Since his ascent to power in Nasrec in December 2017 as ANC leader, and his assumption of office as South Africa’s president in February 2018, Cyril Ramaphosa has been an oasis of hope for a country that for nearly a decade was starved of leadership. Soon after he took office, Ramaphosa staked his leadership on party renewal, economic reforms, and institutional change. There was much expectation that he will quickly turn around the country away from the doldrum years of President Jacob Zuma’s leadership.
Such hopes may prove forlorn. Leading institutional and economic reform is a tough act and the one that requires a luxury of time in office and a great deal of patience from various interest groups and the electorate. Given the level of fracture and mistrust in society, it is difficult to see how Ramaphosa will steer the ship successfully post-elections.
Any leader who presides over reforms will inevitably court unpopularity from his own party, the other interest groups, and those who are likely to be adversely affected by reforms measures, especially when there is no societal consensus and sufficient levels of trust in the political leadership. It is easier to destroy than it is to build. Institutions that work take a while to evolve. This is precisely because part of institution-building requires technical capabilities to preside over such institutions. They also require well-defined goals and policy framework that will guide their function. The institutional reform phase of 1996, which refocused the public sector as a developmental instrument, was very exacting. It created much strain in the system. It took over many years for the public service to find its bearings under the new dispensation.
Then there were the ill-defined and chaotic institutional changes that were wrought by President Jacob Zuma in 2009, which took the size of the Cabinet from 50 to 74 members (including deputy ministers). A new set of gridlocks was created in government. The corpulent bureaucratic structure did not lead to greater public service delivery. Another phase of institutional reforms, as necessary as it is, will not necessarily yield good outcomes within a short period of time. Much of the energies will be expended on reversing the negative legacy of Zuma rather than building something new and progressive.
Institutional restructuring of the state is one of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s signature reform programmes. The guiding strategy and the plan for such reorganisation is yet to be announced to the public. As a technocratic exercise, it will achieve some savings, but not much to scale back public debt and to create sufficient confidence in the economy. It is likely to be more symbolic than substantive. To the extent that such institutional reform may be accompanied by a reduction in the number of cabinet positions, this may be opposed by those who stand to lose patronage. There is an expectation from the public that the size of the cabinet should be reduced to curtail wastage and to overcome much duplication that is as a result of the existence of departments that are doing similar work. Further, there is pressure to offer voluntary severance to public servants of a certain age as an exercise in cutting fat in government.
In August 2018, there were discussions at the Cabinet Lekgotla that indicated plans by the Ramaphosa's administration to reduce the number of public servants by 30,000 over the next three years. Reports indicated this would be accomplished by a combination of voluntary severance packages and layoffs in the process of restructuring government. The overall aim would be to reduce state spending by R20 billion. Although the restructuring itself will unlikely to take the form of layoffs and rather encourage early retirement, the effects could be the same. It will induce a brain drain and loss of critical technical skills in government. The idea was for public servants aged between 55 to 59 to be allowed to apply for early retirement from April 2019 until the end of September 2019. Government hardly offers a coherent roadmap on the steps to be taken in this direction.
Constraints to Ramaphosa’s Reform Agenda
It is the ANC that that will likely give Ramaphosa a hard time in his reform agenda, and he will find it hard to act contrary to its wishes. Now, his party lacks ideological coherence, it contains many disparate interests. Beyond elections, it does not have a shared objective about governance or how the economy should be reformed, or institutions of governance be reconfigured for high performance. This intra-party reality will present Ramaphosa with serious challenge after the 8 May elections. Ramaphosa’s ability to manoeuvre his way depends on the weight of the electoral margin the ANC will notch on the ballot box. Early 2018 when Ramaphosa announced his cabinet for the first time, the party had an influence in the process. Various Cabinet ministers who were associated with Zuma’s malfeasance and some who were known to be serial under-performers were back as ministers. Such a scenario could play itself out again after elections depending on whether he manages to improve the country’s margins.
If he does not improve on the 2014 results, where under Zuma’s leadership the party had 62% share of the votes, he will be viewed as having failed, and his authority could very well be curtailed. This will limit his flexibility and narrow his policy space to drive his own reform agenda, which now remains undefined. Those who oppose him within the party will become more emboldened as they will not see him as much of a factor of influence in swaying support for the ANC. If the party’s relative margin decline, with 2014 as a benchmark line, Ramaphosa will be a leader who took the party to new lows, even though this will be an effect of the country’s management under Zuma between 2009 and 2018. In an unlikely event that he improves the party’s fortunes above 62%, he will be a lot more emboldened to stamp his authority within the party and to govern unhindered.
There are many unknowns. The party will hold its National General Council in 2020, where old factional wounds could open, and some of Ramaphosa’s policy proposals could come under question. The following year, 2021, will be consumed by local government elections.
No one knows yet what the intra-party dynamics will look like, and whether Ramaphosa will still have influence in the party. Given the unstable condition of the ANC and its strong urge to self-destruct, it is unthinkable that a leader of Ramaphosa’s calibre would last beyond the elective conference in 2022.
Even if the ANC wins major gains on the 8 May elections, it will be difficult for Ramaphosa to exert himself in the matters of state, and at the same time achieve in uniting the ANC. Leading government successfully, however that is measured, may still not secure his political longevity if he fails to effectively govern his party. Doing both well is a miracle.
Mzukisi Qobo is Associate Professor: International Strategy & Business, Wits Business School.