Presidency policy advisory unit a reassuring move


It is reassuring to learn that President Cyril Ramaphosa has taken the first steps to restructure the government by establishing a policy advisory unit in the presidency.The lack of capacity in his office has been a big issue.It has been unable to respond adequately to important issues, even court cases.His advisers – legal, economic and political – are lowkey.Some, such as economic adviser Trudi Makhaya, are at sea in the world of politics, waiting to be told what to do rather than developing an agenda and proactively putting issues on the table.Ramaphosa’s political advisers – Steyn Speed and Khulu Mbatha – are practically invisible.They don’t carry much political heft and the extent to which they are able to formulate a strategic approach to the political leadership challenges the president faces, while cloistered away in their offices, has not been demonstrable.The most significant appointment Ramaphosa has made is that of Roshene Singh, who came in as chief of staff in June.Singh is a long-standing ANC activist and administrator who in the past has played a central role in running the ANC’s election campaigns.She is well known and respected in the ANC, though she has already been attacked publicly by ANC factions on the basis of her family connection to Pravin Gordhan.Many years ago she was married to Gordhan’s nephew, Ketso.It is critical that the core of people around Ramaphosa is strengthened with top-level and experienced people who have strong professional and political credentials.That is why he has been advised by some of his peers in the ANC to appoint a senior minister in his office, to play the role of adviser and confidante.Such a minister should be strategically minded, politically and organisationally influential in the ANC, and able to tell Ramaphosa the things no-one else will.Apart from the decision to proceed with the policy unit, other processes – such as the restructuring of the cabinet – are lagging behind.While one would have hoped a blueprint for the structure of the new cabinet was on his desk already, Ramaphosa sent the presenters of the last version packing.The policy advisory unit will be called policy and research services, and will be headed by Busani Ngcaweni, who since June has been head of policy in the presidency.While it is reminiscent of the policy co-ordination and advisory services unit during the two administrations of Thabo Mbeki, it will not carry as much weight or influence.Mbeki’s policy unit was headed by ANC intellectual-inchief Joel Netshitenzhe.It included a bunch of serious economists and policy experts, and was enormously important in identifying trends and strategic priorities, and driving these through government processes.Ngcaweni joined Netshitenzhe’s unit shortly before it was disbanded by Jacob Zuma in 2009, after which he moved to Ramaphosa’s office.He does not have Netshitenzhe’s political heft, but has a respected academic reputation, has studied “statecraft” and is something of an intellectual.But the presidency has evolved since Mbeki’s days.Zuma established an entirely new department in the presidency – the department of planning, monitoring and evaluation – which employs a number of specialists in various fields and has a substantial bureaucratic footprint.It’s unclear how the policy and research services and the department of planning, monitoring and evaluation are going to fit together, and no-one seems to have a design plan for this part of the picture.Netshitenzhe also occupied a particular place in the matrix of politics.He was an extremely senior member of both the government (he sat in on the cabinet and was responsible for communicating its decisions to the public) and the ANC, where he was intellectual-in-chief.As one of the drafters of successive ANC strategy and tactics documents, Netshitenzhe simultaneously crafted a way forward for the government and the party.Ngcaweni is not a person who can or will do the same.But just as the government needs an overhaul and fresh strategic thinking, so does the strategic posture of the ANC.There cannot be real economic reform, led by the government, unless the ANC is reoriented towards support for a rights-based society that is genuinely open for business.Mbeki understood this well and was engaged in a mission to modernise the ANC into more of a social democratic rather than pure nationalist party.Nationalist parties and neopatrimonial societies, where the political class is held together by reciprocal relations of patronage rather than ideology, are weighed down by vested interests that constrain political choices.Reforming the government is only half the job.The other half is to modernise and reform the party.● This article first appeared on BDLIVE.

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