President Cyril Ramaphosa replying to the State of the Nation debate in Parliament. Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency(ANA)
President Cyril Ramaphosa replying to the State of the Nation debate in Parliament. Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency(ANA)

My unsolicited advice to our besieged president

By Letepe Maisela Time of article published Jun 30, 2019

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“There is something rotten in the state of Denmark,” says Marcellus in the Shakespearean tragedy Hamlet.

Substitute Denmark for South Africa. In the aftermath of the State of the Nation Address (Sona), to borrow from yet another Shakespearean tragedy Julius Caesar, the knives seem to be out for our incumbent president.

It’s not only the opposition parties baying for his blood this time - they have been joined by reputable political commentators, the media and even the Office of the Public Protector.

The SONA, for which our president is being hauled over the coals by all and sundry, was in hindsight not a good one. It was full of sentiment but lacking in content and strategic intent.

While cynics dismissed it as a pipe dream, it reminded one of Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech, given during the march for jobs and freedom, in Washington on August 28, 1963.

But unlike King, who was just an activist with limited civil rights in the US and had to resort to toyi-toying in the streets, this cannot be said about our newly anointed president who is the head of state and armed with far-reaching executive powers.

First that speech.

Sitting in the audience in Parliament on June 20, I wondered how the Sona successfully made it into the National Assembly. It endorsed my long-held suspicion that there might be no articulate and crisp speechwriters or even adept advisers in the presidential chambers. Either that or the man does not engage them and ignores their advice. The president’s demeanour was that of a mutineer from a pirate ship, who was given an option to walk the plank or be cut loose in a rubber dinghy to face the tumultuous and dark seas. He chose the tumultuous and dark seas.

It’s on the basis of this uncanny observation that I’m humbly offering my unsolicited advice to the president.

First, our president needs to grasp and acknowledge the powers that he can wield, powers his position has been given by our revered Constitution. I don’t need to remind him of that because he was one of the officials involved in drafting the Constitution, promulgated by Nelson Mandela on December 18, 1996.

To the uninitiated, however, let me familiarise you with the section in our Constitution that deals with presidential powers: “The president is the head of state, head of government and commander in chief of the South African National Defence Force.” (Eat your heart out commander in chief Julius Sello Malema.)

It continues: “The executive powers of the Republic are vested in the president. He appoints various officials to positions listed in the Constitution. However, the most significant are ministers of justice in the Supreme Court of Appeal and the Constitutional Court.”

Section 84 deals with the powers entrusted to our president, which are mind-boggling to say the least, including the appointment of the deputy president, Cabinet ministers and deputy ministers.

Constitutionally speaking, the president also enjoys powers to remove them from office at a whim. This happened during the Thabo Mbeki era when he removed his then deputy, the erstwhile president Jacob Zuma.

Zuma effectively used the prerogative powers given to fire numerous ministers and conduct many Cabinet reshuffles at midnight.

Cascading downwards, our Constitution gives the president the power to appoint ambassadors, the heads of our Chapter Nine institutions and more. Our Constitution is, in fact, the most formidable weapon in the Presidency’s arsenal.

However, one of its major downsides is that it lacks the necessary checks and balances to qualify it as a truly democratic document.

With all the powers under his control, why does it seem like our incumbent president is walking on eggshells lately, and at a time when our country is on fire and precariously poised on the edge of a cliff?

Here is my tuppence of unsolicited advice to our besieged president:

Unlike his presidential predecessors, our president is not a career politician. He did not therefore enter the presidential race to earn a living. He was a billionaire of note when he raised his hand for the No 1 position, so he cannot he held to ransom by his political detractors and supporters.

In fact, unlike those before him, he does not need this job. That is why I expect of him to position himself as a transformative agent of change, who can dedicate himself to getting rid of the past ills, fuelled by incompetence and corruption. He has started to do that.

Instead of looking at serving a full term of his presidency, he must not let the ambition distract him from the reality that saving South Africa is more paramount than his political aspirations. Without abusing his constitutional powers, he can instead use them to weed out evil and promote good. Whether the vultures circling above his head are in Parliament or at Luthuli House, he must not submit to them because he has the most powerful weaponry - our Constitution - on his side.

Finally, to borrow some snippets from his SONA address and offer counsel I, like most people, believe that dreaming about the Bullet Train and a new smart city is premature and unrealistic. However, I agree that we do require high-speed trains to travel between major South African cities and towns. Those will come as a welcome relief to our overcrowded national roads which results in the annual carnage. The bullet train is not the cheaper answer though.

We should rather look at the American Amtrak or the French TGV version. The latter built by Alstom, can use our rail infrastructure, making it a far cheaper and more efficient option while travelling at speeds of more than 200km/h. Regarding the digital smart city, the president, much like a drowning man, was grasping at straws.

South Africa in the new millennium need not start thinking about building more cities, smart or otherwise, to accommodate the exodus from rural to urban.

What needs to be done instead is to think about strategies to reverse the exodus rather than encourage it. One of them could simply be by decentralising the economy. We need to encourage industrialisation in the remote parts through government subsidisation, provision of arable land and financial support to budding black subsistence and commercial farmers. This will enable rural communities to work nearer to their homes.

Listening to the response to the president’s SONA on Wednesday afternoon, I could not but think it should have been his speech.

But like they say about reactive thinking, or hindsight: “It is always the best sight.’

* Letepe Maisela is a published author and management consultant.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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