Between two speeches: Ramaphosa walking the tight rope

File: Outgoing ANC president Jacob Zuma and the incoming president Cyril Ramaphosa chat at the party's conference in Nasrec, Johannesburg. Photo: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

by Tasneem Essop

At the ANC’s 54th National Conference, one President opened the conference and another President closed the conference. Both presidents used their speeches to speak about OR Tambo and Nelson Mandela. Both of them spoke about socio-economic transformation, corruption and the role of the media. But in the end, these were two very different speeches even though they contained similar reference points. The one that opened the conference was a speech of deflection and a finger-pointing swansong. The speech that closed the conference was a conciliatory debut, walking on a dangerous tight rope.

Perhaps the difference in speeches can be traced back to their different political experience. Zuma and Ramaphosa were both involved in the struggle in very different ways, Zuma in exile, on Robben Island and in the intelligence network; Ramaphosa from a union and UDF background, emerging as an expert negotiator. This is still a point that remains at the core of many descriptions and defences about Ramaphosa.

Zuma’s speech that opened the 54th National Conference of the African National Congress swerved between giving us glimpses of the parallel universe that many of the party leaders live in, to hitting out in a very real way against every perceived enemy of the president (discussed as if they are all enemies of the entire party).

Ramaphosa’s speech was in many respects grounded and spoke about the ANC at its best and at its worst, an important acknowledgment. He praised some of those that had been labelled enemies by Zuma just a few days before; including the media, promising action in relation to an incident where a journalist was roughed-up by security at the conference. He acknowledged just how deeply divided the organisation truly is and that the ANC should ‘humble itself’ to the people of South Africa.

At the same time, the speech illustrated just how difficult the task ahead is for Ramaphosa and just how much he has to balance. At times, it bordered on being contradictory.

It has been argued that Ramaphosa ran a public campaign, one that focused on a stamping out corruption in the party, renewal and some talk of a ‘New Deal’ – a centrist type of social contract that focused on economic growth and inclusion in the economy. There was nothing about the New Deal in his maiden speech, perhaps because it was an idea that was not part of the commissions or policy discussions at the conference. Instead, he referred to the much talked about ‘radical socio-economic transformation’ touted by NDZ camp prior to the conference and affirmed in the policy commissions.

It was under this topic that Ramaphosa’s juggling became clear. As expected the new political head of the ANC spoke about land expropriation without compensation, a big talking point of the conference. After making this position clear it appeared that he went outside of his written speech and argued that this should be done with ‘careful economic management’. In that moment he did not seem to be speaking to the conference delegates alone, but to those beyond Nasrec, to those who have been key supporters of his campaign: business.
Ramaphosa was, and still is, clearly the preferred candidate of the business community (note: this should scare us), but he is also now presiding over a party that resolved on a number of economic policy decisions that are not favourable to, or supported by, business.

The resolutions on land expropriation did change in some significant ways from the National Policy Conference to the resolutions at the 54th National Conference, including talk of some type of sustainability test and ensuring that redistribution does not impact on food security. Proposals like a ‘sustainability test’ are key caveats that suit a more conservative approach to radical change but despite this, the Ramaphosa New Deal, and the economic policy that he has in the past punted are not those that the ANC resolved on this time around.

If anything, what Ramaphosa represented was a move to take from the pre-Zuma era in economic thinking that was not all as rosy as nostalgia would have us believe and was critiqued for entrenching neoliberalism whilst not actually improving the lives of South Africa’s poor and working classes. A key question now is around how one would sustain radical economic transformation and still maintain ‘investor confidence’ and market certainty? In this regard, Ramaphosa’s midnight speech gives us hints of an ANC president that is stuck between being the choice of the business community, and sticking to the centre on economic questions, and a party, as well a significant part of the South African public, that desire radical change.

Zuma was not full of praise for many at the start of the conference. A few days later, Ramaphosa took time to pay tribute to Zuma at the closing address. It was perhaps measured and graceful to mention the good that Zuma has done. Yet, Zuma is said to have wrecked the economy, entrenched corruption and sold the state to the highest bidder. Some on Twitter called what Ramaphosa said about Zuma ‘statesman-like’, but it could also be read as an indication of precisely how difficult it will be to deal decisively with Zuma and those around him. The outcome of the elections for the NEC give further indication of this; the NEC is split, with maybe only a slight margin for Ramaphosa in the 80 member committee. It will not be easy, and Ramaphosa will have to walk a tight rope so as not to isolate certain groupings within the ANC. He is effectively stuck between the mounting pressure to make a move and a divided ANC NEC that makes it all the more difficult.

We have grown tired of Zuma’s speeches, often long and meandering, forcing us to wait for the off-the-cuff moments that perk us up. Listening to Ramaphosa, even at midnight, seemed fresh if only for one reason: that we were not listening to Zuma any longer whilst trying to assess from the thick stack of pages how far into the speech he was. This shine will probably wear, and the contradictions will become clearer. It seems a difficult task for Ramaphosa to ‘negotiate’ his way out of this zone. In this sense, the closing speech by Ramaphosa did not cement a new dawn for the ANC, it highlights the spaces that the ANC and Ramaphosa are stuck between.

* Tasneem Essop is an assistant researcher based at the SWOP Institute at Wits University, Johannesburg. Her current work focuses mostly on popular politics and political organisations. She has been involved as an activist in various movements in her personal capacity. Tasneem is on Twitter @TasneemEssop_”

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