Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: JOYRENE KRAMER
Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: JOYRENE KRAMER

When will the government get back to governing? As usual, the ANC’s calendar is dominating political life at the expense of the government getting anything done. For the past three or so months, ANC leaders have been occupied with ANC provincial conferences. In the few months prior to that it was ANC regional conferences that kept everyone busy.

For the year before that it was all about "The Road to Nasrec" as factions slugged it out to compete at the December ANC conference. During that time little if anything of significance was delivered, as government officials and their political principals were paralysed ahead of the outcome.

The year ahead doesn’t look much better. Soon the ANC will hold its manifesto conference to prepare for the election as well as a summit with its alliance partners — Cosatu and the South African Communist Party — which will also take up much of leaders’ time. After that, in the last quarter of the year, the ANC will hold list conferences to determine who will represent it in Parliament and the provincial legislatures.

[Ramaphosa's] decision to make only minimal changes to the Cabinet and to wait 18 months before putting a reconfigured and fit-for-purpose Cabinet in place is proving expensive.

The list conferences look like they will be messy. There were six court challenges over the provincial conferences by disgruntled factions. Three more are outstanding. The list conferences could go the same way.

The outcomes of the Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provincial conferences held this weekend underline that the divisions in the ANC are hard set. In both provinces the factions were unable to make a deal in the interests of ANC unity. Both provinces elected a divided leadership, mirroring the ANC national conference, where no faction was strong enough to prevail over the other. Though this is democracy of sorts, it makes decision making difficult. The selection process for the premier candidates, for instance, will be fraught.

Then there will be the actual election and the preceding campaign, certain to take up the first half of 2019. Maybe after that we can hope that the focus will shift back to governing.

The less optimistic — or more realistic — view is that while these play a large part in consuming the time and energy of leaders in government, it is not just the perpetual demands of the ANC programme that keep ANC executives and their administrations from governing effectively. It is also a consequence of how the ANC exercises state power: as an organisation held together by alliances between provincial, regional or factional groups, its tendency is always to put the interests of party unity above the priorities of governing.

Political scientists have coined the term "patrimonialism" to describe similar forms of government. In a patrimonial arrangement, intraparty alliances are essential for a set of leaders to hold sufficient sway and are based on reciprocal arrangements and favours between individuals. As the ANC must always be held together, this dominates decision making in the government.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, with his mantra that ANC unity is paramount, has endorsed this way of doing business. His decision to make only minimal changes to the Cabinet and to wait 18 months before putting a reconfigured and fit-for-purpose Cabinet in place is proving expensive. It is clear that other than setting an ambitious target for investment and cleaning the bad apples out of state-owned enterprises, his government does not have a plan to fix the economy.

When the time finally comes for him to choose his dream-team Cabinet after the 2019 election, will circumstances have changed? Or will the ANC be no more united than it was 18 months before, when Ramaphosa chose to put government on the back burner in favour of party unity?

Given the way in which the ANC has evolved as a ruling party, Ramaphosa will be forced to choose his Cabinet in the same way that his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, did — balancing provincial and other sectional interests.

To govern effectively, Ramaphosa must rise above the old way of doing things. If he doesn’t, it will be business as usual and he will lose his opportunity to make a difference to his country.