[OPINION] President Ramaphosa heralds a new path for SA

The mood in South Africa has lifted.

The Zuma years are finally over. Gone is the venal president, the corrupt man who lied to Parliament, who repeatedly violated our Constitution and breached his oath of office.

In his maiden State of the Nation Address (Sona) last night, Cyril Ramaphosa was keen to draw a bright line between his and the Zuma administration. And so, South Africa is on a different path now, one which feels challenging but somehow lighter all the same.

As President Ramaphosa came to the podium to deliver his Sona, one could almost sense the sigh of relief that this sitting would proceed uninterrupted. Finally, it was about getting down to the business of governance and rebuilding our country.

Until now, Ramaphosa has been the ‘nearly man’ of South African politics, but it seemed as if he had been preparing for last night all his life.

As expected the economy took centre-stage. Ramaphosa knows that our unemployment figure, currently sitting at 26.7%, together with high levels of inequality, is a stumbling block to social stability. He proposed a raft of measures such as President Economic Advisory Council, a Jobs Summit and a conference looking to improve investment and business confidence in South Africa. He knows ‘Brand SA’ has taken a beating and he needs to get business on board if we are to succeed. The social compact between government, business and labour, all but broken after Pravin Gordhan’s axing, will need to be restored. Much work will need to be done because sentiment and technocracy alone are not enough to save the day. The kitty is bare and our debt to GDP ratio staggering. The excess and ill-discipline of the Zuma years will lag for years to come. Ramaphosa will have an uphill battle trying to rescue this flagging economy and ensure decent growth.

But perhaps it was what he said about corruption that stood out most. Ramaphosa was quite clearly putting his corrupt colleagues on notice when he talked about bringing ‘decency and integrity’ back to the state. His focus on fixing state-owned enterprises is appropriate. Boards would no longer be involved in procurement and external audit standards would be improved.

He had some strong words on Sassa and Sars. On Sassa he was clear that he would not allow anyone to stand in the way of delivering social grants to the most vulnerable, and on Sars, his comments about tax morality were telling. Sars Commissioner Tom Moyane has been implicated in corruption and it is clear that the commission of inquiry Ramaphosa announced will be important in understanding underperformance at Sars.

So, Ramaphosa hit all the right notes and laid out a coherent, cohesive vision for the future. But more than that, it was the tone of the speech that provided the most comfort. We know what Zuma broke and so we know what has to be fixed, but finally, we have a president who seems willing to engage with all sectors of society and is unafraid to logically deal with our challenges head-on. This makes a change from the illogic of the Zuma years where swimming pools became fire-pools and the corrupt had a free pass.

At the moment, it is probably true to say that most South Africans are prepared to give Ramaphosa the benefit of the doubt. But as a wily strategist, he will know that he has limited time to make early gains and to lead the ANC to an election victory in 2019. He has to save the state, but he also has to save the party. That’s a tall order given the corruption and patronage so pervasive within the ANC. On that front, his main challenge will be his party secretary-general, Ace Magashule, himself implicated in corruption, and Magashule’s deputy, the equally toxic Jessie Duarte.

So there will be stumbling blocks, but no matter, yesterday was a good day for our country.

While Ramaphosa may have used the ‘velvet glove’ to navigate internal ANC politics and oust Zuma, what the Zuma years have shown us is that South Africa’s people are resilient. We must not suspend our judgment, however, and we need to think carefully about those years, how they happened and how to prevent such capture of the state again. Civil society activists and the media, in particular, will continue to hold Ramaphosa to account for the implementation of his promises. Even during times of euphoria, the price of freedom is still eternal vigilance.

But, it feels as if there is space for us all to play our part again in the rebuilding of our country. As Ramaphosa himself said, quoting the late Hugh Masekela, "Now is the time for each of us to say, ‘Send me'."

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february