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JUDITH FEBRUARY: President Ramaphosa, the honeymoon is over

OPINION

Somewhere there is a photograph of Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer taking a break during the constitutional negotiations, seemingly relaxed sans neckties.

The picture belies the mammoth task with which they were engaged. It was essentially a task to make something out of nothing. For the Constitution represents South Africa’s dual attempts to overcome its past and deal with its present. Theirs was an unusual friendship forged around our transition to democracy and the drafting of a new Constitution. In between their love of fly-fishing, they got the job done. The Constitution bears testimony to the optimism of those early years of our democracy.

Ramaphosa, who was ANC secretary general in 1991, was always considered a potential president, but had to give way to Thabo Mbeki in a rather unseemly “broederstwis” in 1997.

Thereafter Ramaphosa, who had cut his teeth as a unionist and leader within the Mass Democratic Movement, resigned from politics and went into the private sector. Now the “nearly man” has come full circle and is president of the country. Having languished in the deputy presidency under the inept and corrupt Jacob Zuma, Ramaphosa’s job, it must be said, is near impossible.

The top six of the ANC are split precisely in half. On the one hand, here are those Ramaphosa would be able to work with, yet on the other side, he finds Jessie Duarte, Ace Magashule and David Mabuza, a trio of deplorables, if ever there was one. And since then, we have seen the divisions within the ANC coming to fore, specifically regarding the mandate of the Reserve Bank. Secretary-general Ace Magashule and the ‘radical economic transformation’ faction – or ‘radical looters’, some may say - within the party seem intent on deliberately undermining Ramaphosa.

The economy is in crisis, though from discussions within the governing ANC, one would think we had the luxury of time and debating fruitless scenarios and ‘red herrings’. Recent Stats SA data shows that South Africa’s economy is shedding jobs at the rate of knots and our GDP shrank by 3.2% in the first quarter of this year. With youth unemployment at 52%, the unemployment crisis is deep and a sad wound at the very heart of our society.

And so, as with everything in South Africa, nothing is ever simple.

One thing that is clear is that the road ahead will be tricky to navigate. We can be under no illusions about that, which is why following the daily diet of who is backstabbing whom is probably unhelpful. It is all part of the same narrative in which Ramaphosa will need to choose his battles with the ‘Zumarite’ faction of the ANC. Politics, after all, is the art of the possible. So some battles will be lost, but the question is whether Ramaphosa is able to stand his ground on the most important ones?

On Thursday 20 June, Ramaphosa delivers his first State of the Nation Address (Sona) as an elected president. But in a sense, the novelty has long worn off. Not another Sona, not more security, not more endless analysis. The election is over, the people demand action and that the most egregious aspects of corruption and neglect be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

Of course, the constitutional requirements are important and Ramaphosa will come to Parliament as he lays out the plans of the executive. Parliament, as the legislative branch, will have an important role to play in exercising oversight over the executive.

It is important to remember that Section 55(2) of the Constitution provides as follows:

_"The National Assembly must provide for mechanisms _

_(a) to ensure that all executive organs of state in the national sphere of government are accountable _
to it; and

(b) to maintain oversight of:-
(i) the exercise of national executive authority, including the implementation of legislation; and
(ii) any organ of state.

The requires the National Assembly to do two things: hold organs of state in the national sphere accountable, and exercise general oversight over national executive authority and organs of state."

This past week Judge Zondo, who heads up the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture, suggested that a task team be set up to look into the way in which Parliament exercised its oversight role during the Zuma years and the instances of state capture.

One would suggest that the report of such a task team would be short and sharp. Parliament failed dismally. Remember Nkandla and the cover-up? How Zuma laughed at Parliament and at us all? It was and remains a disgrace and blight on our constitutional democracy. There are many other instances of Parliament’s failure to exercise its constitutional mandate.

The question for this Parliament is therefore whether it will do any better?

And so it is in this context that President Ramaphosa comes to Parliament next week. He is under pressure from his divided party, a parliamentary caucus which is probably equally divided and then a citizenry that is tired of promises and corruption and just a little cynical.

Ramaphosa might do well to cut the frills and cut to the chase. The economy is in crisis, state-owned enterprises are flailing and yet again citizens are being asked to provide money for their bailouts.

What is needed from the president is straight talk, solutions and deadlines so we are all reassured that despite the internal ANC divisions, he is in charge and is prepared to lead, no matter the unethical sabre-rattling from Luthuli House.

Ramaphosa cannot afford to dither on SOEs and needs to ditch the charm offensive. He leads with a mandate from the people and he should act as if he is doing just that.

Next Thursday we need to hear a president in touch with the hardship of the majority of South Africans and one who also understands the tough choices needed to ensure progress that will mean dealing with SAA and Eskom head-on, to name a few SOEs. Dividing Eskom into three parts will be crucial and then dealing with the fall-out from trade unions.

So, it is always about the economy, stupid, as Bill Clinton famously said. But in our case in 2019, it is also about moving beyond the glib words slogans provide and towards action.

Ramaphosa will also need to move beyond simple platitudes about education - arguably South Africa’s greatest challenge. How do we deal with errant teachers who over and over again disadvantage the poor black child? Let us call this educational disaster what it is. It is the only way to deal with the abysmal standard of state education, after all. Not through iPads for all, but a concerted effort to keep teachers in the classrooms and teaching.

He would do well to focus on a few areas, as opposed to making a glut of promises we all know will never be fulfilled. Tied up with the economy is the issue of land and the agrarian economy. The special panel Ramaphosa tasked with looking at land reform and agriculture has handed him their report. It will be important that this report is made public as soon as is reasonably possible so that the recommendations can be dissected by the public and government can, where possible, lead on the implementation of the recommendations. Land is a proxy for a myriad things in our country. The sooner we act to demystify the issue and deal practically with the consequences of landlessness, the better.

Ramaphosa’s honeymoon is already over - he needs to spell out the plan of action. This is a country that is quickly disillusioned and as president he will need to speak to that disillusionment.

Having said that, it would be most naïve to believe that Ramaphosa is able to perform miracles and to do so alone. His task will require building alliances across society and one senses that the president should cultivate those alliances astutely - if only to cover his back from his internal foes.

There will be no quick fix and no silver bullet next week - the most we can hope for is a leader who is committed to the long haul of fixing what Zuma and his corrupt cronies broke. For Ramaphosa to be successful, he will have to take all of us along with him on this journey of hope and pragmatism - the latter above all.

The ‘nearly man’ of South African politics has come full circle - now he needs to prove his worth and that the faith millions have put in him will not be for naught.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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