🔒 RW Johnson: Still searching for SA’s first good President

In a candid reflection spanning three decades since 1994, RW Johnson grapples with uncomfortable truths about South Africa’s post-apartheid journey. Delving into the presidencies of Mandela, Mbeki, Zuma, and Ramaphosa, Johnson unearths a narrative of missed opportunities, blunders, and unmet expectations. From Mandela’s symbolic gestures to Ramaphosa’s isolation, he reveals a nation yearning for effective leadership amidst a backdrop of political manoeuvring and personal ambition. As South Africa searches for its next chapter, Johnson’s introspective analysis sheds light on the challenges ahead.

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By R.W. Johnson

There has been no shortage of articles looking back on the thirty years since 1994. The awkward truth, of course, is that the Nat right wingers who predicted that majority rule would lead to corruption and chaos have been largely vindicated – though their accompanying prediction of a rapid end to democracy has not been borne out. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___ It is a decidedly awkward truth. No one wants to admit that Strijdom, Vorster and PW got that much right, though if we can’t be honest about that after thirty years, when will it be permissible to face the facts ?

The many recollections of Mandela and the sight of Mbeki and Zuma on the campaign trail once again also trigger the question of whether we have yet had a good President. There is, of course, no doubt that Mandela was a charming and delightful man, widely loved, and that he played a key symbolic role in the crucial early years of the New South Africa. But a good executive President he was not. He had almost no idea about the workings of government. This was evident right away when he decreed that all mothers and their babies should have free medical care. The hospitals and clinics were all but overwhelmed by the resulting flood of humanity but they rose to the occasion somehow. Mandela hadn’t bothered to warn anyone of his forthcoming announcement so no doctor or nurse and no hospital or clinic administrator in the country had been able to prepare, lay in extra medicines, hire extra staff or do any of the many extra things required to meet the challenge. At the very least the flood of young mothers and children could have been staggered over, say, a fortnight and not unleashed on a single day. It was very nearly a huge disaster. 

Or again, Mandela pushed through a programme of early retirement for the most senior and experienced teachers, most of them white – at just the point when the schools needed every good teacher they could get. This started a huge downward slide in teaching standards. Mandela himself soon realised this had been a large mistake. But Mandela wasn’t really interested in being an executive president. He didn’t bother to chair the cabinet and often wandered out of cabinet meetings when they were far from over. Mbeki was left to catch all the balls he dropped and scurry about making hundreds of detailed decisions on the fly. Mandela liked symbolic gestures – wearing Francois Pienaar’s shirt, visiting Betsy Verwoerd, joshing the Queen – and was anyway disengaging from Winnie and courting Graca Machel. It was no way to run a spaza shop, let alone a government. Towards the end Mandela was publicly reprimanded by a judge for simply not doing his job. He unwisely took on Louis Luyt in court and emerged much the worse for it. But he was supremely lucky: the old (and competent) civil service continued for a few years, the economy, freed of sanctions, did well and it was too soon for the lack of infrastructural maintenance and competent management to show through.

Perhaps Mandela did as well as any other 75 year old ex-convict would have done if asked to take over the presidency of his country despite never having served in any level of government. And symbolically he did well and calmed the country when Hani’s murder might have caused an explosion. But the country had been torn apart by years of violence and contestation and now had to weather fundamental change. It needed the firm hand of an executive president who knew exactly what he was doing. It didn’t get it. 

Mbeki has been by far the most influential figure in post-1994 South Africa. He ran the government from 1994 to 2008 and is still politically active today. Intelligent and well-organised, he took a detailed interest in many portfolios. He was determined to keep Magashule out of power in the Free State, fearing corruption, and tried to disembarrass himself of Zuma, whom Mandela had naively inflicted on him as Deputy-President. Crucially, he picked an able Finance minister in Trevor Manuel, and stuck with him. Moreover, his GEAR economic programme, which broke decisively with the neo-marxist orthodoxies of the time, was extremely successful in reducing the national debt and witnessed a sharp rise in economic growth. But Mbeki backed down from it under pressure from the Left and its privatisations were never carried out. More’s the pity: the state could have made large profits by selling off SOEs then and all those industries would be in a far better state now. 

But Mbeki committed two huge blunders. His failure to listen to Eskom’s demand for more power stations in 1998 was the direct cause of the power crisis we have lived with since 2008. Mbeki was man enough to apologise for this gigantic error at the time but has latterly tried to blame Eskom “sabotage”, an unworthy attempt to shift the blame. Secondly, Mbeki’s crazy Aids policies were responsible for over 360,000 unnecessary deaths, by far the worst crime ever committed by a South African president or premier. There is no doubt that Mbeki was very seriously psychologically disturbed, a combination of his tendencies to paranoia and grandiosity. In retirement he seems to have recovered some of his balance but he has never owned up to the enormity of his crime. As a result, no one can trust him.

Jacob Zuma’s finest act was to immediately reverse Mbeki’s Aids policies, making ARVs available to the HIV+ and thus saving a huge number of lives. This should never be forgotten. Zuma looted and stole and doomed the New South Africa but he killed almost nobody. Thereafter it was all downhill. Above all, Zuma lacked any shred of patriotism. He was happy to sell his country out to a family of foreign crooks and he cared only about his own enrichment, despite the terrible cost to South Africa. He was also perfectly willing to bankrupt the country in order to give Russia a huge order for nuclear power stations, a deal laden with huge kickbacks. He was our Mobutu, a complete disgrace: crude, misogynistic, homophobic, uncaring of the law or constitution, dishonest and endlessly greedy.

Finally, Ramaphosa – weak, indecisive, often extraordinarily ignorant of the South African facts of life and given to making empty and dishonest promises. He is a pleasant and good natured man but as the country’s chief executive he is the weakest we have had since 1910. Yet high hopes were held of him, so what went wrong ? Two things account for his tragedy. 

First, he hero-worshipped Mandela and was ambitious to follow him as President. He seems to have conceived of his role as like Mandela’s – making symbolic gestures, smiling, blessing the people, greeting winning sports teams and making inspiring remarks. But by the time he became President the requirements were much tougher and very different. He reminds one of junior academics who, in the 1980s dreamed of becoming vice-chancellors. By the time they made it to the top the job was hellish and far more demanding of guts and backbone than they were at all equipped for. The result was nightmarish and they ended up despised by almost everyone.

Ramaphosa’s second problem was that he was a Venda and South Africa is essentially an Nguni republic. Under Mandela and Mbeki there was a huge Xhosa preponderance in the cabinet and in the civil service. Then when Zuma came in he brought with him a large phalanx of Zulus in the cabinet and the security services. The result was from 1994 to 2017 the President of the day could always count on a strong following wind provided by his clansmen and followers. It would have been easier if Ramaphosa had been a Pedi, a Southern Sotho or a Tswana, for all these are large groups able to supply at least some ministers and senior civil servants. But the Vendas are a small and ill-regarded group. The result was that Ramaphosa was alone and isolated, without any supportive group behind him. This meant that he had to lean heavily on a few old trade union comrades like Gwede Mantashe and that he had to defer to the ANC national executive more than any of his predecessors had. And the NEC has become steadily more parochial, ill-educated and corrupt. The days when it was dominated by the powerful and independent voices of struggle heroes have gone. The NEC once reflected the best of the ANC. It now reflects the worst.

Moreover, the ANC no longer has its old esprit de corps. As Kgalema Motlanthe observed long ago, no measure of any kind now gets adopted within the ANC unless it is designed to put money in someone’s pocket. And in that milieu of ruthless opportunism it is every man for himself. ANC conferences are simply mass auctions where votes are bought and sold. Paul Mashatile, the new Deputy President, is the perfect example of this, living in a string of millionaire mansions with a whole string of girlfriends. How is a man who grew up in Alexandra supposed to have acquired such wealth ? Do we need to ask ?

It is illuminating to contrast this new power elite with the old Afrikaner elite. ANC leaders almost universally pay to send their children to private schools and thus avoid the (inferior) township schools which most Africans attend. The old Afrikaner elite was quite different and, to the end, was bound by a more egalitarian esprit de corps. The apartheid government put much effort and investment into building up Afrikaans-medium public schools and educational standards steadily improved. But even at the very end of the apartheid period there was no such thing as an Afrikaans-medium private school. All South Africa’s private schools were uniformly English-speaking. So even the Afrikaner elite shared the school experience of much poorer Afrikaners and the egalitarian assumptions of the broader Afrikaner community were preserved.

So the answer is that the New South Africa has not yet had a good chief executive as President. It is true that Mbeki came closest to that but he was, by the end at least, clearly psychologically disturbed. The ANC leadership was probably at its strongest in the 1960s when Tambo, Mandela and Sisulu were in their prime but nothing like that is available now. An organisation which throws up as its top men Ramaphosa and Mashatile is a very long way down the slope. And while nature abhors a vacuum the two main pretenders to the crown – Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema – are actually worse. True, Malema is politically extremely shrewd and probably the best tactician in the country but, like Zuma, he is an economic and policy illiterate. So the baton needs to be passed but we are still waiting for fresh runners to emerge.

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