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To lead South Africa, Ramaphosa must balance populism and pragmatism

Cyril Ramaphosa, newly elected president of South Africa’s governing ANC, during his maiden address. EPA-EFE/Stringer

Maiden speeches are tricky. They only come once. The one delivered in South Africa by newly-elected president of the African National Congress (ANC) Cyril Ramaphosa required extraordinary ingenuity.

Ramaphosa had to knit together multiple dynamics into a coherent whole. He managed to do this, delivering a speech which largely resonated with the delegates. His maiden address to the party, at the end of its 54 National Conference, was shaped by the context of a narrow victory following a fierce and highly polarised contest in a factionalised organisation. A necessary aspect of his leadership was therefore to unite the ANC for a new beginning in a way that didn’t rock the boat.

Ramaphosa’s maiden speech showed he might indeed be the leader South Africa has been waiting for. Its power lay in its simplicity and ordinariness. Measured, but forthright, he touched on many policies that were approved by the conference. These included a raft of resolutions that tried to give meaning to the goal of achieving “radical socio-economic transformation”. Two policy initiatives in particular set the cat among the pigeons: land redistribution without compensation and fee-free higher education.

These are policy extremes with far-reaching implications for the economy, and that could easily create distress. They require exceptional leadership, a sense of ingenuity and dexterity, both at party and state levels – lest recklessness sully policy intentions.

Ramaphosa struck the right note as he thanked delegates for electing him. But the real test of his leadership will lie in how he walks the tightrope between populism and pragmatism, and his ability to make his incongruous leadership team share his vision and approach.


Ramaphosa did not shy away from the elephant in the room – corruption. But will he be able to take decisive action given the permutations of the motley crew of the ANC’s top leaderhip team as well as those chosen to serve on its national executive committee? These two outcomes may in fact have made his presidential victory Pyrrhic.

The power dynamics in the national executive committee – the party’s highest decision making body between national conferences – will come to the fore as soon as Ramaphosa moves to act against those implicated in a report – called State of Capture – produced by Thuli Madonsela, the country’s former public protector.

The trickiest issue will be what to do about Jacob Zuma who remains president of the country even though his term as ANC president has ended. This means that South Africa faces a gridlock as the two “centres of power” – Ramaphosa as head of the ANC and Zuma as head of the country – vie for power.

There are many in the country who want the ANC to “recall” Zuma as president of the republic. There are a number of understandable reasons for this, over above the two-centres of power problem.

Chief among them relate to various court judgements against him. One of the latest was a decision by the North Gauteng High Court to dismiss his application for the review of the State of Capture Report. It also ordered Zuma to comply with the remedial action set out in the report.

Zuma is appealing the court’s decision. This runs against the wishes of the ANC conference which called for Zuma to institute a judicial commission of inquiry, as recommended by the public protector.

How the ANC deals with this will determine whether Ramaphosa meant what he said when he declared:

The people of South Africa want action. They do not want words.

Land and fee-free higher education

On policy issues, the speech tried to moderate populism with a semblance of pragmatism. A caveat that the ANC’s new policy on land reform shouldn’t compromise food security and destroy financial markets, and that its implications on property rights should be adroitly managed, exemplifies this.

In politics, populism is as important as pragmatism. As American anthroposopher Joel Wendt put it, populism is “rooted in the people”, and therefore gives legitimacy to a political system. It is sustained by pragmatism, especially at the level of policy implementation.

It appears that, as his speech showed, Ramaphosa’s leadership of the ANC’s newly-found radicalism is going to be that of pragmatic populism – the ability to manage expectations generated by populist policy posturing to recapture waning electoral support, with extraordinary care not to destroy the sources of revenue necessary to sustain the state.

But this will be a huge challenge, particularly when it comes to delivering on the promise of fee-free higher education. At issue is the haste with which Zuma announced the new policy on the eve of the ANC’s elective conference, sparking suspicion that it was intended to influence the outcome of the race for the presidency in favour of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, his anointed candidate.

Zuma’s announcement sent the higher education sector into a tailspin and caught the National Treasury off-guard as no discussions had been had about how to fund it.

Fee-free higher education is a poisoned chalice for Ramaphosa. It is already being used by opposition parties for political opportunism on campuses. And uncertainties about its administration are likely to be blown out of proportion to spark disruptions.

Zuma’s hasty pronouncement on this politically charged and emotive issue is going to be the first test of Ramaphosa’s mastery of the art of managing the confluence between populism and pragmatism, not as binary opposites, but as elements of the same policy.

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