Ramaphosa sets out a bold vision for South Africa. But can he pull it off?

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at the launch of the governing ANC’s 2019 elections manifesto in Durban. EPA-EFE/Kim Ludbrook

As South Africa heads for the polls in a few months time in its sixth democratic election, political party electioneering has begun in earnest.

President Cyril Ramaphosa kick started the governing African National Congress’s (ANC’s) election campaign in his January 8th Statement celebrating 107 years since the birth of the liberation movement. This campaign continued with the launch of the ANC’s manifesto at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in KwaZulu-Natal on January 12. An estimated 80 000 ANC members and supporters attended the launch.

The ANC declared 2019 the year for “united action to grow South Africa”. This year sees a continuation of the dominant themes of unity, hope and renewal, for both the troubled ANC and South Africa, which Ramaphosa has reiterated since he assumed the presidency in February 2018.

Ramaphosa noted that he was presenting a plan:

that we have forged together to respond to the challenges of unemployment, inequality and poverty.

South Africa’s political parties – 285 are contesting the elections – will soon be providing the country with their priorities and plans. The key question will be which plan is robust enough to turn the country around from the trajectory of despair that overwhelmed it under former president Jacob Zuma.

The same applies to the ANC. Are their nuggets of hope that something different will transpire if it’s elected for another five years? The majority of South Africans agree on the challenges, but does the party have effective solutions and the political will to implement them? Can the ANC’s vision provide all South Africans with a common agenda and a renewed sense of purpose?

It won’t be easy. The roar of support for Zuma as he left the stadium is a telling sign of the deep divisions within the ANC, despite the shows of solidarity. It’s still an open question as to whether its change in leadership is enough to ensure that the party – and the country – doesn’t make a u-turn and head back towards the path of despair.

For now, all the right noises are being made to, as Ramaphosa put it,

restore our democratic institutions and return our country to a path of transformation, growth and development.

But the ANC still needs to develop the toolbox for mobilisation and implementation to get this done. The vision articulated by Ramaphosa has the seeds for galvanising South Africans to get back on the right path. It urgently needs a plan to make it happen.

The commitments

The “Rainbow nation” seems to have revealed all its ugly stripes over the past few years: a rise in incidents of racism, tribalism, xenophobia, factionalism and continued high levels of gender-based violence.

This has necessitated the emphasis on unity, non-racialism, equality and managed migration that echo in Ramaphosa’s statements. It’s bold of him to want to put the country back on the principled path of non-racialism amid a rising race-based populism. But calling on South Africans to abide by the principle isn’t enough. Making this long standing principle a lived reality, when race still largely defines where South Africans live and work and their life’s chances, is a big task. As Ramaphosa notes

the promise of freedom is yet to be realised for so many of our people.

The core of the ANC’s plan revolves around the building of a developmental state that will create inclusive growth, stimulate investment, create jobs and drive infrastructure development. It also seeks to provide for skills development, progressive free higher education and access to health care. It’s also promising to facilitate redistribution through land expropriation and compensation. And it’s committing itself to strengthening governance and service delivery through reclaiming state enterprises and government institutions.

There is nothing really new here. The ANC has been making these promises since it came to power 25 years ago. What is going to be different this time around so that implementation can yield the desired results? Ramaphosa’s Thuma mina (send me) call to South Africans to join him in working for a better country?

This may indeed be the glue the country needs for citizens to all begin to work together to achieve these laudable goals. But, again, proclaiming it will not make it happen.

How does the country get the nation-building spirit of Nelson Mandela back? How can people working in the public service be made to change their attitudes and deliver what they are employed to do? How does the country stop graft? How can South Africans be made to sign onto a new social contract that requires both citizens and government to determine what they want, how they will live together and how they collectively fulfil their roles and responsibilities to make good on the contract?

The country needs to have many local dialogues in all its nine provinces that can develop a new charter for South Africans to live by. A plan that emanates from the people, for the people.

Can the ANC deliver?

I am encouraged by the strong stance against gender-based violence in Ramaphosa’s manifesto statement. But the ANC now needs to figure out how it is going to make sure that the pledge to stop the scourge will go further than the show of solidarity at the stadium. Every man and woman in South Africa should make a monthly pledge to uphold the human rights and safety of all citizens and prevent gender based violence. Citizens need to hold one another to account for its implementation.

Only when the scourge of this violence has been eradicated will South Africans be able to meaningfully begin to speak of equality and dignity for all. This is not something the ANC can do on its own, it needs the whole of society.

If globally – and across the continent – South Africa wants to champion the transformation of multilateral institutions, silence the guns and achieve women’s security, it needs a plan that can provide it with the national credibility and legitimacy to do so.

The elephant in the room is whether or not the ANC can overcome its divisions to deliver effectively.