[ANALYSIS] Winds of ANC change blowing strong
Generally speaking, in the metaphorically challenged battle between the buffalo and the tsunami, the tsunami can run out of options pretty quickly. Over time, the buffalo will emerge, perhaps sodden, but victorious. And so it is inevitably happening that political power is ebbing away from South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, and the tides are moving dramatically towards Deputy President and new ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa. However, Ramaphosa’s speech on Saturday was about much more than power in the ANC; it was a dramatic claim to national political power, to place him as the national leader to look to, and to put the ANC properly and firmly back in charge of the country.
During Cyril Ramaphosa’s campaign to become leader of the ANC, several analysts made the suggestion that he was running not so much an internal campaign, but one to ensure his popularity within the country. In other words, it was a campaign to gain the trust and respect of the country as a whole, to ensure that if he were to win the ANC election, he would have a good platform for the national campaign in 2019. Ramaphosa is now continuing with this strategy. Essentially, the 2019 campaign started this weekend.
He started his speech by greeting everyone, literally every segment of society, from traditional leaders to religious leaders, to “our kings and queens” and business leaders. Just that section went on for several moments. Perhaps more striking was his claim, made directly:
“Our organisation belongs to you, the people of South Africa... it’s the parliament of the people of South Africa. It’s the duty of members of the ANC to safeguard this heritage we were given by our forebears.”
This was clear campaigning, the use of what has sometimes looked like an internal event to speak over the ANC ceiling and directly to the people of South Africa. But it also placed the ANC as the body which determines the future of the country; it was a claim to many millions of people that if you are South African, then your natural political home is the ANC.
Aligned to this was Ramaphosa’s repeated references to Nelson Mandela. Of course, any leader of a political party with a figure as universally loved as Mandela as a forebear would be foolish not to remind people repeatedly of where he came from. But considering the history of the last 20 years, it could be possible that Ramaphosa was trying to draw a straight line linking Mandela’s leadership to his. In other words, he could be trying to get people to almost forget the Aids denialism of the Mbeki era and the awful corruption and State Capture of the Zuma period. It would be the ultimate victory if Ramaphosa were to achieve this. It would take the ANC back to the days when it faced only the DA of Tony Leon and could act as if it were the only party that mattered.
There are many ways that a new leader can stamp their authority; they can do big things like announce policy changes, and they can do small things, like make meetings start on time. Ramaphosa and ANC Chair Gwede Mantashe made much of the fact that Saturday’s event ran to time. It was more shade being thrown in the direction of Zuma. But the facts do not necessarily bear out the claims. It is true that previous January 8 events have started late. But in the memory of this reporter, the main speech, the presidential address, has almost always started on time. Certainly, they have almost always been over by the stated time, partly because of the demands of TV programming. Even the SABC in those days liked to know how long an outside broadcast should run for.
But there have been other reasons why previous events have started late. First, the stadium used on Saturday was relatively small compared to some of the others used over the years, which meant it filled up and, more important, looked full, relatively early. Second, in the past there have been huge tensions between Cosatu, the SACP and the ANC. Certain leaders representing the leagues and alliance partners were either very popular or very unpopular. To ensure that no one person was booed or that a Julius Malema representing the ANC Youth League did not get a bigger reception than Zuma, the leaders would speak all together. In other words, no one introduced them, they literally went up one by one and spoke. So much political tension around these partners has now dissipated because of last year’s conference (at least for the moment) that it was relatively easy to go back to the traditional format of introducing them. At the same time, the leaders of the leagues, Bathabile Dlamini and Collen Maine, did not speak on Saturday. One wonders what kind of reaction there would have been if they had.
It may seem slightly churlish to make much of an issue around time-keeping, but it was Ramaphosa himself who, again ascribing to himself the role of the country’s leader, said that “in starting on time we show that we respect each other and we respect our movement and respect our people. From now on we want a new culture to spread around our movement and our country, when we say that we will start our meeting at a particular time, that meeting must start without fail.” Ramaphosa is providing himself as an example of how things should be done, he’s putting himself forward as a role model for the entire nation. But at the same time, there could soon be a campaign from within the ANC itself to blame everything that has gone wrong on Zuma. So that when he goes, it it simply easier to campaign in the 2019 elections. It will be revisionist and possibly factually incorrect. It would surely be wrong to allow the ANC’s new leadership to get away with this simply because so many people in society see Zuma as the embodiment of evil.
As part of Ramaphosa’s grand claim to national leadership, he changed languages easily and fluently. While many State of the Nation Addresses have seen presidents do this, he appeared to speak for longer than his predecessors in languages other than English. It was another signal that he wants to be a leader for everybody, that he can speak Venda and Sotho and Xhosa and Zulu and others. It could also be an indication that in a country with as many language groups as ours, you actually have an advantage if you grow up speaking a language spoken by relatively few people. You have no choice but to learn everybody else’s, whereas if you grew up speaking Xhosa or Zulu (and of course the language of economic power, English) there is no such incentive. For many people who have never heard their president address them in their language for long periods of time, this may have been quite a moment.
There have been high hopes from what the ANC calls the “business community” that a Ramaphosa victory in December would lead to some reform of the economy. He appears to have met their hopes. In fact, parts of the speech appeared directly aimed at them, with the comment that “we say we are open for business, we encourage investors to come to South Africa to grow the economy” to reduce inequality and poverty. Of course, Zuma could easily have said the same thing just 12 months ago, but coming from Ramaphosa, he is simply more likely to be believed. This is also because he sketched out some of the detail, about how there will have to be a “social pact between government, labour, business and communities to reignite economic growth and accelerate the process of transformation”. Considering how business has felt almost under attack over the last few years (imagine running ABSA, for example), this would surely be seen as welcome news. At the very least, those with other peoples’ money to invest here are going to see this as a credible message from a credible person.
But of course, for many people there is the situation and the politics of land. There is plenty of evidence that anger and frustration around this issue are growing, but that solution seem to be short on the ground. The ANC’s conference resolved that there should be expropriation without compensation. Ramaphosa referred to the resolution, but then added a massive caveat, that “this will be done in a manner that does not impede but promotes economic development. It will be done in a manner that does not impede but advances agricultural production and takes forward food security imperatives”. In other words, yes, the ANC agreed to this, but actually, we are going to grow the economy instead. And we certainly won’t be reckless.
For many people watching the speech, the main issue was Zuma. What was going to be said, what shade would be thrown, what subtext would there be. Nothing can demonstrate how quickly power moves than a person arriving at an event, being booed, and then their successful opponents shushing the booers. By most counts it seems Zuma was booed at least five times at the event, a new record. In the past, whenever someone has been booed, Zuma has always refused to intervene, whether it be an opposition leader at a national event, or a political rival in the ANC. He has also refused to condemn incidents of violence conducted in his name, be it people threatening the SACP’s Solly Mapaila or disrupting an Ahmed Kathrada memorial lecture in Durban.
Ramaphosa, of course, again showing how the ANC is now different, was quick to stop the booing from gaining momentum.
But he also had plenty to say that reflected incredibly poorly on Zuma. On state-owned entities like Eskom he said they are in financial distress that threatens the national fiscus, and that “these challenges have been exacerbated by State Capture through which billions of rands have been illegally diverted to individuals”. Imagine being the newly, and surely corruptly, reinstated Matshela Koko at Eskom and hearing that. It would be another signal that the party is about to come to an end.
And then there were his comments about the intelligence services, the police and “prosecutorial authorities”.
Ramaphosa, of course, is a former victim of the misuse of intelligence agencies, when Mbeki used an “intelligence report” against him in 2001. So it was no surprise when he said these should be “strengthened and fortified to act with professionalism, and without fear, favour or prejudice”. More strongly, Ramaphosa said, “We should never for a moment be in doubt of all of these agencies’ ability to serve the people of the country without favour, without fear or prejudice... they must act in favour of our people, not in the interests of some few individuals in our society.”
Now which individuals could he possibly be referring to?
On Sunday morning the Sunday Times followed up these comments with a report that Ramaphosa was considering moving against National Prosecuting Authority head Advocate Shaun Abrahams, a man many blame for refusing to prosecute people accused of State Capture. Were Ramaphosa to do this, it may be difficult for Zuma to stop him. Zuma could go to court, or Abrahams could go to court, but that could give Ramaphosa exactly the issue he needs to recall Zuma. Which is another indication of how much has changed in less than a month.
In assessing Ramaphosa’s performance over the weekend, it should not be forgotten that the political initiative was his to lose. Many in society are simply gatvol of Zuma; anything that Ramaphosa says must be better. But it is surely true that he has made a very good start in regaining the legitimacy of the ANC, of taking it back to those heady and easy days of the mid-1990s.
This surely is going to make life very difficult for the opposition parties. Amazingly, the DA, which makes grand claims about better governance, is stuck in an incredible spat with its mayor in Cape Town, Patricia de Lille. It almost seems as if the party wants to commit suicide just as the ANC is regaining public trust.
Even more interesting has been the reaction of the Economic Freedom Fighters. While Ramaphosa was speaking in East London, EFF members and supporters were trashing H&M outlets in Gauteng as a protest against an advert featuring a young black boy-child wearing a jersey saying “Coolest monkey in the jungle”. While the depiction is obviously racist and evidence of a lack of proper diversity both in identity and thought on the part of the chain, the debate around whether this was the best way to protest will continue. But it may also be a sign that the EFF is deeply worried about losing its grasp on the national narrative. Julius Malema has really gained support and trust through his public and vocal opposition to Zuma. With Zuma on the way out, he may be increasingly desperate to find some target that allows him to stay in the public eye.
Overall, the winds of change in South Africa are already blowing at the force of a gale. Ramaphosa has staked a claim as the national leader to look to, and that the ANC is going to reclaim its glorious past. Zuma showed us all how easy it is to say the right things when you start out as leader. It is Ramaphosa’s actions that will now become important.
Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of 'SA Politics Unspun'. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes