Keeping the president healthy

ANTHONY BUTLER: Ramaphosa getting into the pound seats, in kilograms too

The president is steadfastly accumulating power, but concern over his health is not misplaced



In the middle of an unprecedented economic and public health crisis, it is prudent to worry about your president’s health.

This week Cyril Ramaphosa postponed a meeting with the leader of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union. Minister in the presidency Jackson Mthembu caused consternation when he attributed the cancellation to the president being “really sick”. The announcement confirmed for observers that Ramaphosa is a leader both ailing and besieged.

This misapprehension will probably undergo revision over the next seven or eight weeks. Former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma both taught us that control can be secured over time by a determined politician who is willing to use presidential prerogatives to the full. Ramaphosa has already laid much of the groundwork for his ascendancy by weeding out old-order legacies and accumulating control over the levers of state power.

The pandemic-related crisis has now predictably empowered him further. A need for dialogue between state, business and labour, and the tendency of crisis-hit populations to listen to their national leader, have bolstered Ramaphosa’s authority. Moreover, much of the crisis response is being realised at the level of international institutions, where domestic power brokers have no access.

The pandemic has also given Ramaphosa space for a cabinet reshuffle. A rising political tide lifts all of the cabinet boats. Now the tide has gone out, and ministers swimming naked have been cruelly exposed.

August’s national executive committee (NEC) meeting demonstrated Ramaphosa’s growing command of the ANC. Corruption prosecutions are on the way shortly. It is not hard to see the force of the NEC’s associated resolution that cadres “formally charged for corruption or other serious crimes must immediately step aside from all leadership positions in the ANC, legislatures or other government structures pending the finalisation of their cases”.

Finally, local government elections are coming, and a big shift of voter sentiment is on the cards. As the pandemic’s economic effects mount, the ANC’s dependence on persisting popular support for Ramaphosa will redouble.

None of this means that concern about the president’s workload — or his health — is misplaced. Ramaphosa is not as young as he used to be. Reports suggest he is a firm ex-smoker, plays a variety of golf, and drinks rooibos tea rather than alcohol to unwind. Like the minister for mineral resources & energy, however, he has not fully embraced the global scientific consensus that excessive weight is a key factor in chronic disease.

Larger problem

A larger problem may be Ramaphosa’s approach to work. In the mid-1980s he decentralised the fast-growing National Union of Mineworkers to reduce the administrative burdens on the head office. In reality, however, representatives from the regions and branches were still allowed to flow freely through the national office to personally petition Ramaphosa.

A leadership style that depends on time-consuming personal engagement and pact-building can be psychologically and physically draining. One analysis of “overwork” by Sarah Green Carmichael, in Harvard Business Review, suggests it can cause impaired sleep and memory, heart disease and depression. It can also undermine critical political skills, such as interpersonal communication, judgment and the ability to manage emotions.

Carmichael would approve of finance minister Tito Mboweni’s ability to disengage from the office and head for the kitchen — even if some of his culinary creations could be classified as injurious to health by the World Health Organisation.

That a leader such as Ramaphosa enjoys working too hard does not stop him from making more mistakes in consequence. Overworkers can lose sight of the big picture; soon they cannot see the wood for the trees. “Keep overworking,” Carmichael observes, “and you’ll progressively work more stupidly on tasks that are increasingly meaningless.”

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

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