President Cyril Ramaphosa’s consensus leadership style is under threat. When he took over the presidency in 2018, he enjoyed a huge stock of goodwill, sufficient only to help him set up office.
Positive public sentiment surged. Markets cheered. It was not long before reality hit home. Ramaphosa needed practical ideas to get the complex state machinery to work for South Africa. He might have underestimated the ingenuity required.
In a politically divided country, his consensus leadership style should be an asset. It could minimise political friction to a point where it is manageable and enhance the public legitimacy of executive decisions.
But Ramaphosa’s version of consensus leadership is not delivering tangible results because it is not anchored on original ideas.
The pace of delivery on his promises has been slow, at least relative to the huge public expectations.
Granted, the expectations of him were conferred upon Ramaphosa by some among us who gave a false impression that he was capable of fixing everything and very fast.
In the process, we missed his own plea for all South Africans to contribute to solutions.
Even so, the criticism is that his government is not sufficiently opened to new ideas. Indeed, what hurts many South Africans is that there are very few problems for which there aren’t domestic solutions.
The expectation on Ramaphosa was that he would steer the state in the right direction.
He would lead his Cabinet to the highest level of performance and probity. They would be compelled to take decisions that boost economic growth and job creation. For someone who spent years as a union and business leader, it was not entirely far-fetched to expect him to get all things right.
Indeed, he got a few right. He has stopped the rot at the higher echelons of the criminal justice system, particularly the National Prosecuting Authority and has set up a panel of judges to recover monies stolen during the era of state capture.
On the economic side he has brushed aside the inexplicable rush to spend money to nationalise privately held shares of the South African Reserve Bank. He put together a panel of experts who came up with a report that has added rationality in the debate about expropriation of land without compensation. And the tourism unfriendly rules were repealed.
More recently, he allowed SAA to be put under business rescue – a belated decision which might give a clue about what to do with underperforming state-owned enterprises that are a risk to the country’s fiscal sovereignty.
Yet, public opinion is beginning to judge him harshly because all the right decisions he has taken so far were more reactive to undo the consequences of state capture.
Fresh ideas remain elusive.
Opinion makers criticise Ramaphosa as being out of touch, always shocked to observe things which to many South Africans are common course.
Sharing in the harsh criticism are his formal and the unknown informal advisors.
The dissatisfaction is about the deteriorating economy and public finances, rampant crime and Eskom and its cousin state-owned companies, among others.
There appears to be no coherent ideas to tackle these crises.
They require a massive revolution on governance which the governing party would not be capable to mount because it would include taking unpopular decisions, including privatising a number of state entities, including those owned by provincial governments.
Why would the provincial government of North West, for example, own a bus company which has since gone bankrupt? Or why would the Limpopo government insist on holding on to a chrome mine?
The decision to put SAA in business rescue is voluntary only in legal terms. The reality is that there was no other viable option. Ramaphosa has no ideas on how SOEs should be managed. The ANC alliance partners and unions are also seemingly bereft of ideas, but are ready to protest when decision that run counter to their interests are implemented.
We have a crisis of ideas in the state.
Evidenced by Ramaphosa’s admiration of the size of Medupi, there is also fatal allure to SOEs. This is the kind of attraction that got people like Dudu Myeni so drunk with power. Whenever she was on board an SAA flight, obviously flying first class, it all looked nice. It was fantasy, though.
Tired of a lack of direction, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni decided to, as he put it, to go against the inertia and published a draft document of economic recovery proposals.
It too is not ground-breaking in terms of ideas, but contains sound basics to get the economy right.
In addition, he is the leading public voice advocating for a shape-up or a ship-out type of model for SOEs, while many of his comrades believe in holding onto these companies at all costs, including even taking the country down with them.
It is not clear where Ramaphosa stands on a number of Mboweni’s proposals.
Interestingly, Ramaphosa and his supposed nemesis, ANC secretary general Ace Magashule are in agreement: SOEs won’t be sold.
Ramaphosa is presiding over a number of summits, ostensibly guided by his consensus-seeking way of doing things. He leads the jobs summit, investment summit, Fourth Industrial Revolution summit and other forums.
It is in these forums that he should seeks support for or test his ideas to the benefit of the country. While summits have their own usefulness, they cannot solve the practical problems that South Africa faces.
Chris Schutte, the chief executive officer of Standerton-based Astral Foods, wondered in a recent interview with the Sunday Times how Ramaphosa’s investment summits would help the poultry producer to secure a reliable supply of water from the Mpumalanga municipality.
The company is the largest employer and ratepayer in Standerton. How would Ramaphosa’s investment drive help Astral Foods is a question that many other companies around the country with different problems might be asking themselves.
While Ramaphosa did well to cut his trip to Egypt short to attend to the Eskom crisis, this raises questions about his leadership style.
It’s impractical to run a country like that. Regardless of where he is, the right things should be done. Leadership failure is when you can’t get your appointees to do the right thing and you end up having to do it all by yourself.
The presence of his leadership should be felt even in his absence. It’s time he began to take decisive decisions on his advisors and political appointees, who, in turn, must deal with the relevant technocrats.
It is also time he implemented a proper division of labour between him and his deputy David Mabuza.
Unfortunately, for Ramaphosa, not all crisis can be resolved through consensus.
- Mkhabela is a newspaper columnist
OPINION: Mpumelelo Mkhabela