History forgets the runner-up

2014-12-02 06:00

The role of US vice-president is treated with such contempt that there are even websites dedicated to comments lampooning it – from those who occupied the office and those who rejected the position, to members of the public who looked at it and saw the pointlessness of the position.

The most cutting one has to be that of late TV show host Johnny Carson, who said that “anyone can grow up to be president, and anyone who doesn’t grow up can be vice-president”.

John Nance Garner, who was vice-president to Franklin Roosevelt, described it as “a no-man’s-land somewhere between the legislative and executive branch”, and added it “was the worst thing that ever happened” to him.

Summing up why he had never desired the position, Senator John McCain, who entered the presidential race in 2000 and 2008, spoke of what he believed were the two main duties of the vice-president: “One is to enquire daily as to the health of the president, and the other is to attend the funerals of Third World dictators. And neither of those do I find an enjoyable exercise.”

The above illustrates why this position, while it might come with lovely perks and a veneer of authority, is actually thankless. It comes with little power and the responsibilities accorded the deputy are purely at the mercy of the main man.

These are largely non-threatening tasks. There is also no guarantee that the role puts deputies in pole position for the top job and they are often overtaken by other contenders.

Another former US vice-president, Thomas Marshall, put the anonymity succinctly when he told this short fable: “Once there were two brothers. One ran away to sea, the other was elected vice-president of the United States. And nothing was heard of either of them again.”

South Africa’s deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, would surely recognise bits of himself and his job in some of these anecdotes as he grapples to define his role and make it relevant.

He would see just how much he is at the mercy of the principal and just how little power the role accords him. He would look back at the experiences of previous occupants of the office.

He would look at the good experience of Thabo Mbeki, who served under a Nelson Mandela who had no insecurities and therefore allowed his deputy to make an impact.

He would contrast with Jacob Zuma, whom Mbeki would never have appointed were it not for internal party dynamics.

Once in office, Zuma was a mere ornament as Mbeki had such little faith in his abilities, he would not even let him blow air into birthday balloons. Ramaphosa would also not want to be a Kgalema Motlanthe, who was not trusted by a paranoid Zuma.

Ramaphosa would then look at his own circumstances since he was elected party deputy in December 2012 and the country’s second in command earlier this year.

After being roped in to bring dignity to the Zuma ticket at the 2012 ANC conference, Ramaphosa became the subject of suspicion among Zuma’s close allies who feared his presence would encourage some in the party to plot an early exit for the president.

Ramaphosa has been fully cognisant of the precariousness of his position and has often had to roll in the mud to satisfy his detractors that his morals were not superior to those of Zuma.

But this has not done much to boost his standing among those who do not fully trust him.

The fragility of Ramaphosa’s authority was apparent in two recent interventions he made to restore sanity to the ANC-led tripartite alliance and the country.

An ANC leadership task team that he led failed spectacularly to resolve the conflict in union federation Cosatu.

His stature as deputy president, former ANC secretary-general and, most importantly, a Cosatu ancestor should have served him well in this intervention.

The fact that these counted for naught made it obvious the problems of the ANC and its allies are beyond him and he actually does not have as much clout as he would like to have.

The other failed intervention was his attempt to end the turbulence in Parliament by patching up relations between the ANC and opposition parties.

He stuck his neck out and negotiated what seemed to be a reasonable compromise that promised the nation a reprieve from the turmoil in the House.

The deal collapsed almost immediately after the DA caucus and, more crucially, that of the ANC rejected it. ANC parliamentarians, baying for the blood of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), gave Ramaphosa the middle finger and told him to refrain from interfering in Parliament.

ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, who is Ramaphosa’s top-six colleague and a possible 2017 rival, also stuck the knife in when he said the report of the ad hoc committee into the discipline of the EFF was “not an issue for negotiation somewhere else outside Parliament”.

He walked away from these interventions a weakened man, vulnerable to future humiliations. His frustrations are likely to grow as he is treated like a pesky fly by his colleagues.

If Ramaphosa is to avoid being the dog that nearly got the bone, he has to become more ferocious in asserting his authority. He would have to ditch the smiley, “nice-guy” image and put on some knuckle-dusters.

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