Why is SA ungovernable, and why do we like it that way?
Lack of trust means every conceivable constituency in SA is primed to destroy what it does not like
SA, or at least the small section of it that gathers around this website, has long grown frustrated with Cyril Ramaphosa. He is maddeningly cautious.
When he came to power it was expected he would go, guns blazing, after the ANC faction he had defeated. Instead, he appointed a string of independent inquiries and has watched from a safe distance as they go about their slow work.
It was hoped he would roll up his sleeves and revive the corpses that are the state-owned enterprises. He has said instead that nobody in the bloated and sickly Eskom will be retrenched.
Some are saying he is a coward; to achieve anything of consequence in SA, it is said, one needs a depth of courage and a clarity of purpose he simply does not have.
Behind all this frustration with Ramaphosa is a question seldom asked: how much power does an SA president actually have? Or, to put it at its sharpest: how governable is SA?
The short answer is: not very. A governable country is one in which levels of trust and common feeling run high. It is when people believe they are in the same boat, their destinies mutually entwined, that they make sacrifices for one another. When nobody trusts anybody, we all grab what we can here and now; to defer anything to the future is to put one’s fate in the hands of strangers.
There was a brief time when things were different. In the aftermath of liberation, when Nelson Mandela was president and when he was loved, people trusted their government. It was a strange, almost otherworldly moment, when policymakers were free to try what they liked and much of the country would comply.
But it was a brief parenthesis. We are back in the real SA now where inequality is rife, racial tension fierce and the past casts a shadow over everything. It is the sort of country where a president must have eyes in the back of his head, for there is little he might think of doing that somebody will not sabotage. Whether it is the labour movement afraid of technological change, or those in his own party scared of clean government, or middle-class motorists who do not want to pay for their roads, every conceivable constituency in SA is primed to destroy what it does not like.
Ramaphosa is arguably the first president since Mandela to truly understand the limitations of his power. He has watched two of his predecessors ejected from office and he does not want to walk in their shoes. He understands that to exercise power is to build a consensus as wide as possible and to be slippery with everyone else. Ours is the sort of country that requires a president with patience and craftiness in equal measure.
It is also, unfortunately, a country in which no president is likely ever to perform miracles, despite our reputation for being a place in which a miracle has already come to pass. We are more likely to trundle on, slowly, clumsily, stopping every so often to pick up somebody who has fallen overboard or to fix another part that has broken down or been sabotaged.
This story has a bright side. That we do not trust anybody, that we are so deeply suspicious of those who exercise power, has made us hyper-vigilant. Whoever gets comfortable wielding authority in SA is inevitably in for a surprise. We were given a constitution stipulating that nobody can serve more than two terms as president and we have made that stipulation sacred. We have a judiciary whose independence the population has defended to the hilt.
Democracy is a regime in which those who govern come short when they forget that their power is borrowed. By this definition SA is very much a democracy. It is unlikely to become a Hungary, where the executive has captured the judiciary and the media is meek; or a Venezuela where elections are stolen from under the electorate’s nose. Rambunctious and crazy, it is a place where it is hard to get anything done, whether evil or benign.
• Steinberg teaches African studies at Oxford and is visiting professor at Yale.