A president is someone who presides over and leads people – whether in a meeting, an organisation or a state. As a leader, the president’s purpose is to give direction, to inspire and to be the reason and motivation for people to behave in a certain manner. If a president fails to lead, those whom he is supposed to lead will fail to follow. This, of course, also holds true for a country.
The Constitution establishes the position of President of the Republic of South Africa and instructs the President on how to behave. Section 83(a) determines that the President is both head of state and head of the executive, while sections 84 and 85 provide for the powers, functions and executive authority of the President. President Zuma is accordingly head of state and head of the executive – an executive president – who must preside and lead. He was elected, as required by section 86, by the National Assembly in Parliament and subsequently assumed office in terms of section 87. He has consequently and in terms of sections 84 and 85 been exercising his powers and executive authority – loosely translated as the government’s plans of action – with varying degrees of success. We know as much. The latter is certainly open for debate and is in fact being debated all over, except where it should be debated – in Parliament.
Nonetheless, section 83 does not only determine the status of the President, but in terms of sub-sections (b) and (c), also gives two unambiguous instructions to the President: First, “uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law” of South Africa; and secondly, “promote[s] the unity of the nation and that which will advance” the country. The President is given these instructions by the Constitution even before he is informed of his powers and executive authority.
Accordingly, as head of state and the executive, the President must uphold the Constitution. He must ensure that the provisions of the Constitution are adhered to – especially by the executive – and may not allow legislation, policy or executive action to diminish the Rule of Law, separation of powers or human rights. Furthermore, he must personallyrespect the Constitution as the supreme law of South Africa, adopted by our freely elected representatives. Moreover, as President, he must defend the Constitution against any interest, political party, group or individual who seeks to devalue our constitutional values, principles and rights. Whether the President is succeeding in upholding, defending and respecting the Constitution is yet another matter for debate in Parliament.
Section 83(c), in turn, may be of even greater importance than most would like to believe. At first, this sub-section could be interpreted as an assumption. It is, however, no less of an instruction to the President: “The President promotes the unity of the nation and that which will advance the Republic“. When former President Nelson Mandela, during his presidential inauguration on 10 May 1994, said: “the time for the healing of the wounds has come, the moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come, the time to build is upon us“, national unity, reconciliation and the advancement of all South Africans were clearly on his mind. However, 19 years later, national unity, reconciliation and common advancement seem to have disappeared from the national agenda. Instead, race, divisions of the past and new forms of inequality are increasingly being used as political party strategies to divide and conquer. It would therefore be a most welcome surprise if President Zuma could, for a change, use his State of the Nation address to focus on those aspects that unite us, bring us together and build trust between all South Africans.
It can safely be contended that if a leader does not ensure the unity of those he leads, nor seek ideas that will advance his whole enterprise, no grand strategy, plan of action or activity will succeed. In fact, his organisation will falter and fail as there will be no common vision, little mutual trust and even less agreement. A president that does not promote unity or that which will advance everyone he leads will almost certainly fail in his actions. The President has a constitutional duty to promote national unity and reconciliation, but also laws, programmes and actions that will advance the interests of South Africa as a nation. This should take priority before the advancement of any party political agenda. This was without doubt the vision of President Mandela in 1994 when he held that: “We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.” Whether President Zuma holds a similar view has never been completely clear.
The President’s duties, as instructed by section 83, involve a synthesis of the dignity associated with his high office, substantial political powers as head of the executive and, above all, an instruction to unite and inspire every South African. The President must lead by example and provide direction to the executive and the nation – not only regarding priorities, but also state of mind. The State of the Nation is therefore without a doubt a reflection on the state of the President. As such, if the President, in setting priorities and posture, should fail to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution, or if he should fail to unite and reconcile South Africa as a nation, the nation would fail along those same lines. The state of the President affects the nation – but whether that effect is positive or negative, is up to the President.