The history of 100 days: From Napoleon to Ramaphosa

The 1932 presidential election was the most important in the 132 years since the United State had become an independent republic. Decades of industrialisation, prosperity, and confidence had been halted by the Great Depression of 1929. The administration of president Herbert Hoover was blamed by the electorate for an ineffectual response to the economic and social crisis, which saw many Americans lose their life savings and even their homes, as millions were pushed into shantytown camps known derisively as ‘Hoovervilles’.

The Democratic nominee for president, New York governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), proposed a raft of bold stimulus measures he termed the New Deal to get the economy — and the country — back on track.

After his landslide victory, Roosevelt pledged during his inauguration speech that all the legislation necessary to give effect to the New Deal would be passed within the first 100 days of his term of office.

The choice of 100 days as a benchmark wasn’t completely arbitrary, though this was the first time it had been used in American presidential politics. In 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte had escaped his exile in the island of Elba and returned to Paris, raising an army and forming a new imperial government that lasted 100 days. It would take a European allied force numbering over 150 000 men to dislodge the Corsican dictator and end the Napoleonic Wars once and for all at the Battle of Waterloo. The term ‘les cent jours’ had entered the political lexicon, at least in France, from then on.

Roosevelt had a unique gift for political PR. He understood the power of the catchphrase as a central tool of effective communication. And of course, he appreciated the role of effective communication as a way of restoring confidence among a citizenry that no longer trusted the system (the government, the banks, employers etc.) to do right by them. Most importantly, he could capture the national mood in a single phrase, as well as being a past master in the art of responding to it. “I am prepared under my constitutional duty,” he told the inaugural crowds, “to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require.”

To give effect to this promise, Roosevelt summoned a special session of Congress and kept the legislature in session until the New Deal was legislated in its entirety. The Emergency Banking Act was passed into law a mere five days after the president took office, and by the end of the 100 days, 15 pieces of law had been passed; addressing the multiple national crises in housing, banking, employment, and social security, and launching major initiatives in infrastructure, public works, and environmental conservation.

Obviously, FDR did not end the depression with 15 laws passed within four months of taking office. In fact, the consensus among historians of the period is that the US did not fully emerge from its economic crisis until the manufacturing boom precipitated by World War 2, in which America initially supplied weapons and supplies to both sides in Europe’s latest and last bout of murderous self-destruction.

But the New Deal laws laid the foundation not just for Roosevelt’s first four years in office, but for long-term restructuring that would change the nature of the American economy for decades to come. It is therefore unsurprising that the first 100 days have since come to be used as an informal measure of the likely success of a presidential term in that country. Moreover, it is apt in a presidential electoral system where the legislative agenda of a candidate is a good indicator of their ideological and political commitments.

What is surprising is the enthusiasm with which this measure has been embraced in this republic, with its rather different configuration of government and law-making processes. There may be nothing wrong as such with adopting the American 100 days tradition, even if it is unoriginal and ahistorical. What is notable is that in South Africa, we don’t even have a commonly agreed understanding of what exactly we are measuring. There is also a level of continuity between South African governments – both because of our parliamentary rather than presidential system, and the electoral dominance of the ANC — that just does not occur with American administrations.

So we look back on the first 100 days of a government not to reflect on milestones, but to recount what’s happened in that time, even if it is of no long-term consequence.

This week the polling company Ipsos released the results of a poll showing Cyril Ramaphosa is ‘doing well’ in his cent jours. How do they know? They polled a sample of ‘likely voters’, about 80% of whom approved of the job the president is doing. Now a person’s assessment of the job you are doing, both in politics and life more generally, is directly related to how much they like you. So the Ipsos poll doesn’t tell us anything useful about what Ramaphosa is achieving, merely how voters feel about him (that is important, but for entirely different reasons).

Even the government has now got in on the act. The GCIS gushed out a curious little pamphlet, ‘President Cyril Ramaphosa: First 100 Days’. It is emblazoned with Ramaphosa’s chosen slogan, “Thuma Mina”, and the now obligatory quote imploring us all to honour the memory of Nelson Mandela. Even if one ignores the slightly embarrassing content (one bullet point accuses Ramaphosa of working to “bring more than R1-billion invest into the country”), that the government bothers with this stuff is interesting. For years the GCIS has scoffed at 100 Days lists, treating them with the same disdain they do the annual Mail & Guardian Cabinet Report Card: “it’s a media invention that has no bearing on the work of government”. And yet here we are, officially boasting over the fact that Ramaphosa has promised to speed up land reform “in a structured manner”.

The driving consideration behind these empty boasts is obvious of course. And in that consideration, there is both good and bad news for Ramaphosa. The good news is that he does not have 100 days to “recommend the measures that a stricken nation may require”. He has a whole year. We the public will judge the president not on the utterances of the last 100-odd days, but the actions of the next 12 months before the next election. In that time, the complexity of his task can be condensed into three ‘fixes’: fix the state, fix the economy, fix the ANC.

Which brings us to the bad news. Unlike Roosevelt and every American president since, he is being judged not on what he has done following an election, but what he is doing heading towards one. We are not assessing how well he is using his mandate, we are rather deciding whether he is worthy of receiving a mandate in the first place.

Ramaphosa may have 300 days instead of 100, but he needs every one of those extra days to convince us that he should be our president. Time to quit the gimmicks and get to work, the clock is ticking.

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Vukani Mde
Vukani Mde
Vukani Mde is a founder and partner at LEFTHOOK, a Johannesburg-based research and strategy consultancy.

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