The Age of Ramaphosa: SONA 2018

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President Cyril Ramaphosa made bold commitments in Friday's SONA and put out a uniting call to all South Africans.

President Cyril Ramaphosa made bold commitments in Friday's SONA and put out a uniting call to all South Africans.

It’s not a new dawn, or a new day in the life of the post-millennial post-apartheid Republic of South Africa. There have been no significant changes in law or policy. We have not emerged from a major armed conflict, civil or foreign, into peace. Though to many it does feel like the morning after a shipwreck.

In the early days of the Age of Ramaphosa, of course, it is tempting to note the remarkable differences between the new president and his predecessor. It’s the honeymoon phase, of course, as Cyril Ramaphosa’s charm offensive continues apace. It seems that he cannot put a foot wrong, though many of his opponents and critics are watching and listening keenly.

President Ramaphosa, head of state of the Republic, is a consummate politician. He is an arch-tactician, like his predecessor, and a formidable negotiator. However, what the bourgeois class in South Africa appreciates perhaps most about the man, in these early days, is his rhetorical skill. It’s familiar to them: his command over the language of the culture industries, the terms and tones of the public relations and advertising industries, matches his command of the rhetoric and register of South African politics. 

He seems uniquely positioned among South African public figures in this regard, and it is hardly surprising. He spent his earlier life steeped in anti-apartheid activism, the middle years in trades union negotiation, and prior to his re-entry into party political work, spent his time in big business. Many see this as the eminent qualifications to right the ship of state in the currently choppy political waters. They see in him the chance for stability, for both the economy and the institutions of state.

His ‘State of the Nation Address 2018’ would have buoyed those who have this reading of Mr Ramaphosa. The Age of Ramaphosa is an age of hope, but also of expectation. Many South Africans characterised and experienced the last years of the Age of Zuma as politically moribund, an era of political despair for those outside the inner circle. But these are broad strokes, and while hope may be a necessary condition for political progress, it is not a sufficient one.

Critical, literate citizenship remains crucial. The relief may be genuine, and the hope may be admirable and even politically useful, but South Africa and its nearly 60 million people have a long way to go still. It is precisely the awe with which many read Mr Ramaphosa which citizens may need to temper. This is not to say he is not good, or is not capable of doing well as the country’s head of state. We may need to curb our enthusiasm precisely because of the lessons the recent past.

There is a temptation to be self-congratulatory among those who opposed and agitated for the removal of Jacob Zuma from his position at the head of South Africa’s government. There is a temptation to be triumphalist. There is also a temptation to project onto Cyril Ramaphosa the kind of utopian hope which can too easily morph into dystopian despair. South Africans have the right to feel good, to feel relief, and to feel hopeful. But they must not forget to look back into our recent past and take heed not to repeat the same mistakes.

There were undoubtedly baleful acts by the head of government and his appointees during the Age of Zuma. We dare not forget the Constitutional Court judgments on the Pubic Protector’s recommendations on Nkandla in ‘Secure in Comfort’. We dare not forget the judgments on our government’s actions in relation to Omar al-Bashir. And millions of South Africans lived on the brink of despair about social grants, the only and rather thin mattress between their impoverishment and economic perdition. State owned enterprises in free fall, the infamous and unfortunately named ‘load shedding’, the post-school education crisis, the Marikana massacre, the Life Esidimeni tragedy, the Grade 4 illiteracy mess …

The past warranted despair for many, but the absence of the figurehead of that era is not cause enough for celebration. We ought to hope for better, but we also must work together as citizens, and not always in the programme the head of government identifies, but as we have learned from our recent past, sometimes against what he identifies as the task at hand.

Cyril Ramaphosa’s ‘SONA 2018’ offered much light after the dimmed lights of his predecessor’s delivery of the same speech. His engagement with the debate was also cause for relief: where before there had been derision, there was acknowledgement. Perhaps this will continue to be the tone: not sycophancy, but substantial and vigorous engagement on questions of policy. And it is this need to engage the substance rather than the style of Ramaphosa’s presidency that is essential to insist on government accountability.

Where will the money come from to fund the summits? Will the Ramaphosa government enable the state institutions to pursue public and private corruption with the same force and vigour? Will we see an entrenchment of a professional civil service to avoid repeating the mistakes of cadre deployment which led to cronyism inside narrow patronage networks? How soon will the lifestyle audits of the executive arm of government be initiated, and how public will the findings be? Will the rights and dignity of citizens trump the profit imperative in this new era? 

These are only some of the essential questions we must use to hold Cyril Ramaphosa to account. If he happens to be a likeable fellow, that would be a boon. But his being personable or charming or nice should not blind us to the necessity of engaging him critically on policy matters which are not in our collective interest as the people of South Africa. His efficiency in delivering on his party’s programme should not blind us to remembering that there have been times in the recent past when such directives and actions were at odds with the interests of the majority of South Africans. 

The continuity between the Age of Ramaphosa and the Age of Zuma are such that we dare not drop the baton and assume the race to build the country envisaged when we abolished apartheid is over. Much went wrong in the Age of Zuma, but as Terry Bell and Dumisa Ntsebeza, Mamphela Ramphele, Christine Qunta, Njabulo Ndebele, and many other prominent intellectuals have pointed out, much was left undone before that. 

Let us begin the work, knowing some of it will be with Mr Ramaphosa, and doubtless some of it will be against him. Such is the nature of democracy. We ought to wish him well, but we must also keep our eye on him, and keep him accountable.