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

Jacob Zuma ruled, but Cyril Ramaphosa will govern. It is this difference that could transform a weak state based on patronage, where warring ministers built their fiefdoms and handed out favours, into an administration that is able to function with a common purpose and in a co-ordinated way.

As basic a requirement as this is of any government, after the Zuma years it is not one SA will take for granted again.

Friday’s state of the nation address was met with resounding elation, not least by the numerous former comrades of Cyril Ramaphosa from the 1980s and 1990s who sat in the public gallery and the array of former government officials hounded out of the bureaucracy. We hope Ramaphosa can persuade them to come back into politics and into the government.

The speech was an impressive and methodical list of the government’s new priorities. All of these have been at the core of what many parts of society have been demanding, from organised business to labour to the political opposition and to the civil-society organisations that helped propel Ramaphosa to power.

Ramaphosa needs to take managerial control of the government through his office and get it working as it is supposed to

Critics were quick to point out that Ramaphosa’s list of summits, task teams and advisory committees was short on detail, and pointed to a worrying tendency of him and the ANC government of doing urgent things at a leisurely pace. Social compacting, however, is a necessary process. Given SA’s particular set of problems and the presence of strong stakeholder interests, there is little alternative but to try to negotiate a new deal.

What Ramaphosa can get cracking on with urgency is reconfiguring and co-ordinating the government. Thabo Mbeki’s efforts to create "joined-up government" were trampled on and discarded. Ministries compete according to their own interests, often directly informed not by the needs of the country or even by ANC policy but by outside business interests that have successfully lobbied or paid them.

In the early days of the Zuma administration, there was much goodwill from ANC insiders and government officials to set the country on a task where government work, including that of cabinet ministers, would be measured and evaluated. The result was the creation of an enormous bureaucracy in the Presidency called the Department of Monitoring and Evaluation.

But the government’s work has been less co-ordinated and more contradictory than ever before.

Ramaphosa’s promise in the state of the nation speech that he would soon visit each national government department is therefore far more important than public relations and checking to see if his portrait is already up on the wall. Ramaphosa needs to take managerial control of the government through his office and get it working as it is supposed to.

Change will require many personnel replacements. It will require downsizing and streamlining. It will be a huge battle against entrenched interests and mediocrity, which has settled into well-paying jobs, abundantly protected by our labour law.

On Wednesday, Ramaphosa’s finance minister will table a budget that will see increased taxes, specifically value-added tax, and expenditure cuts on items such as municipal infrastructure and possibly even housing, all of which will negatively affect the lives of the poor.

Already provincial health and education departments are collapsing under the weight of budget constraints.

Ramaphosa has to make a big difference fast. He has started well by raising business confidence and elevating the general mood in the country. With luck, this will pay off in increased private investment.

With debt-servicing costs eating into spending, the government has fewer resources than before to stimulate the economy and deliver social services to the poor. It will not be able to do as it has done before and spend on infrastructure to stimulate growth. Essentially, it will have to do more with less — and that is the importance of having a president who intends to govern.