Making a difference

President Cyril Ramaphosa will soon conclude his first 100 days in office. Debate continues to rage about the likely impact he will have on the future of the country he now leads.

Supporters of the president claim that his rise represents a turning point for the nation. Sceptics counter that Ramaphosa has once again this week shown himself to be a weak leader who is unable to confront the inexorable forces tearing SA apart.

All this brings us to the most imponderable question of leadership: what difference can he make?

Social scientists and historians tend to discount the influence of leaders. They prefer “structural” explanations for events that focus on what is likely to happen in the longer term, regardless of the intentions and actions of particular political figures.

FW de Klerk astonished the National Party politicians in February 1990 when he announced the unbanning of opposition parties and the release of Nelson Mandela. But the economic and political forces driving the National Party to negotiate were so powerful that any other leader would, sooner or later, almost certainly have had to take more or less the same steps.

Few scholars would venture that the broad character of the post-apartheid settlement would have been dramatically changed if a leader other than Mandela had been at the helm of the ANC. In most scholars’ eyes, leaders are the vectors of wider historical forces rather than the “makers of history”.

Even in more narrow fields of human endeavour, great leaders rarely alter the course of human affairs for long. The replacement of one business leader by another does not usually change the share price of a major global corporation. Great generals such as Hannibal, Napoleon Bonaparte and Rommel won stunning victories but were ultimately swept aside by lesser opponents who could deploy greater resources.

The arrival of Donald Trump in the White House has brought the “question of leadership” back to global prominence. The late historian Eric Hobsbawm once reflected that the US has “probably elected to its presidency … a greater number of ignorant dumbos than any other republic”. No matter how feeble the president, however, “the great US ship of state has sailed on as though it made very little difference”.

If the US political system is “foolproof” as Hobsbawm claims, this is because every leader is embedded in a strong system of institutional constraints. When it comes to Trump’s America, we will have to wait and see if such institutions are as robust as the historian assumes.

At least Ramaphosa’s political history should give us some cause for hope here at home.

Jacob Zuma’s tenure confirmed that it is far easier for a political leader to do harm than to do good.

There is absolutely no reason to suppose that Ramaphosa will initiate disruptive programmes of factional enrichment or institutional destabilisation of the kind that marked Zuma’s two terms. Ramaphosa’s primary accomplishments across his career have been in the creation of new and enduring forms of authority. The National Union of Mineworkers testifies to his ability to build an enduring institution. The final Constitution of 1996, forged in extremely trying circumstances, continues more than two decades later to shape national political life for the better.

The true value of Ramaphosa’s leadership should not be measured in terms of the hasty purging of factional opponents or in his success or otherwise in staging show trials of the agents of state capture.

Ramaphosa will make an enduring positive difference to this country only by rescuing and constructing enduring institutions and by entrenching effective and impersonal systems of good governance.

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

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