[OPINION] Ramaphosa must steer debate on SA’s future

Driving along the N2, past Cape Town International Airport (as it is still known) and through the Winelands of the Cape, one is struck by many things. In every possible way, it challenges our ways of seeing in this complex country.

The ramshackle houses that hug the highway are both apartheid’s legacy and post-apartheid’s shame. One can be pretty sure that the residents of these informal structures, with limited access to clean and safe sanitation, have probably given up trying to find the politicians responsible. Perhaps they have been involved in the protests that are now part of daily life but really, they are simply trying to eke out a living in desperate, winter conditions.

One is also struck by the number of adult men wandering along the highway with nothing to do. They are generally young and searching for work, yet statistics tell us that tragically a job is unlikely to be found. Along the highway too are children playing football while goats roam around them in muddy green patches of ‘grass’.

Is that the legacy of the 2010 World Cup, one wonders? Children with no safe space to play a ball game. Surely we can do better than this?

Still further along the N2, away from the harsh reality that is Cape Town’s informal settlements, one is inevitably confronted with the breathtaking beauty of the rural landscape. The snow had fallen on the mountain peaks - a reminder that our country is beautiful in any season. Yet, along with the snow and lashing rains, so desperately needed in the Cape, comes thousands of people in informal settlements who have lost their homes and have nowhere to go. The farmlands with their methodically planted vineyards themselves tell a story. For the land itself stands as a powerful symbol of past dispossession and a present struggling to come to terms with precisely how to deal with what President Ramaphosa calls the ‘original sin’.

And so, in every way the beauty of this country compels us to see and think differently about how we live in South Africa and the solutions we fashion. More importantly, it requires some degree of reflection and thoughtfulness given how intractable our inter-generational challenges are.

When Ramaphosa took office he promised a ‘new dawn’. Of course, even he knew that this was going to be an uphill battle. Ramaphosa has inherited a veritable ‘hot mess’ from his predecessor, Jacob Zuma. The details are well-known. Every day brings a fresh revelation of state capture. The current Nugent Inquiry into the goings-on at Sars tells the story of a Sars commissioner who seems to have ‘gone rogue’ with the imprimatur of the president himself.

And so, no matter how many times Ramaphosa summoned our better angels and encouraged us to say, ‘Thuma mina!’ we all knew it would be a tough ask to rebuild our country’s economy and the social compact which is dangerously fraying at the seams.

After ‘100 days’ of the Ramaphosa presidency, the media and others were starting to feel the urgency to somehow measure it. The mythical ‘100 days’ is a bit of an Americanism. It has its origin in the Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (‘FDR’) whose first 100 days saw a frenzy of legislative and other activity in the aftermath of the Great Depression.

Ramaphosa has a Herculean task ahead of him and so expecting too much to be solved in ‘100 days’ is naïve, but it makes a good headline. It also speaks to the public discourse and the immediacy of reaction required. This is by no means unique to South Africa and any scan of Twitter and other social media from around the world is proof of this. News has barely broken and swift reaction is required as a matter of course.

In South Africa, a cursory scan of Twitter shows how divided we all are - ‘we’, the Twitterati - and how that discourse very quickly becomes toxic. There are too many instances to mention, but the Ashwin Willemse saga is a recent example. The animus with which people engaged on the issue was indicative of how far we have to travel to listen to each other in this complex country and to find actual solutions beyond the superficial.

Animus. A word with a twin meaning. The Romans used it to refer to the very core of a person, one’s ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’. In today’s lexicon we use it in its original form to indicate what might well be related to its original meaning but has a far harsher under-tone. It is used to express a rather more personal ‘ill will or hostility’ towards someone. It is a word that springs to mind often in our public discourse.

Much of the immaturity of Willemse debate was often found in the tweets, the ‘GIFS’ accompanying them and the random attacks on people who happened to disagree with the view that Willemse, because he is black - and because black people experience subliminal racism in the workplace - must have been right when he walked off the SuperSport set. This kind of ‘engagement’ therefore leaves no space for complexity and grappling with solutions. The debate itself is a ‘zero sum gain’ that becomes almost as meaningless as the 100 days analysis of the Ramaphosa presidency. It provides no space for thoughtfulness beyond the urgency of now and the need to respond in real time.

Our public discourse - and indeed discourse around the world could do with that rare commodity - restraint.

As we try to grapple with race, land and our triple challenges of unemployment, inequality and poverty, how to change the public spaces and the nature of life along our highways and byways, we need to also restrain ourselves from the immediacy of the ‘quick fix’, it seems. We need to somehow seek ways to balance both affect and reason in the public debate.

The reality is that 100 days will not be sufficient to fix what Zuma broke. Easy slogans about decolonisation, ‘white monopoly capital’, ‘taking back the land’ and ‘white tears’, will only lead to the cul-de-sac of thought we have seen thus far.

Track the presidency we must, hold Ramaphosa to account we must, yet there is a rather more urgent need to take a long view on our economic recovery as well as on the rebuilding of this democracy. It may not be popular and it may not satisfy the slogan-filled politics of populism that say, Julius Malema espouses, but it is necessary if we are to truly build a democracy and an economy that is inclusive.

As the Trump presidency is showing us, democracy is only ever as strong as the people who populate democratic institutions and the ability of those individuals who lead them to adhere to constitutional norms and values. During Barack Obama’s first campaign for the presidency and when faced with media and political opponents deriding him for attending the same church as Reverend Jeremiah Wright (who had, over time, made several rather charged comments on race), Obama decided to cut to the chase and deal with the elephant in the room, head-on. It was race. At a speech in Philadelphia in March 2008, Obama delivered his seminal and beautifully constructed, from-the-heart speech on race in America. It may well have changed the trajectory of his candidacy.

Somehow one cannot help but think that this is precisely what Ramaphosa needs to do; make a ‘line in the sand’ speech on where we are and where we are headed. It would perhaps frame his presidency in a way that is clearer to those clamouring for more progress after the 100 days. It would also provide some insight into where he believes the country is headed, beyond even the 2019 elections.

There is no doubt that Ramaphosa is a man for the long view and is painstakingly building his presidency and trying to deal with issues like an emergency doctor and a triage scale. Perhaps once in a while, he needs to share some more of his thinking with ordinary citizens. As president he is in a unique position to raise the level of debate and see above the weeds the rest of us are wrestling in. That’s what Candidate Obama did in 2008. For Ramaphosa, the work is on all fronts - the social compact, the economy and so much more. Yet from his unique perch he is able to steer the debate away from vacillation, gloom and doom and populism to a greater sense of realism about the way forward.

Ours is a young democracy and so the lesson of the Zuma years has to be that building a democracy is not an overnight pursuit. This applies to all our intractable challenges. If the landscape along the N2 is to change, we need to change our ways of seeing and grapple with the complexity that is post-apartheid South Africa, with less animus and a lot more thought about the sustainable solutions. And we have to learn to build bridges across the proverbial highways that divide us. It will take time to do it with care and without tearing down the entire edifice.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Her new book, 'Turning and Turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa's democracy' published by Pan MacMillan will be released in August. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february