For better or for worse, Ramaphosa is secure

SA citizens who are feeling sorry for their allegedly besieged president should cheer up. Cyril Ramaphosa’s situation is not as perilous as some observers have claimed.

It is difficult to see how former president Jacob Zuma’s cronies can launch a “fightback”. The ANC likes to imagine it has the power to “recall” a state president. But this alleged power is not found in the movement’s constitution. To be effective, a recall has to be backed by a credible threat to whip ANC MPs to vote against their own president in a no-confidence vote.

Even if a scandal erupted, Ramaphosa would first have to be kicked out of the ANC presidency, and that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. The next elective conference is in 2022, when Zuma and his cronies will be long gone. Today’s likely suspects — Zweli Mkhize, Paul Mashatile, and David Mabuza — each suffer from fatal limitations. Health issues aside, we will almost certainly not see a new ANC president until 2027.

There are various reasons the threat to Ramaphosa has been exaggerated. First, it suits Ramaphosa himself — for now. Even long-term opposition voters are rallying to  his side, determined to “save him for the nation” in the upcoming elections. Only baby-faced street fighter Pravin Gordhan has tear-inducing thespian genius that can compare to Ramaphosa’s.

Second, the ANC’s conception of “seniority” always makes it hard to put old presidents  such as Zuma out to grass. Nelson Mandela had to be shouted down in the national executive committee  to stop him attending. By 2002, Thabo Mbeki refused to pick up the phone when the old man called.

Little wonder Ramaphosa wants to create an elders’ council to house the old-timers. ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu naughtily thinks a distant foreign posting is an even better idea: “The thought of deploying Nxamalala is welcomed. It will help the country.”

Third, South Africans often assume that an election win boosts the authority of a president. In presidential systems, that is true: the power of the leader is indeed greatest at the start of his term.

But SA has a parliamentary government and citizens vote for a party. The power of a president or prime minister in such a system is not a post-election injection; it is accumulated over time.

It took Mbeki some time to centralise personal power in an enlarged presidency. He simply ignored the pleas of many special interests and imposed his own foreign policy — and public health — preferences.

Zuma’s presidency began feebly in 2009. The new ANC leadership said “collective decision-making” would be the new norm. Pretty soon, however, Zuma was on a roll, using party power to control the state and state power to control the party. By the time he was evicted in 2018 he had become a danger to democracy.

Ramaphosa’s apparent vulnerability is therefore the norm rather than the exception. His power will grow as he weeds out old-order apparatchiks and accumulates control of the levers of state power and patronage.

Zuma has taught us that key centres of power — in the criminal justice system, intelligence services, parastatals, revenue authorities and the Treasury — can be seized by a determined politician who is willing to use presidential prerogatives to the full. The ANC can do little or nothing about it.

Mandela offered a prescient warning when he handed over the reins to Mbeki: “One of the temptations of a leader who has been elected unopposed,” he observed, “is that he may use his powerful position to settle scores with his detractors, to marginalise them and in some cases get rid of them, and to surround himself with yes-men and women.”

Once entrenched in the Union Buildings, Mbeki and Zuma did indeed accumulate powers relentlessly and sideline their rivals ruthlessly. Patronage and political manipulation, once injected with the emotions of fear and sycophancy that a president can inspire, were sufficient to propel these two rather implausible and unlikeable leaders surprisingly close to perpetual power.

How much harder will it be to contain the loveable Cyril Ramaphosa?

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

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