Zuma still controls the real centre of power

Is the ANC really a strategic centre of power, as its officials like to claim? As is now convention, the national executive committee’s (NEC) recent lekgotla resolved that, “the actions of government must, at all times, affirm the ANC as strategic centre of power with authority over the state”.

To make this dream come true, the NEC has once again proposed “a clear accountability framework for all cadres operating in the state” that will apparently “be developed within eight months”. The ANC will also ostensibly “build its internal capacity to give policy direction to its elected representatives as well as creating a monitoring mechanism”.

The ANC makes the same fantastical claims every five years. The doctrine of ANC supremacy is embedded in the sacred text known as “strategy and tactics”, an object of deep veneration for delegates at elective conferences.

In the early years of SA’s democracy, it is true, political commentators and journalists often made an elementary but contrary mistake: they viewed the system of government set out in the country’s new Constitution as a map that could help explain the exercise of power.

According to this map, the people elected a parliament, the parliament elected a president, and the president governed together with a cabinet that he alone appointed. The role of the ANC in the process was discounted.

When Thabo Mbeki was elected president of the ANC in 1997, and started to dominate the political agenda, astute political analysts began to attribute greater influence to the liberation movement’s own doctrines, policy processes and ideological positions.

In particular, the ANC’s repeated claims to occupy the centre space of society — representing the people as a whole, serving as the key site of power and decision-making, generating knowledge, and securing dominance over social institutions — was increasingly touted by commentators and academics.

In reality, however, Mbeki’s power flowed almost entirely from the state presidency. It helped that he was able to subdue party factions and dominate the top six during both terms. But his control over the party — while it lasted — was deepened by his control over Cabinet appointments: in NEC elections, delegates voted for candidates made famous as ministers.

Jacob Zuma’s victory at the Polokwane conference in 2007 was a useful reminder of the brute power a political party can periodically exercise in a parliamentary system of government. A majority party or coalition has the power to appoint or remove a sitting president or prime minister. Short of pushing this Armageddon button, however, it is really very hard for a mere party to monitor and control the actions of the leader of the executive branch of the state.

The ANC, it is true, has a rudimentary system for policy deliberation. The NEC’s policy committees allegedly oversee the activities of the state and ensure party policy preferences are translated into action.

Read ANC statements after NEC lekgotla, however, and you will see that members were “briefed” or “received presentations” about government performance, financial issues, and the implementation of key policies. Party activists do not determine — or even much understand — what government does.

In truth, it is hard to find many instances of the party successfully asserting its will. The head of policy in recent years has been Jeff Radebe, a minister almost pathologically uninterested in public policy. Most NEC committees scarcely meet, and when they do it is mostly to prepare vague and poorly drafted discussion documents for conference consumption. (One exception has been the economic transformation committee.)

When conference has voted in favour of a dramatic policy change, that policy usually originated in government rather than in the party.

In any event, ministers and officials more often than not ignore or circumvent inconvenient conference resolutions. They are far more likely to do what the state president tells them to do — not least because he can fire them.

The executive authority of the Republic is vested in the state president, and he exercises it together with a cabinet that he appoints. An active president can dominate the appointment process for deputy ministers and senior officials.

Where there are conflicts within government, the presidency intervenes in the name of “policy co-ordination”. Ministers can be locked in by national development plans that are controlled by presidential appointees. The performance of ministers and officials is conducted by state-based institutions rather than by the denizens of Luthuli House.

What Zuma has taught us, above all, is that other key centres of power, in the criminal justice system, intelligence services, parastatals, revenue authorities, and the treasury, are vulnerable to a determined president using the appointment and dismissal powers of the state president.

The elaborate self-deception that the ANC is the strategic centre of power — determining who does what, and when — may sometimes make ANC leaders feel better about themselves. Right now, however, they need to remember where real power lies, and to make sure that Zuma is no longer able to exercise it.

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

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