Who’s really calling the shots in South Africa?

Mounting frustration by South African citizens over the country’s seemingly arbitrary lockdown regulations has been met with silence from the office of the presidency – with questions now swirling around as to who is really in charge?

According to Intellidex analyst, Peter Attard Montalto, the question is anchored in the current debate around tobacco restrictions in the country – which appeared to be a complete reversal of an announcement made by president Cyril Ramaphosa in his last address to the nation – almost three weeks ago.

Ramaphosa has been lauded, both locally and abroad, for his handling of the coronavirus crisis in South Africa, up to his most recent national address.

From declaring a state of disaster on 15 March, the president moved swiftly to take the decision to lock down the country – even at the cost of the wider economy – in a bid to save lives by reducing the spread of the virus among the population.

Messaging from the government, led by Ramaphosa’s addresses to the nation, was clear: the Covid-19 pandemic is a massive crisis that put all lives at risk, and sacrifices will need to be made to see the country through it.

However, as the nationwide lockdown progressed from three weeks, to five weeks, to the eased (but still restrictive) ‘risk-based’ approach we experience today, government’s communication has become less clear – and to many, has stopped making any sense at all.

Instead, the country has been hit by a barrage of regulatory changes, adding and removing rules, with little in the way of communications backing the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of the process.

In his weekly letters to the nation, Ramaphosa has kept his focus squarely on the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic itself, while assuring, through statements, that the granular decisions being taken regarding the lockdown are being done via consensus through the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC).

The NCCC itself, however, is now coming under closer scrutiny, with legal challenges looking to test the legitimacy of the council, and the decisions they have taken.

Who is calling the shots?

According to Attard Montalto, while many would love for Ramaphosa to be solely in charge, he is not a “benign dictator” leader, and is squarely rooted in the politics at play behind the scenes.

“On a personal level, Ramaphosa is a collectivist – which in a cabinet sense means he is a majoritarian, taking the majority view where consensus cannot form.

“On an institutional level, Ramaphosa has not set up his Presidency with enough independent capacity and resources to enable him to take fast moving decisions himself and cross check or disagree with cabinet colleagues,” the analyst said.

As a result, at present the “microeconomic-fiddlers and micromanagers” have taken the gap to push their policies, while more sensible voices are being drowned out, he said.

“Ramaphosa is not capable, we think, of rejecting a majority view that is ‘wrong’ in cabinet – at least not at speed. The microeconomic-fiddlers have (also) been faster out of the gates.”

The analyst said that Ramaphosa’s structures around him are too informal (in terms of the economic advisory capacity) and too overwhelmed by the speed at which everything is happening.

“All this means is that a small group of ministers – including minister of Trade and Industry Ebrahim Patel – are clustered around COGTA minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and are really driving the agenda in a cohesive and united way,” he said.

Dlamini-Zuma retains key powers to oversee and manage the gazetting process under the Disaster Management Act, and Attard Montalto believes that Ramaphosa has only generalised oversight of this, rather than active control.

“As a collectivist then we think Ramaphosa struggles with an issue like the cigarette sales ban, and remains loyal to the collective decision, even if he may disagree with it. But the same is true more generally on economic stimulus and support,” he said.

“The centre of power then we think sits only loosely and theoretically around Ramaphosa – but needs to be considered as a more complex system of actors with key importance for Dlamini-Zuma, Patel, (Minister of Police) Bheki Cele and (Health Minster) Zweli Mkhize obviously too as integral components.”

While the the effect of this below-the-surface politicking is evident in the messaging from government as of late, the outcome also holds ramifications for the future.

“This outcome creates political opportunities for those who want to form a coalition against Ramaphosa into the 2022 elective conference,” Attard Montalto said. “But we would not view it through those terms now – not in the sense of that is what’s driving action or division (at present).”

Read: Why Ramaphosa isn’t addressing South Africa about the coronavirus every day

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Who’s really calling the shots in South Africa?