Coming after the extended period of uncertainty in South Africa resulting from Jacob Zuma’s reluctance to resign, Cyril Ramaphosa’s first state of the nation speech restored dignity and decorum to parliament, and pressed all the right buttons.
He was gracious to all (even giving thanks to Zuma for facilitating what the African National Congress (ANC) has termed “the transition”), before launching into the delivery of a peroration which proclaimed the breaking of a new dawn. South Africa’s “moment of hope”, which was to be founded on the legacy of Nelson Mandela, had returned.
Ramaphosa combined extensive tribute to the heroes of the ANC’s liberation struggle with the gospel of social inclusion according to the Holy Writ of the Freedom Charter. This was time to move beyond the recent period of discord, disunity and disillusionment.
The speech was delivered with panache and confidence. It had style, declaring to the nation and the world that he, Cyril Ramaphosa, was in charge.
But along with the style, there was the solid substance. The overall impression was that Ramaphosa intends to impose a new coherence and efficiency on government. Although acknowledging the calamity of the dismally low rate of economic growth, he was upbeat about the future, about the reviving fortunes of the commodities market, and the upturn in the markets.
Deservedly, Ramaphosa was to be allowed to enjoy the applause, as opposition members rose to their feet alongside the ANC MPs to give him a standing ovation which went far beyond ceremonial ritual. After the disaster of Zuma, it would seem to have given a massive fillip to South African pride and confidence.
It also gave the opposition parties a problem. With Zuma gone and a credible ANC president in place, they are facing an uphill electoral battle.
The new President committed to ensuring ethical behaviour and leadership, and to a refusal to tolerate the plunder of resources by public employees or theft and exploitation by private businesses. Critically, this would entail a transformation in the way that state-owned enterprises such as the power utility Eskom would be run.
There would be a new beginning at state-owned enterprises. They would no longer be allowed to borrow their way out of their financial difficulties. Competent people would be appointed to their boards, and there would be an appropriate distancing of their strategic role from operational management. And board members would be barred from any involvement in procurement.
This would be all part and parcel of a much wider reconfiguration of government, presumably a code for the reduction in the number of departments and a reduction in the size of ministerial ranks.
Ramaphosa also committed to hands-on government, promising that he would be visiting each department over the forthcoming year.
The forging of a social compact between government, business and labour would define the new era. A part of it would come from a new presidential economic advisory council. There would be summits for jobs and investment; convening of a youth working group to promote youth enterprise and employment and a summit for the social sector to forge a new consensus with NGOs and civil society.
This would add up to the construction of a “capable state” to foster much needed economic recovery. There would be concerted efforts to promote and aid small and medium business and revive manufacturing. Stress was laid on the importance of arriving at consensus around a mining charter, a document designed to guide transformation in this industry.
Due reference was made to preparing South Africa to embrace the fourth and fifth industrial revolutions and the encouragement of scientific innovation and new technology. And there was an explicit undertaking from Ramaphosa that he would take personal responsibility to ensure that social grants would get paid. And “no individual person in government” would be allowed to obstruct social grants delivery, a brutal albeit indirect put down of the minister concerned.
The one aspect of the speech which would have raised eyebrows among the Davos crowd was Ramaphosa’s re-iteration of the ANC government’s commitment to the expropriation of land without compensation as part of radical economic transformation. This highlighted the ANC’s proposed change to the constitution adopted at its recent national conference.
But that commitment was also fudged by linking any expropriation to ensuring agricultural production and food security. Cynics may argue that this was simply a form of words. In the context of Ramaphosa’s general investment seeking demeanour, agricultural capital and international business are unlikely to be unduly alarmed. But if they are wise, they will take it as a warning to come to the party of “social transformation”.
A long game
Ramaphosa has played a long game since he was passed over for president in the mid-90s in favour of Thabo Mbeki. After playing a key role in crafting the constitution, he left politics, made a lot of money by spearheading the first round of black economic empowerment, and then returned to politics to play what must at times have been a mortifying role as deputy president under Zuma. He suffered a great deal of criticism for being complicit in the Zuma-era corruption because of his silence – silence he would have reckoned was necessary to secure his rise to the top.
Clearly, Ramaphosa is not above criticism. He is no saint. He lives in the shadow of the massacre of miners at Marikana. Only towards the end of the ANC leadership race did he let fly against corruption and state capture.
Yet it could so easily have been so different. What would the mood have been now if Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma had won the ANC leadership? Few would have been convinced that she would have been able or willing to leave the legacy of the corruption of the Zuma years behind. In contrast, although there is extensive acknowledgement that Ramaphosa will meet considerable opposition from within the ANC patronage machine if he is to realise his ambitions, he has indeed provided hope.
Yet the irony is that we need to pay due deference to David Mabuza, Premier of the province of Mpumalanga. If it had not been for his last moment tactic of throwing his provincial delegates’ votes behind Ramaphosa at the ANC conference to thwart a Dlamini-Zuma victory at the ANC national conference, South Africa would be having to face a very different future.
In true ANC style, the irony is that the moment of hope was facilitated by someone who has been portrayed, even from within the party, as a political hoodlum.