Mbeki also took the opportunity to rehearse a long-discredited theory from political science, famously advocated by his brother Moeletsi in 2011, that SA would face a “Tunisia moment” as economic reversals and unaffordable social grant programmes precipitate a popular uprising. “One of these days”, the former president claimed, “it is going to explode.”

Such commentary has attracted both praise and scorn. Demands for Ramaphosa to “crack the whip” with underperforming ministers certainly struck a chord. But many citizens have found it difficult to know how to treat Mbeki’s recent interventions.

Most societies show some respect for the wisdom of their ageing members. Neurologist and psychiatrist Prof Dilip Jeste, director of a “health ageing” institute at the University of California, San Diego, suggests older people develop capabilities for controlling their emotions, expressing compassion and using pattern recognition to take better decisions.

However, it is noteworthy that retired people can become embittered and bad tempered — even insufferable — in old age. Decreasing testosterone and variable blood sugar levels result in mood swings. The deterioration of eyesight and hearing, and pain from arthritis and other age-related ailments, may lead to outbursts of anger.

Perhaps more importantly, many old people find their memory fails them, feel their legacy is misunderstood, and sense they are reviled where once they were beloved.

Certainly, some critics of Mbeki bewail the unresolved and unexplained legacies of his long political career: his approach to HIV/Aids; his decisions with regard to former justice system officials such as Vusi Pikoli and Jacki Selebi; corruption at PetroSA and in the arms sector; the apparent failure of SA’s Zimbabwe policy; paranoia about the media; attacks on internal democracy in the ANC; the pursuit of a third term as ANC president; and kick-starting the collapse of Eskom and wider parastatal looting through the Chancellor House investment vehicle.

These are just a few of the controversies Mbeki has had plenty of opportunity to explain. But he has chosen not to do so.

There are many attractions to the idea of a council of the elders in which luminaries of the past, such as Mbeki, Inkatha founder Mangosuthu Buthelezi and DA veteran Helen Zille could reflect together and then advise the current leaders of the nation. However, a degree of prior reflection and the ability of members to learn from and admit to their mistakes would seem to be obvious preconditions for success.

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

ANTHONY BUTLER: LABOUR AND HOSPITALS DO NOT COME IN HEAPS AND LUMPS

Immigrants add opportunities for employment and their taxes helps the state extend services

OPINION

2 weeks ago

ANTHONY BUTLER: INDEPENDENTS COULD BRING OUT THE WORST IN POLITICS

Personalised politics is likely to unleash a swarm of malevolent single-issue candidates, writes Anthony Butler

OPINION

4 weeks ago

ANTHONY BUTLER: BIG CHANGES COMING FOR OFFSHOOT OF BRITISH COLONIALISM

Loss of Brics coherence could make Commonwealth an increasingly important partner for SA

OPINION

1 month ago

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  1. SGsandra goldberg5279 HRS AGOSince Thabo Mbeki has been off the political stage until quite recently , most people have probably forgotten about all the various miscalculations and mistakes of his career as president- and some are serious, especially the AIDS debacle and as far as politics is concerned , the interventions of his party into clandestine business dealings- viz Chancellor House investment activities.So is he really the one to be lecturing other members of the ANC, ( specifically Cyril Ramaphosa) even when such criticism is justified?As the writer says An intervening period of self reflection might have helped to empower such criticismREPLY 0 0SHAREFLAG
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    Time to ditch the lump of labour fallacy

    ANTHONY BUTLER: Labour and hospitals do not come in heaps and lumps

    Immigrants add opportunities for employment and their taxes help the state extend services

    First published in BusinessLive

    25 AUGUST 2022

    In difficult times, it is little wonder that people believe that the opportunities of others come at the cost of their own exclusion.

    When we are under stress, we imagine a fixed stock of hospital beds, subsidised houses, and school places. When others occupy them, surely we are denied what we deserve?

    The most consequential manifestation of such thinking in SA today concerns jobs. The “lump of labour” fallacy, first diagnosed more than 100 years ago, refers to the notion that there is a fixed amount of work in the economy. If someone else takes a job, surely it is denied to me, and to people like me?

    This fallacy has driven decades of misguided policy experiments around the world. Once governments wrongly accept there is a fixed amount of work to be done, it seems reducing the hours of currently employed workers will create space for the unemployed to step in.

    Why not push older people into retirement, in the hope that this will allow unemployed young people to access the supposed lump of work? Or encourage whites to emigrate, thus freeing up their positions for local blacks? Or encourage blacks to emigrate, thus freeing up their jobs for native whites?

    Such initiatives typically fail. Hiring, training, and managing additional workers cost money and reduce average worker productivity. An economy grows through the skills and productivity of its workers and entrepreneurs and the capabilities of its regulatory systems.

    Removing productive workers, chucking out those who create and sustain enterprises, and disempowering effective government officials, are all immensely counterproductive for the economy as a whole.

    The worst manifestations of the lump of labour fallacy in SA today concern anti-immigrant sentiment. Lump of labour advocates think that immigrants reduce available jobs for the native-born. Throw them out and locals will have work.

    It is true that an immigrant may secure a position a citizen wanted. But the number of jobs is not fixed. Working immigrants mostly spend their incomes in the economy, creating fresh demand, and so creating new jobs. As migrants expand the population, the number of jobs grows.

    Conversely, when a country pushes established migrants back to their country of origin, this creates immediate vacancies but it is likely to worsen the unemployment crisis. The spending power of foreigners is lost, foreigner-created businesses close and let go their local workers, and migrants’ skills often cannot be economically replaced. Established businesses will often simply invest less when migrants, and their skills, depart.

    Immigrants tend to be younger and more skilled than locals, especially unemployed locals. This creates a recipe for potential social conflict. But they are also likely to create businesses, improve productivity, and contribute to overall tax revenues. The most successful large countries in the world, notably the US, have shown that immigration can be a key motor for prosperity.

    Of course, although migrants tend to bolster productivity, expand an economy, and build the tax base, there are certain preconditions for reaping such rewards. A functional government is needed to maximise the benefits, and minimise the perceived injustice of competition for public services. Where migrants settle and pay taxes, resources must go towards reducing competition with locals for school places and hospital beds. Short-term untaxed and unregulated migrancy, with earnings remitted home, will fail to bolster the host economy much.

    There may also be deeper political choices to be made. Some countries, such as China and Japan, enjoy a broad domestic consensus that ethnic homogeneity is desirable, even if this comes at the risk of economic and cultural stagnation. This is their choice. Given SA’s history, it is difficult to see how such a position could be sustainable here. It would also be economically ruinous.

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

    How “independents” bolster existing parties

    ANTHONY BUTLER: Independents could bring out the worst in politics

    Personalised politics is likely to unleash a swarm of malevolent single-issue candidates

    First published in BusinessLive

    11 AUGUST 2022

    “Independents” sound like the very best of our politicians. They might turn out to be the very worst.

    This group of political hopefuls was championed by the Constitutional Court in a June 2020 ruling. Candidates for high office, the eminent judges maintained, should not be forced to join or form a political party. Instead, they insisted, the Electoral Act must be amended to allow such independents into national and provincial legislatures.

    Independence is an attractive idea. It suggests freedom from external control and possession of an uncorralled mind. Surely it would unleash free agents who could transcend the muck and division of corrupt party machines?

    Furthermore, independent candidates ostensibly appeal to “independent voters”, a group of citizens who believe their policy preferences are determined by their own upstanding personal moral values and their enormous cognitive capabilities.

    However, personalised politics, uncontained by the discipline of party programmes, brings with it some obvious drawbacks. It would probably unleash a swarm of malevolent single-issue candidates. For instance, where there are many immigrants, xenophobia could be a route to success.

    Where the boundaries of apartheid tribalism still divide citizens, independents could mobilise around fantasies of ethnic oppression. Where one racial group fears another, racial “swamping” would be the dog whistle an independent could blow.

    Less widely understood is the way supposedly independent candidates could protect rather than challenge SA’s big political parties. If the drafters of the Electoral Amendment Bill have their way, independent candidates will have to assemble 12,000 signatures to get their names on the ballot paper. This achievement requires hard political organisation rather than benign intent.

    Once in the race they will not get far without a campaign machinery that informs and mobilises voters. They will need researchers, communications teams, transport budgets, manifestos, documents and foot soldiers to interact with potential electors. Even independent candidates need to be represented by party agents at counting and voting stations to ensure elections are fair.

    The structures and systems that allow success in elections are mostly found in existing political parties. The problems such mechanisms bring do not go away simply because they are not called parties.

    Parliament has concluded that no cooling-off period is required before party members who have lost internal battles can run as independents. This will help parties solve a problem that has bedevilled them: how to manage internal factionalism and competition for positions and resources.

    In the ANC, competitors for candidate or leadership positions resort to intimidation or even murder. When they lose, protest and disruption follow. In the DA, ambitious politicians denied advancement have opted for the nonviolent, but also disruptive, theatre of defection.

    The creation of new splinter parties — such as the EFF or ActionSA — has provided a home for disgruntled factions of the ANC and the DA. Party processes are no longer a zero-sum game. Such formations run as distinct parties, but they remain natural coalition partners of their mother bodies.

    Independents will be a fresh and equally useful instrument of party management. Losing factional leaders can run for election anyway, with the possibility of securing a legislative job. They can bring their hangers-on and organisers with them, all hopeful that their candidate may yet secure office and so access opportunities and resources through the politics of coalition government.

    The activities of campaigning independents still cost money, even if the money is now circulating in “movements”, foundations and think-tanks that surround a candidate, rather than in a formal party. The consequent reliance on donors recreates the dependencies and malign influences that have discredited existing political parties.

    Independents may not, in fact, be independent.

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

    The Commonwealth may still matter to SA

    ANTHONY BUTLER: Big changes coming for offshoot of British colonialism

    First published in BusinessLive

    28 JULY 2022

    Some South Africans will feel a pang of regret as the 22nd Commonwealth Games get under way in the English city of Birmingham. After all, it was with much excitement that then sports minister Fikile Mbalula announced in September 2015 that Durban would be the first African city to host this event.

    SA’s games were due to start on the 104th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, July 18 2022, and were a stepping stone to a bid for the first Olympics on African soil.

    Others will be rather pleased SA is not the host. Despite strenuous lobbying by mega-event advocates, multisport competitions remain financially ruinous to almost all who are dumb enough to pay for them. The 2010 games in Delhi, for example, were meant to cost $250m, but the final bill was by some estimates more than $10bn.

    Moreover, critics familiar with Mbalula’s political style observed that the games would benefit the minister himself far more than they would assist the country. Even the feasibility studies provided him with money to splash out on KwaZulu-Natal elites who had risen in Jacob Zuma’s wake to dominate much of the ANC.

    Worse still, the symbolic character of the Commonwealth is a slap in the face to most participants. SA participated in the first precursor to the games, an “Inter-Empire Championship” held in 1911 in a South London venue for bar billiards, darts and football, Crystal Palace. SA went on to be a star performer in the British Empire Games for two decades.

    In 1961, at a Commonwealth prime ministers’ conference, Malaya, India and many African states pushed successfully for the expulsion of SA because of its race-segregation policies.

    On the bench for three decades, the country nonetheless remained at the centre of the politics of the Commonwealth Games. Nigeria boycotted the 1978 festival in Edmonton in protest at New Zealand’s sporting relationships with SA. More than 30 countries stayed away from the 1986 games in the  campaign to change British government policy on the apartheid state.

    SA returned to the games in 1994 as part of the post-apartheid cultural and sporting dividend. In the years that followed there were special triumphs, including swimmer Chad le Clos’ 17 medals, from 2010 to 2018.

    Such accomplishments were inevitably overshadowed by the politics of post-apartheid competition. Sports bequeathed by colonialism, such as swimming, netball, lawn bowls, and cricket, are those for which access and resources remain most dramatically unequal. Indeed, symbolism and unequal access continue to bedevil transformation in precisely the sports that differentiate the Commonwealth from other global forums.

    Beyond sport, however, the Commonwealth remains an important potential resource for SA. It is true that the body matters most to three dozen small member states that depend on it to address their special challenges concerning trade dependency, development finance and climate change. The Commonwealth helps such countries secure finance, voice and state capacity they would otherwise lack.

    But the Commonwealth also includes major economic and political actors that share cultural, legal, linguistic and sporting legacies with SA, among them Malaysia, Nigeria, Kenya and the Australasian countries. Almost half of the 2,5-billion Commonwealth residents are citizens of India, one of the two new poles of the emerging international order.

    The body sometimes looks like a washed-up colonial residue. But solidifying postcolonial sentiment across the Commonwealth, and a coming transition in the UK monarchy, are likely to bring a major and positive reorientation in the organisation’s leadership, direction and role. If the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA) consortium keeps losing coherence,  this may make the Commonwealth an increasingly important partner and resource for SA in international affairs.

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

    Judges and electoral systems

    ANTHONY BUTLER: Advocates of electoral change want to cross out the people’s choices

    Scholarship provides no grounds to reconfigure SA’s executive around a directly elected president

    First published in BusinessLive 14 July 2022 and Business Day 15 July 2022

    Changing electoral systems is dauntingly complex. One has to admire the courage of senior judges who hand down opinions in a field about which they know next to nothing.

    As the result of a 2020 Constitutional Court judgment parliament is engaged in a futile attempt to amend the Electoral Act to allow “independents” to be elected to national and provincial legislatures.

    For ordinary folk who believe “independent” is an adjective rather than a noun, it seems the court was referring to sociopaths or egomaniacs too deranged even to register a political party.

    A few weeks back chief justice Raymond Zondo, wearing his presidential commission of inquiry hat, recommended that “consideration be given to making necessary constitutional amendments to ensure that the president of the country is elected directly by the people”.

    This second proposal may be even worse than the first. In a parliamentary system the head of the executive is indirectly elected by the National Assembly, and is therefore vulnerable to a vote of no confidence. Our president thus closely resembles the prime minister in any other parliamentary country.

    On the other hand, a presidential system imposes a deliberate division of policy-making and power between two bodies, the legislature and the executive, which are elected separately.

    But direct presidential election, if it is to be meaningful, requires changes to the organisation of the executive and its relationship to other branches of government. It is incompatible with the parliamentary vote of no confidence and the selection of most of the cabinet from the legislature. Presidential systems incorporate mechanisms to prevent the removal of a popularly elected president except under exceptional circumstances.

    Academic studies of political systems broadly favour parliamentary executives. Influential empirical work suggests parliamentary systems are generally associated with better outcomes in economic and human development.

    Presidential executives shift the focus of political activity away from the legislature, weaken political parties and fragment interest group politics. In postcolonial Africa the replacement of parliamentary government with presidentialism has all too often resulted in arbitrary and personalistic power, the revoking of term limits, deeper money politics and worse state capture.

    Presidentialism also empowers populists. The rise of populism is constrained by the complexity of SA’s political system and by the need to form broad alliances within a governing party or coalition. This means individual leaders cannot easily campaign on the basis of ethnic or xenophobic appeals.

    SA presidents have not lacked the necessary power to effect change. On the contrary, both Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma — and their palace elites — managed to accumulate power in an alarming way in their second terms, and both were demonstrably reluctant to cede it as their terms drew to a close. In both cases it was the governing party that dispatched them and their factions, through the implicit threat of a parliamentary vote of no confidence.

    The recourse to this threat has been a strength of our parliamentary system, not a weakness.

    Ordinary people have also not lacked the necessary power to effect change. The ridiculous complaint of many commentators, and perhaps of Zondo, seems to be that citizens have declined to elect the right parties — so we should change the system. In reality, should voters continue to diversify their support national coalition governments will soon bring change to the dynamics of the presidency, and to the relationship between the legislature and executive.

    SA’s biggest problems — economic exclusion, the fusion of money and power and the organisation of political activity around the extraction and distribution of rents — are not challenges that will be resolved by the institutional fix of direct presidential election. The weight of meticulous scholarship provides no grounds whatsoever for SA to reconfigure its executive around a directly elected president. If only our judges would consult it.

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

    Blackout

    ANTHONY BUTLER: If the grid collapses, SA is a few meals away from chaos

    First published in BusinessLive 30 June 2022

    Load-shedding has wrought havoc on the economy in recent weeks. It has also left some investors and citizens nervous about the possibility of a total grid collapse.

    National blackouts can be triggered by a variety of factors. Terrorists, for whom SA has mercifully not been a major target, pose one threat. Another is state-sponsored hackers and cybercriminals, who have attacked energy infrastructure in the US, Eastern Europe and India in recent years.

    SA faces the more prosaic danger that random or hard to predict disturbances — caused by ageing and poorly maintained infrastructure, imbalances between demand and available capacity, human error and weather events — might trigger an electricity system crisis.

    When parts of a power grid fail, demand shifts to nearby elements in the system. If these are pushed beyond their capacity they too will fail. In a largely automated process, overloaded transformers, cables and switches trip. They do so very quickly, because control signals and electrical power move at the same speed, making it impossible to isolate an outage. This results in cascading failures of a kind that have been seen in Europe, Asia and the Americas, as well as Africa, in recent years.

    The implications of total grid failure are alarming. Key parts of national infrastructure, including hospitals, telecommunications systems, mines, sewage treatment plants and water pumping stations, have generator or battery backup that can sustain them through intermittent power cuts, but not for extended periods.

    Transport, logistics, security, financial services and payments systems cannot continue for long with the grid down. Televisions and radios will go off, cellphones will die, sewage plants will overflow, and petrol stations will run out of fuel. Pretty soon food supply chains will freeze. Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin once observed that, “every society is three meals away from chaos”. The British domestic intelligence service, MI5, has estimated four.

    Restoring power after a system-wide power loss is hard. A “black start” uses small generators to start larger ones, which can eventually restart main generators. Local power “islands” reconnect with others, eventually restoring a complete grid after days or weeks. Eskom’s black start contingency plans centre on pump storage stations, as well as on the Kendall and Tutuka plants.

    In April Eskom CEO André de Ruyter observed that a total system failure is, in any event, “highly unlikely” and he rightly cautioned against “fearmongering and stoking of speculation”. Energy professionals note that SA’s extended experience of load-shedding has habituated key actors across the system — from the control room of the system operator to the municipal officials who flick the load-shedding switches — to working together effectively.

    There are special dangers associated with a crisis situation though. Consensus is building in favour of “emergency action” designed quickly to supplement grid capacity through solar, wind and battery storage. This will require circumvention of licensing, environmental and regulatory controls, which opens up the possibility of corruption and misallocation of resources.

    In addition, there is a danger that politics will disable functional parts of the energy system. Municipal politicians may rebel against load-shedding, especially when some parts of the local state — most notably in the Western Cape — have successfully insulated their residents from the worst consequences.

    Moreover, while the system operator retains primary responsibility for ensuring the grid doesn’t collapse and it has so far been insulated against political interference, it is essential that desperate ministers and officials do not use a crisis as an excuse to interfere in its work.

    Finally, we need reassurance that Eskom’s black start protocols are adequate. These ostensibly include routine stress testing of the utility’s capacity to shut down and then restore power. Are these protocols really being respected in this time of relentless stress on the entire electricity system and on the people working in it?

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

    *Don’t forget to follow practicalreason*

    Beleaguered presidents

    ANTHONY BUTLER: Reflections on Watergate scandal 50 years on

    Aspects of former US president Richard Nixon’s undoing remain instructive for political leaders to this day

    First published in Business Day 17 June 2022

    It isn’t the misdemeanour that gets you, or even the cover-up. It’s the cover-up of the cover-up.

    Fifty years ago, an explosive episode in the history of liberal democratic politics had quiet beginnings. At its centre was US president Richard Nixon, an enigmatic political leader facing an electoral test to secure a second term in power. The national campaign headquarters of his opponents, the Democratic National Party, were located in the Watergate Building in Washington DC.

    Soon after midnight on June 17 1972 Frank Wills, a 24-year old security guard in the office complex, noticed tape placed over the latches on doors that connected an underground parking garage to internal staircases. Following protocol, Wills called the police. Plainclothes officers arrived and made their way to the Democrats’ offices on the sixth floor of the building, where they discovered — and apprehended — five men. 

    The “Watergate burglars” carried lock picks, a short-wave receiver, cameras and other nefarious items. Within months a grand jury would indict them for conspiracy, burglary and violation of federal wiretapping laws. Journalists at the Washington Post publicised links between the burglars and Nixon’s re-election campaign. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) found that every member of the break-in team was indirectly connected to Nixon’s campaign or to senior White House staff. A slow fuse had been lit, which would ultimately lead to the president’s destruction.

    Aspects of the Watergate scandal remain instructive for political leaders half a century later. Alarmingly from their point of view, a president does not need to be the direct instigator of villainous activities for them to pose a threat to his political future. Nixon asked his chief of staff a few days after the break in: “Who was the asshole that did that?”

    More promisingly for the political elite, events in the Watergate Building had no impact on Nixon’s immediate electoral fortunes. As Nixon himself told his “dirty tricks” fixer, Charles Colson: “Nothing loses an election … it’s going to be forgotten … you know, who the hell’s going to keep it alive?” Nixon indeed won re-election on November 7 1972, securing an astonishing 60% of the popular vote. Rarely before had the disconnect between the preoccupations of commentators and the immediate realities of political power been so starkly demonstrated.

    Though the role of newspapers in bringing down Nixon has been widely celebrated, most media outlets were tepid, or even hostile to the investigations. Presidential spokespersons found it easy to dismiss events as “a third-rate burglary”, to claim “internal investigations” had been undertaken, and to “deny categorically” any White House involvement. Nixon feigned shock and fired compromised officials while promising to “get to the bottom” of the matter.

    The president used state institutions he could influence directly, such as the Central Intelligence Agency, to frustrate the investigations of those he could not, notably the FBI. Members of Nixon’s inner team were initially willing to take the fall to protect their president. The cover-up of the early days began to unravel, but Watergate demonstrated that it can take a lot to remove a sitting president. Certain institutions in the criminal justice system and news media had to resist political pressure. The Senate had to be willing to question the head of the executive, and to set up a special investigation into events that dismantled Nixon’s defences.

    Senate hearings revealed the existence of a voice-activated taping system in the oval office, and the supreme court — rebutting claims of “executive privilege” — ruled that the tapes should be released.

    This documentary material helped bury Nixon’s plausible deniability strategy and confirmed that the president had tried to deflect investigations by government agencies. He was forced to resign from office on August 9 1974.

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

    The politics of time

    ANTHONY BUTLER: Deep in the ANC’s slo-mo matrix, Mantashe dodges bullets

    He has so far managed to resist demands regarding scores of issues

    First published in Business Day 3 June 2022

    Philosophers sometimes enquire, typically after a drink, what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object. The answer, in SA, is that we are still waiting to see.

    The irresistible force in this case is a looming and multifaceted crisis that imperils the cohesion of the social order. The immovable object is the ANC, a monolith that retains an astonishing capacity to obstruct change.

    That the unstoppable momentum of crisis and the unprecedented inertia of the ANC can continue to coexist seems possible only with a warping of time itself.

    In the movie The Matrix, the hero Neo — a character who in many respects closely resembles mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe — can dodge bullets as a result of the slowing down of time.

    In the same way, critics may demand from the minister immediate action to unblock clogged regulatory approvals, release outstanding prospecting licences, or introduce a transparent cadastre system. Mantashe knows, or at least believes, he can hold time back, or twist it to his own advantage.

    Heretical former president Kgalema Motlanthe related an ancient truth to President Cyril Ramaphosa after his rise to the presidency of the ANC: it is important that meetings — and by extension everything else government does — should occur “on time”.

    An impending fiscal cliff briefly focused ANC leaders on this wise advice, but Covid-time was a godsend for inertial procrastinators: the clocks seemed to stop; normal politics were put on hold; and very slow — extremely slow — policy-making once again seemed defensible.

    Despite the laudable efforts of presidency teams, digital migration, structural reform of network industries, electricity co-generation, a new visa regime and many other essential initiatives seem always to be happening, but somehow never drawing to a close.

    How can we explain the continuing disjuncture between crisis time and ANC time? ANC leaders are often exceptionally competent. They can combine the power of money with intimidation, they centralise and extract rents, and they plough most of what they make back into their organisational machines. They do not start out greedier than any other SA citizen.

    However, the mechanisms that select them for advancement predispose them to assemble war chests — and ensure that all but a few have absolutely no idea how to address the real challenges facing their country.

    The ANC’s time horizons are meanwhile muddled by the movement’s long range theory of history, or “national democratic revolution”. A dysfunctional black empowerment framework and hugely destructive and corrupt state-owned enterprises are insulated from reform because they ostensibly contribute to such historic longer term projects.

    The politics of time also make possible symbolic policies that have no chance of realisation — at least before Jesus comes again. Land expropriation, fleets of nuclear power stations, the National Development Plan 2030, and even the AU’s Agenda 2063 (an SA export): all displace the impossible to an imaginable — but imaginary — tomorrow.

    ANC folklore celebrates “Umrabulo”, ostensibly a practice among prisoners on Robben Island. It refers back to traditional beer drinking sessions, in which the cup is passed from hand to hand, and — more importantly — knowledge is passed, by deliberation, from person to person.

    The problem, while we are deliberating, lies with time itself. The bullet does not really slow down while we act to evade it, and the crises we face do not wait for us to resolve them. Contrary to Karl Marx’s famous dictum, history does not only set human beings challenges they have the tools, and time, to resolve.

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

    Did Mandela want Ramaphosa to be his successor?

    An excerpt from Anthony Butler, Cyril Ramaphosa (3rd edition, Auckland Park, Jacana, 2019) pp. 349-53.

    Judge Dennis Davis recalls that Mac Mararaj and Ahmed Kathrada, both very close to Mandela, were confident that Mandela favoured Cyril as his successor – at least at some point. Mandela ‘knew Mbeki’s flaws and didn’t want him’.5 In the draft of his authorised biography of Mandela,

    Anthony Sampson observed that ‘Mandela appeared often to favour Ramaphosa, and saw the advantage in having a non-Xhosa as his deputy’.

    However, Mandela’s notes in the margin of the manuscript explain that he consulted widely among top ANC, SACP and union leaders ‘without indicating his own feelings’.6 It was likely that Ramaphosa’s relationship with Mandela had cooled. Mandela did not fully trust Cyril,7 and he may have become ‘disillusioned with Cyril’s naked ambition’.8

    In the event, Mandela consulted many comrades he already knew would support Mbeki. One was Jacob Zuma, Mbeki’s ally and the man who had obstructed Cyril’s entry to the SACP, and who in turn was displaced by him from a leading role in the negotiations. Another was Thomas Nkobi, whose close friend Alfred Nzo had been humiliated by Ramaphosa in the election for secretary-general in 1991.9 Mandela also approached Walter Sisulu, who would have respected Tambo’s wishes, Kenneth Kaunda and Julius Nyerere, who could not have known Ramaphosa at all, and two or three union leaders unsympathetic to him.10

    Of all those consulted, only Joe Slovo is known to have supported Cyril. Vic Allen believes that history would have turned out differently if Chris Hani were still alive. ‘I have no doubt that Hani would have confronted Mandela about his preference for Mbeki and that he would have persuaded Cyril to remain as SG of the ANC and build up a strong radical base in opposition to Mbeki.’11

    The most likely interpretation is that Mbeki was in fact the better prepared man, and that after initially preferring Ramaphosa Mandela ultimately favoured him for the job. James Myburgh’s partly persuasive revisionist account suggests that ‘between 1994 and 1996, not only did Mandela make various decisions which almost guaranteed Mbeki’s ascent, but he was seen, both inside and outside the party, as favouring Mbeki as his successor. He could have always chosen someone else, or at least kept the contest open. He did neither … By 1999 Mandela may have regretted not choosing Ramaphosa over Mbeki in 1994 … but the contemporaneous evidence simply does not support the assertion that he preferred Ramaphosa at the time.’12

    Mbeki certainly appeared a more prudent choice. As one observer remarked, ‘Mbeki is close to Jacob Zuma and together they are seen as the moderate wing of the national executive. Ramaphosa usually has Joe Slovo at his side.’13 Moreover, while Cyril had been embroiled in the negotiations, Thabo Mbeki had moved closer to Mandela, serving humbly as his speechwriter, and building on their mutual affection for Tambo.14 Mbeki continued to bask in the respect accorded to Tambo, and acquired seniority from the relationship. Mbeki was also a hard worker, an organisational fixer and a details man, who, like Mandela, had bravely advanced the case for negotiation while others were trapped in an irrelevant militaristic paradigm.

    If Mandela broadly favoured Mbeki at the decisive moment, why was there such an elaborate show of consultation? One reason is that Mandela did not want to be seen to be engineering the rise of a fellow leader from the Eastern Cape, because this might raise dangerous perceptions of ethnic or at least regional favouritism. Certainly, such considerations must have played some role in Ramaphosa’s fate, in the indirect sense that he was not part of longstanding familial networks in the Eastern Cape.

    Ramaphosa, like many others, also had difficulty engaging with the ethnic chauvinists of the Zulu royal court. The problem was not the IFP leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who may have been a ‘complex and frustrating interlocutor’,15 but was not a crude ethnic nationalist. According to Penuell Maduna, there was never any effort on Buthelezi’s part to exclude ANC negotiators on ethnic grounds.16 Rather, it was King Goodwill, who had a curious conception of the place of the tribe in political life. During his negotiations with the NP, he demanded a kingdom that embraced not just Natal, but also the southern Transvaal, some of the Eastern Cape and parts of the Free State. He was not impressed by FW de Klerk’s pertinent observation that the people living in those places might not want to be his subjects. The king pronounced himself willing to tolerate rule by whites, because they had defeated the Zulu in battle, but was unwilling to be ruled by the Xhosa. Moreover – and Steward emphasised that ‘the Venda dimension was very important in these discussions’ – one of the Zulu princes proclaimed that ‘We are not prepared to be ruled by the Venda dog Ramaphosa’.17

    It was inevitably Afrikaners who offered the most uncomplicated interpretations of the implications of tribalism for Cyril’s leadership ambitions. Roelf Meyer, reflecting on the matter in 1996, conceded that it was difficult for an outsider to speculate successfully. However, he observed that ‘Thabo is coming from the tribe that forms the basis and still plays a dominant role in the organisation’.18 Tertius Delport’s less nuanced 1996 judgement was that ‘It’s ethnic politics again. I think he’s a Venda, you can’t have a Venda … He’s from a minority and not well liked, not even minority but seen as an inferior little tribe, whatever. So, Ramaphosa: never, never, never.’19

    As we shall see later, such outsider judgements underestimated the capacity and determination of the ANC to strive for the equitable treatment of ethnic groups. From the perspective of the organisation and its leader, it would certainly have been desirable for Mandela’s successor precisely not to be a Xhosa-speaker.

    On Bantu Holomisa’s view, Ramaphosa’s expectation that he would become Mandela’s deputy was probably built up by the old man himself. If Mandela was considering Cyril, he would certainly have ‘sounded out Cyril about this in advance’, perhaps giving him the impression that the job was already his.20 Only this course of events, according to Holomisa, can account for Ramaphosa’s ‘over-reaction’ when Mandela chose Thabo Mbeki instead. Cyril was offered a consolation prize – the post of foreign minister – but he declined it.21 Indeed he stormed off that same day, in what was widely believed to be a sulk, to fish with his old friend Rick Menell. (‘He arrived late, and caught a very big fish.’)22 Nthato Motlana derided this behaviour as ‘running off to stay with some white boy in the suburbs’.23

    Cyril then boycotted Mandela’s 10 May inauguration, which, in Holomisa’s view, ‘was a little childish, but one must think what made him behave in this manner … His over-reaction was perhaps understandable.’24 Ramaphosa’s now largely estranged wife, Nomazizi Mtshotshisa, attended the event with veteran journalist Allister Sparks.25 So disappointed was Cyril that some close acquaintances believed he had decided to quit politics altogether. Roelf Meyer recalled that ‘Cyril’s disappointment first originated when he was not appointed deputy president, and he wanted then already to leave … Cyril asked [Mandela] in 1994 to leave and he denied him the opportunity to go … I don’t think Cyril would have been able or been prepared to serve under Thabo.’26

    Ramaphosa’s decision not to accept a cabinet post, however, may not have been motivated by a desire to step aside from active politics. A more plausible explanation is that Ramaphosa wanted to concentrate his attention on internal ANC machinations. He was rumoured to have refused Mandela’s offer of a cabinet post on the grounds that he had not had the opportunity to do justice to the office of ANC secretary-general.27

    Now that his commitment to the negotiations was behind him – or so he thought – he wanted the chance to do the job properly. Mandela was willing to concede on these grounds – and it must be remembered that the old man could probably have compelled him to serve in the cabinet had he wished.

    Inevitably, a whispering campaign was immediately launched, suggesting that Ramaphosa was preparing to ‘go back to the branches’ to prepare a grassroots campaign for the leadership. He was shortly to be placed number two in the ANC’s complex list process, in effect ranking

    him behind only Nelson Mandela in the party’s informal hierarchy. It was still conceivable that he might secure the post of ANC deputy president at the December 1994 ANC conference, and then rise to the position of ANC president – and so successor-designate to Mandela – at the movement’s 1997 conference.28

    Endnotes

    Chapter 18: Triumph and disappointment

    1 Kader Asmal, author’s interview, Parliament, Cape Town, 13 December 2006.

    2 Cyril Ramaphosa, interview with Padraig O’Malley, 28 February 1995.

    3 Bantu Holomisa, author’s interview, Parliament, Cape Town, 5 September 2006.

    4 Saki Macozoma, author’s interview, Melrose Arch, Johannesburg, 21 November 2006.

    5 Dennis Davis, author’s interview, Constantia, 23 November 2018.

    6 Anthony Sampson, Nelson Mandela: The Authorised Biography. New York, Vintage Books, 1999, p. 485.

    7 Kader Asmal, author’s interview.

    8 As Clive Menell, on his deathbed, told Theuns Eloff. Author’s interview, Stellenbosch, 13 December 2006.

    9 Sampson, Mandela, p. 485; Oyama Mabandla, author’s interview, Sandton, Johannesburg, 12 September 2006.

    10 William Mervin Gumede, Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC. Cape Town, Zebra

    Press, 2005, pp. 32, 47; Oyama Mabandla, author’s interview; Mark Gevisser, ‘The Chief ’, Sunday Times, Johannesburg, 20 June 1999; James Myburgh, ‘Some notes on the idea that in 1994 Nelson Mandela preferred Ramaphosa as his successor’, available at <www.ever-fasternews.com>, accessed on 10 August 2006.

    11 Vic Allen, personal communication, 6 September 2008.

    12 Myburgh, ‘Some notes’.

    13 Anton Harber, ‘Round one in the deputy president bout’, Mail & Guardian, 29 April 1994.

    14 Kader Asmal, author’s interview.

    15 Dave Steward, author’s interview, Plattekloof, Cape Town, 26 September 2006.

    16 Penuell Maduna, author’s interview, Sandton, Johannesburg, 23 November 2006.

    17 Dave Steward, author’s interview.

    18 Roelf Meyer, interview with Padraig O’Malley, 25 November 1996.

    19 Tertius Delport, interview with Padraig O’Malley, 9 May 1996.

    20 Bantu Holomisa, author’s interview.

    21 Kader Asmal and Bantu Holomisa, author’s interviews.

    22 Rick Menell, author’s interview, Main Street, Johannesburg, 25 October 2006.

    23 Nthato Motlana, author’s interview, Fourways, Johannesburg, 24 November 2006.

    24 Bantu Holomisa, author’s interview.

    25 Allister Sparks, telephone conversation with author, 19 April 2007.

    26 Roelf Meyer, interview with Padraig O’Malley, 25 November 1996.

    27 Anonymous informant close to Ramaphosa.

    28 An anonymous informant close to Ramaphosa set out these versions of events.

    29 Kader Asmal, author’s interview.

    30 ANC, ‘Statement on necklacing’, issued by ANC Department of Information and Publicity, 27 April 1992.

    31 Chris Barron, ‘Peter Mokaba: King of the young lions had a reputation for enjoying the good things, in life’, Sunday Times, Johannesburg, 16 June 2002.

    32 Peter Mokaba and anonymous others, Castro Hlongwane, Caravans, Cats, Geese, Foot and Mouth and Statistics: HIV/AIDS and the Struggle for the Humanisation of the African, 2000,available at <www.chico.mweb.co.za/doc/aid.Castro.Hlongwane.doc>, accessed on 8 September 2004. The document was created on Thabo Mbeki’s computer for which reason he is often considered to be one of the probable authors.

    33 ANC, Through the Eye of a Needle: Choosing the Best Cadres to Lead Transformation. Discussion document of the National Working Committee of the ANC, 2001. A member of the NEC informed me that Mokaba was the author of this document.

    34 Anton Harber, ‘Feuds ’n debts shaped cabinet’, Mail & Guardian, 20 May 1994.

    35 Vic Allen, personal communication with author, 20 January 2006.

    36 Frans Baleni, author’s interview, Boksburg, East Rand, 25 October 2006.

    37 Ibid.

    38 James Motlatsi, author’s interview, Selby, Johannesburg, 31 August 2006.

    39 Bantu Holomisa, author’s interview.

    40 Helbron Vilakazi, author’s telephone interview, 1 September 2006.

    41 Vic Allen, personal communication with author.

    42 Widely known phrase; original source not identified.

    43 Rams Ramashia, author’s interview, Waterfront, Cape Town, 31 October 2006. Nomazizi Mtshotshisa was eventually to become chairperson of Telkom and a prominent business woman in the new South Africa.

    44 Anonymous source.

    45 Gaye Davis, ‘How potential Mandela successor was edged out’, Mail & Guardian, 19 April 1996.

    46 Hassan Ebrahim, Soul of a Nation: Constitution-Making in South Africa. Cape Town, Oxford University Press, 1998.

    47 Ibid.

    48 Enver Surty, author’s interview, Parliament, 5 December 2018.

    49 Kader Asmal, interview with Padraig O’Malley, 15 May 1996.

    50 Cyril Ramaphosa, interview with Padraig O’Malley, 28 February 1995.

    51 Roelf Meyer, interview with Padraig O’Malley, 24 March 1995.

    52 Enver Surty, author’s interview, Parliament, 5 December 2018.

    53 Conor O’Mahony, ‘There is no such thing as a right to dignity’, International Journal of Constitutional Law, 10: 2, 2012, pp. 551–74.

    54 Anthony Butler, ‘Trousers of Zuma must be declared a Key Point’, Business Day, 25 May 2012.

    55 Cyril Ramaphosa, interview with Padraig O’Malley, 26 May 1994.

    56 Hassan Ebrahim, Soul of a Nation, p. 196.

    57 Ibid., p. 207.

    58 Kader Asmal, author’s interview.

    59 Cyril Ramaphosa, interview with Padraig O’Malley, 24 May 1996.

    60 FW de Klerk, The Last Trek: A New Beginning. Basingstoke, Pan Macmillan, 2000, p. 358.

    61 Hassan Ebrahim, Soul of a Nation, p. 220.

    62 Nelson Mandela, ‘Statement on the future of comrade Cyril Ramaphosa’, Cape Town, 13 April

    1996.

    63 Gaye Davis, ‘How Cyril was edged out by Thabo’, Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, 19 April 1996.

    64 Oyama Mabandla, author’s interview.

    65 South African Press Association, ‘Holomisa has signed his own death knell in the ANC: Tshwete’. Johannesburg, SAPA, 1 August 1996.

    66 Ibid.

    67 Sowetan, 11 November 1996.

    68 Newton Kanhema, ‘Mandela drops Mbeki bombshell’, The Star, 11 November 1996.

    69 Sampson, Mandela, p. 529. Mbeki briefly made a show of considering Mangosuthu Buthelezi for this position.

    70 ANC, ‘Cyril wants to transform the economy’, Mayibuye, 7: 6, July 1996.

    71 Ibid.

    72 Nthato Motlana, author’s interview, Fourways, Johannesburg, 24 November 2006.

    73 Quoted in the Mail & Guardian, Editorial, 19 April 1996.

    74 Ndoda Madalane, author’s interview, Morningside, Johannesburg, 22 November 2006.

    75 Nthato Motlana, author’s interview.

    76 Vic Allen, personal communication, 6 Septmber 2008.

    77 Ibid.