South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has delivered a speech to mark the anniversary of the formation of the African National Congress (ANC) over which he also presides as president. It was the party’s 110th birthday.
As long as it is the governing party, its 8th January statement concerns not only its members and commentators, but also all South Africans.
Analysing the speech requires the recognition that the ANC is in one of the toughest corners it’s been in since leading the first democratic government in 1994. Ramaphosa’s performance needs to be understood in this context.
Ramaphosa became president of the ANC in 2017 by a razor-thin majority. Ace Magashule of the opposing faction won the key post of Secretary-General, with powers over branches. In the intervening five years Magashule has had to step aside due to prosecution for corruption. The next elective conference will be held in December, and Ramaphosa will stand for re-election as party president. Magashule is out of the picture. His legal proceedings (including no doubt his appeals) will drag on far beyond this point, keeping him out of power.
Ramaphosa used the January 8 statement to stamp his authority on the ANC as an articulate and persuasive leader. He currently has no known rivals with widespread support. He is also the most business-friendly ANC leader for some time. This has consequences for the level of investment flight or re-investment.
But, as with all January 8 statements, the crunch comes with their implementation.
The reality of keynote speeches is that they are drafted by one or more fulltime speech writers months ahead. The ANC president is likely to propose themes, and make a few revisions and polishings.
In the specific case of the January 8 statement, the draft has also to be approved by the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) which numbers over 80 people. Ramaphosa mentioned the NEC had taken this statement through 15 revisions.
The atmospherics of his delivery showed him as a model of multilingualism whom few political leaders can match.
The topics most hope would be mentioned are predictable. The release of the first volume of the Zondo Commission keeps large-scale corruption on everyone’s mind. The metric of the expanded definition of unemployment - 46% - means that job creation and social grants for the unemployed rank top of most people’s concerns.
One consequence of the corruption and kleptocracy that peaked under former President Jacob Zuma is that a major task is the plight and rescue of state-owned enterprises, of which Eskom, South African Airways, PRASA and Transnet are the most important.
The statement started with an admission that many ANC structures are failing. Indeed, the ANC Youth League no longer wins campus elections as it often did before Julius Malema was expelled in 2012 from the ANC and founded the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).
Ramaphosa analysed these party failures as factionalism stemming from the self-interest of individuals, and as the fight-back of kleptocrats and the corrupt. Members’ task for 2022 was to work for renewal and regeneration of the movement.
Under the heading of “defend the gains of our democracy so that the national democratic revolution is not undermined” Ramaphosa bluntly insisted that
those who are guilty of corruption should … find no home in the ANC.
Ramaphosa added to the text of his prepared speech a denunciation of those who
hold to ransom for tenders and jobs … terrorise businesses … structures that perpetuate illegal activities.
This was a clear allusion to business mafias whose thugs invade building sites, and brazenly demand a one-third cut of the profits from the successful tenderers.
Ramaphosa also called for a capable developmental state:
This change must find particular resonance in how we muster the capabilities of the state to improve people’s quality of life, and how ANC deployees in government creatively, conscientiously and with integrity address the needs and aspirations of the nation.
This will require a major reversal of horror stories regularly featured in the media about failing municipalities and blundering parastatals. Many in the audience would have puzzled about why on earth the executive head of government (with a controversial deployment committee) should repeatedly use phrases such as “the ANC must urge the government to X”.
But devotees of the immortal BBC satirical show “Yes Minister” would understand some of the realities the president was referring to.
Ramaphosa noted that ten million South Africans had benefited from the Social Relief of Distress grants, while 550 000 had been employed in temporary public works opportunities. He proposed an eight-year plan to be called “Vision 2030” to tackle unemployment and poverty.
What the speech portends
For as long as the ANC wins over 51% of the votes, or more than 25% higher than its closest rival, the annual 8th January statement – a mere party document – will attract the level of attention normally given to only official state occasions, such as the annual State of the National Address and the budget speech. The ANC usually fares better in general elections than in municipal elections, but even should it again fall below 51% in 2024, it is still likely to hold a plurality of votes, and negotiate a coalition to stay in power.