He stood tall. Like a man who had warred with history and won. After years on the sidelines, disappointed but newly wealthy, Cyril Ramaphosa was president of South Africa at last. His smile was broad. He looked calm and well rested as he began his first act as president — delivering the 2018 State of the Nation address.
“It is a new dawn,” he said, a clever turn of phrase that would be embraced as a theme for the Ramaphosa era. It would also become the stick his detractors would use to point out all the things that are inimical to a new dawn. But on that Friday night in February there was scant room for naysayers. Ramaphosa was president as he was always meant to be.
But it had been a tumultuous few weeks before his address. Jacob Zuma, the archvillain in the story of post-1994 South Africa, had tried to cling to his presidential post, offering a transition period of some months. This, Zuma argued, was so that he could introduce world leaders to Ramaphosa. The ANC’s national executive committee disagreed and Zuma was forced to relent. Eventually.
Few would want the job of South African president. Especially not in February 2018. The economy was in free fall, unemployment was chronic, state-owned enterprises were gutted, tax morality was dwindling and trust in government was abysmal. And the ANC faced general elections within 18 months.
Up in the nosebleed seats there were furious whispers about the poisoned chalice Ramaphosa had inherited. There was too much to do and he did not have enough support in the ANC to push through unpopular decisions.
But there was also a sense of immense relief. Zuma was no longer president. Good riddance.
With citizens’ spirits high, Ramaphosa could do no wrong. It appeared that merely the fact that there was a new person installed in the Union Buildings was sufficient to encourage a strange sentiment of cheerfulness and something a lot like hope. For some, that wave of enthusiasm was maddening because it was based on so little except that Zuma was gone. But for many others it was a genuine optimism coming alive, evidenced in part in the selfie opportunities during Ramaphosa’s morning walks along Cape Town’s Sea Point Promenade and in Gugulethu, in Durban, and in Soweto.
But Ramaphoria would not last forever. In a country that had been pummelled by 10 years of a criminal degree of patronage masquerading as governance, one could forgive citizens for the resumption of their scorn for the promises of a politician.
And yet Ramaphosa had talked a good game. When he addressed both houses of Parliament in his State of the Nation address, he hailed a time of change for South Africa. He radiated a positivity that had long been absent from government. And he achieved this without shying away from addressing South Africa’s many problems, most glaring of which was a tendency to abuse public resources for private gain.
“We are determined to build a society defined by decency and integrity that does not tolerate the plunder of public resources, nor the theft by corporate criminals of the hard-earned savings of ordinary people,” he said.
Like the good capitalist he is, Ramaphosa hedged his bets on higher levels of economic growth and investment, but added that other measures would have to be adopted to reduce poverty and deal with unemployment.
He promised policy certainty and consistency.
And he invited the private sector and society to “collaborate in building a social compact” that would “create drivers of economic recovery”.
Key to Ramaphosa’s success would be restoring confidence and preventing an investment downgrade.
He has held the ratings agencies in abeyance, but restoring confidence enough for investment to return has proved more difficult. According to the Bureau for Economic Research, business confidence remained net negative in 2018, despite earlier reports showing a marked improvement in the level of business confidence compared with 2017.
It was policy uncertainty and inconsistency that was blamed in the third quarter of the year, when business confidence dipped.
In November, Parliament’s joint constitutional review committee adopted a recommendation that the Constitution should be amended to allow for expropriation of land without compensation. This rattled some, but, more than anything else Ramaphosa has done or said this year, his oversight of this policy decision has been crucial. The matter still has to go through a lengthy process before it becomes law, including the introduction of a Bill that must be gazetted, submitted for public comment and scrutinised by the nine provincial legislatures. And that’s not counting the likely legal challenges.
“Far from being a measure that will fuel tensions or set race relations back … accelerated land reform has the potential to improve the goodwill between the people of our country,” he said at the December 16 Reconciliation Day celebrations in Mthatha.
He has also cautioned that “failure to resolve the land issue in a just and equitable manner will threaten the stability of our democratic nation”. He understands the centrality of land reform to an equitable future for South Africans, but he’s offered assurances that there will be no land grabs or a descent into lawlessness.
His caveats appear to have gone unheard by many of his critics. For example, the Democratic Alliance slammed him for what they believe is a populist overture to voters ahead of the elections.
When the voters do go to the polls, it will be the state of the economy that will be key.
In April, Ramaphosa announced that he would seek R1.2-billion in private sector investment over the next five years to create 1.5-million new job opportunities. He also announced a star-studded team to help him to do it — former finance minister Trevor Manuel, former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas, former Standard Bank Group chief executive Jacko Maree, and Astrapak chairperson Phumzile Langeni.
In October, the investment conference he had promised in his State of the Nation address garnered nearly R290-billion in investment pledges.
Accounting firm PwC estimated that the conference would create and sustain 165 00 direct and indirect jobs over five years. It also estimated that some R338-billion would be added to South Africa’s gross domestic product between 2019 and 2024.
The state will also benefit by R59-billion in additional revenue from the collection of direct and indirect taxes over the next five years.
But the DA pointed out that many of the pledges at the conference were not new. The opposition also pointed out that, in keeping his promise to cut down the size of the Cabinet, Ramaphosa has so far only merged two ministries. It said he had confirmed in Parliament that the ANC had been given a R500 00 donation for his presidential bid by Bosasa (now African Global Operations), a company implicated in corruption. (Bosasa later clarified that the donation was from its chief executive, Gavin Watson, and not from the company.) The DA pointed out that the light of the new dawn is dim, despite Ramaphosa’s promise that this would be the year in which “we will turn the tide of corruption in our public institutions”.
And the party also pointed out, rightfully, that Ramaphosa dismissed claims that he had retained Bathabile Dlamini in his Cabinet to appease factions in the ANC. Dlamini, who had been branded by the Constitutional Court as reckless and grossly negligent, was appointed minister for women in the presidency. According to Ramaphosa she’s doing a fine job in “advancing the cause of women in our country. She’s raised the bar and she’s doing a really fantastic job.”
The bar is clearly too low.
Ramaphosa, with his Cabinet reshuffle, brought Pravin Gordhan in to clean up state-owned enterprises. But, because they’re in such a mess, it will take years for them to be thoroughly scrubbed.
Although Ramaphosa is working hard to realise the new dawn, he is also having to defend his position in the ANC. Rumblings of a Jacob Zuma factional resurgence continue.
As Vukani Mde wrote in these pages in early December: “Zuma’s supporters are waiting to use weak electoral support for the ANC as the excuse to mobilise against Ramaphosa with a view to removing him at the party’s 2020 national general council.
“If Ramaphosa can restore the party’s support to anywhere near the 60% mark [the ANC’s support collapsed to 54% in the 2016 municipal elections], he would be all but immune to such manoeuvres and would convince any remaining doubters that the Zuma era is well and truly over.”
So far, Ramaphosa has been resolute: “That fightback, that pushback, is never going to succeed. Those people who are trying to push back need to know very clearly our determination is resolute,” he told EWN.
Ramaphosa will continue to be faced with the tasks of unifying the ANC and reforming the state. At times this year, the two have been at odds and, to his credit, he has had some wins.
Eleven months later, he still stands tall. But his joust with history is far from won.
Resolute: President Cyril Ramaphosa has grasped the enormous task of rebuilding the wreckage caused by state capture.