The ANC has done what it can to shut down speculation on the future of its newly elected deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, But the question remains: will he find a place in the South African presidency this year?
The ANC has laughed off suggestions that Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe will resign from his post, or that Ramaphosa should occupy that office simply because he is now the second in command of the ANC.
"We said there is no rule in the ANC that says the deputy president of the ANC will be the deputy president of the government," said the party secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, in December. That official line still stands: Rampahosa's office this week referred inquiries to the ANC, and the party maintained its stance that there will "not necessarily" be any changes in the running of the country.
But rumours continue to swirl about a possible Cabinet reshuffle later this year as President Jacob Zuma prepares for his final term. The major question remains however: What role, if any, will there be for Ramaphosa, a man popular within the ANC and among voters, and perhaps more trusted within the business community than any other top party member?
Although more than one plum ministry could be up for grabs, and Ramaphosa's time building up his Shanduka empire is a clear recommendation for a job running, say, the public enterprises portfolio, the true prize remains the presidency itself. Besides the status it confers, the office has increasingly become a nexus of power over the past 18 years as successive administrations expanded its scope and reach. During the past decade in particular, the presidency has been one of the fastest-growing organs of government administration, especially with the establishment of the performance management unit, which, although it sports its own national department and ministry, is organisationally in the presidency. The national planning commission, although considerably less sprawling, is also a unit of the presidency, in effect giving it a second policy arm, besides its policy co-ordination and advisory service.
Meanwhile, the presidential phone hotline launched in September 2009 represented an attempt to short-circuit communication between the presidency and the public, previously largely mediated through other departments.
Functions and responsibilities
The additional functions have come with additional resources. The presidency's budget increases between 2008 and 2012 (see graph above), easily outstripping the general government budget increases, are likely to see it spending more than a billion rands before the end of the current financial year.
Correcting it for inflation, it is 14 times the budget of the 1994 presidency, at the time an office with considerably fewer functions and responsibilities. By contrast, overall main government spending, including grant payments and civil service salaries, has increased roughly two and a half times since 1994.
The presidency does not command the kind of budgets of some of the national departments, such as the department of public works, which issues individual tenders worth many times that of the total annual spending of the presidency. However, its expansion has given its principals research and strategy support that is the envy of many technocrats.
It also has a soft enforcement arm in the department of performance monitoring and evaluation, which in theory at least has the power to intervene much more directly in the nitty-gritty of government than has ever been the case.
Will Ramaphosa gain access to that lever of power?
ANC insiders willing to talk about the matter at all appear genuinely uncertain, and say it is hard to predict what the new national executive committee, elected at Manguang, will decide.
Even so, the words "prime minister" continue to come up in conversations about Ramaphosa's role; it has become something of a standing joke since reports in April, then again in late November and early December, that the Gauteng ANC in particular would like to see that as his eventual role, if not his title.
The prime minister debate
The idea of a South African prime minister – though not necessarily under that name – has been floated in informal discussions since the later days of the Nelsom Mandela administration, when Thabo Mbeki largely ran the country while Mandela played the part of elder statesperson. The deputy presidency had morphed into a broad domestic portfolio, some pointed out, while the head of the country flew the flag in foreign countries.
The debate has resurfaced at least twice since then: first when Mbeki was criticised for spending too much time on regional African issues and on establishing South Africa as a continental political leader, and secondly when when Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma nearly did not get the top job at the African Union, suggesting a need for greater high-level involvement north of Limpopo.
But former insiders have suggested that neither Mbeki nor Zuma were keen to forgo their domestic policy clout, nor to set up what would in effect be clear successors. Others say the situation is more subtle and there are concerns such as drifting back towards a figurehead president and a desire to integrate rather than separate foreign and domestic policy.
Officially the matter has never been discussed at national ANC level, at least not since the demise of the ANC/National Party government of national unity and the provision for an opposition-party deputy president. It has, however, come up in provincial party discussions, with a flavour that suggests it was mooted to reduce Zuma's influence.
Yet the concept seems to be a compelling one for a certain brand of political theorist. Concerns about the added complications such a structure would bring (such as the potential for deadlock between the president and prime minister) are outweighed by the focus it could bring to, for example, forging pan-continental partnerships, removing the protocol impediments of having a minister of foreign affairs negotiating with a head of state.