Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS
Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS

Cyril Ramaphosa is a popular president, but he lacks a grassroots constituency within his own party, which has limped from crisis to crisis over the past decade. While analysis of the new cabinet selection has dominated the news, it is perhaps more prudent to focus on the leadership challenges he faces. He has inherited a set of problems that will require great ingenuity and resolve to overcome.

Under Jacob Zuma’s leadership, the ANC fragmented and lapsed into incoherence and dysfunction. In the quest to secure patronage and fund a political project characterised by corruption and self-enrichment, key state and government institutions and agencies were systematically eroded, resulting in state capture.

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The chasm between the governing party’s espoused values and the values it enacts has never been larger. Its walk and its talk exist in wholly different universes. The upshot of having to navigate these vastly different realities is that duplicity and mistrust is paramount in the ANC. Allegiances are purely instrumental, and values are only deployed as platitudes to shore up support at best; or as political spin to deflect blame and avoid taking responsibility for its many failures at worst.

As president of both the ANC and the country, Ramaphosa faces what would appear to be an intractable set of organisational challenges in his own party. This is compounded by a slow-growing economy that faces the prospect of recession, low levels of foreign and local re-investment, high unemployment, and severe inequality. The predominantly white middle-classes and elites are fearful of instability and the predominantly black and brown working-classes and poor are fed up with entrenched inter-generational poverty, exploitation and marginalisation.

Essentially, the president’s primary relationship through which he can exert control over the party and its membership is deeply compromised

Moreover, populist voices on both the left and right are gaining traction in the vacuum that establishment politics has left as partisan politics has come to dominate the political agenda.

The central challenge the president thus faces is actualising a transformational national agenda that brokers national unity and addresses poverty and inequality, with a ruling party that is fraught with division, corruption, distrust and declining support.

Navigating this tension is exacerbated by, as earlier noted, the president’s lack of a significant grassroots constituency within the ANC. His detractors, however, still exert strong control over the ANC’s branches and structures — and therefore hold significant sway over the key directions and decisions that the ANC takes.

Moreover, the secretary-general of the ANC, Ace Magashule, who exerts the strongest control over the ANC’s branches — countrywide — is widely recognised as a key figurehead in the “Zuma faction”. Essentially, the president’s primary relationship through which he can exert control over the party and its membership is deeply compromised.

Consultative leadership style

The president does, however, have at his disposal a set of capacities that he can leverage. He possesses a consultative, transformational leadership style that brokers trust, confidence and support from a wide variety of key sectors of society, the economy and the electorate. It is through his leadership that the ANC enjoys broader legitimacy in the public realm.

As president of the country he exerts significant control over patronage networks through appointments (indeed, as demonstrated in the recent cabinet selection). This gives him significant leverage over the ANC in its current state, as its networks tend to converge upon the locus of power. Selections will need to be carefully assessed, however, so that ANC unity is maintained while corruption is stamped out at the same time.

This is a tall order given the fractious state of the ANC’s internal affairs, but there are a variety of mechanisms at his disposal through which he can demand strict compliance to best practices. In this respect, support from the state will prove critical, but it is likely that a stronger civil society will also be necessary to close the gap left by the erosion of the state’s key “watchdog” agencies.

It appears that the new cabinet selection is a case of keeping his friends close, but his enemies closer

In addition, if the president is able to select candidates that are good technocrats while still maintaining unity in the ANC itself, he will be able to put the government and the state on track towards higher, more satisfactory levels of delivery. In this respect, it is important that no “free rides” are dealt out on the basis of loyalty. Performance has to be the key measure through which political and state positions are retained or lost. Moving non-performers out of the system as quickly as possible will inspire confidence in his leadership.

Moreover, the president enjoys widespread support within the ANC itself, even though it is not a constituency-based one, and that can be leveraged to develop a constituency of his own over his first term. He can also leverage his influence with various structures — for example, the ANC’s elders and veterans — to help promote his agenda. The prospect of a split within the ANC, or a further decline in its electoral support can also be leveraged to prevent would-be saboteurs of his leadership from acting.

Actualising a transformational agenda, while ensuring buy-in and stability at the same time, is a tall order for a divided party. It is likely that the president will have to devote a great deal of time and attention on ensuring internal ANC unity. Indeed, it appears that the new cabinet selection is a case of keeping his friends close, but his enemies closer.

To usher in a brave new era, the president will have to reach beyond the ANC for support and embrace a politics that transcends his party’s internal conflicts. It is going to take more than the president and all his “men” to turn this ship around. The president’s “popularity without constituency” may prove to be a double-edged sword. For the sake of ordinary South Africans, may it ultimately cut out the cancer without severing the heart of the nation, and re-orient the country towards a new horizon of hope.

• Dr Peter is associate professor at the Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership, Graduate School of Business, UCT.